Pain like a branding iron: How art can save your life

Ever heard the song Rise by Public Image Ltd? It’s one of the groups most recognizable songs, with its glittering guitar spiraling through the track and a rousing bass line that stomps to an almost orchestral climax with punk legend John Lydon chanting “Anger is an energy!” like a mantra. The song is about setting aside your differences and using the anger to build, rather than destroy, collectively. Hearing a song like that in 2018 and you risk the charge of trying to snake-charm the anger of our times into quiet, blinking submission. That assumption is only partially true, though – You can use your anger as an energy – but first, you need to acknowledge that your strategy for expressing rage might not be working out the way you planned.

The thing about anger is that often, when not properly controlled, it can destroy you. Anger, by nature, is untamed and wild. It lives in a painful red shell and it balloons until the soft confines of your body isn’t enough to hold it anymore. Without control, anger is a demon that will ruin not only you but the world around you and the lives of other people who exist within your social bubble. Consider the unfettered destruction, the directionless haze of fire that encapsulates so many of the empty outrages that fill up the echo chambers of our world.

It’s understandable, though. When you’ve been beaten down and spat on for as long as you can remember, it can feel like the straw that broke the camels back continues to break it again and again. When you’ve had to crawl like servile pond life while others soar over you to the top of the Holy mountain – it hurts. It hurts when the silver tongues of the people you love take advantage of you. They lie to you. They abuse your willingness to please. Sometimes your backbreaking contribution to the world was nothing but a footnote to someone else higher up the ladder of life. After all that, you still have to deal with a world that voted in a Trump and a Brexit, where internet trolls roam the digital corridors of social media looking for a victim, where empty platitudes are headline grabbers but real, genuine, everyday affection is invisible – It’s easy to see why the cloud of social media can seem like a good idea. But nothing worthwhile was ever as easy as hitting the retweet button. If you really want to change the world, then you better get a shovel and start hitting the dirt: Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Here’s what creation has done for the worlds angriest people: First and foremost, John Lydon, a working-class North Londoner who contracted severe meningitis at an early age and completely lost his memory. To recover, he had to learn to trust people, and he had to learn to trust people that purposely lied to him because they knew he wouldn’t remember who they were. Growing up with mistrust like that? Not easy. He later became a cultural figurehead, part of a movement that changed popular culture forever as part of the Sex Pistols, a nihilistic scream from the British working classes. But Lydon’s best work came not from the Pistols, but from Public Image LTD, a group where John dropped the misanthropy and spoke directly to the listener about his own human frailty. Still as angry as The Sex Pistols, but this time with a human face. Railing against the establishment, the death of his mother, against his own publicly flogged personal perception, the early PiL recordings are a meandering, poetic howl of pain from a very, very angry man.

For a more recent example, try Kendrick Lamar – coming from disadvantaged beginnings he is now one of the worlds most artistically and commercially celebrated rappers. Socially conscious, talented and entertaining, he gives a whole generation something to believe in – and he did it by utilizing an undercurrent of rage. He’s artfully immortalized his upbringing in Compton, LA – a savage, unforgiving existence where he was caught between the turbulence of gang life and being black in an America that hated being black. The real value in Kendricks experiences comes in his ability to turn those feelings to stone and preserve them in song – they are articles of frontline, gonzo rap journalism that read like desperate cries for help from a broken social class. Kendrick has utilized anger in the classiest way possible – he wrote about them and in turn inspired an entire generation. But that anger could have been abused far too easily.

But it would be arrogance for yet another writer, yet another blogger, to throw the proverbial opinionated hat into the ring and wade into a fight over-subscribed with voices attempting to quell the chaos of the internet age. How many Alt-Right missionaries pose as middling by-standers, urging for calm amidst the storm, only to be revealed as sweaty counter-revolutionaries, passionately defending their status-quo to the point of death? Who needs another post that tells the reader that their struggle no longer matters in our cruel, hyper-capitalist world? There’s a lot of arrogance involved in telling people what to do. After all, what you do with your feelings is something only you can decide. It also takes a tremendous amount of strength to hold back, to take a quiet moment of reflection before deciding on a course of action. It’s tough to be the better person – and we fail many times. It’s what makes us human. But there are good ways and bad ways to spend that energy of yours – Don’t listen to those breitbart subscribers who just want you all to shut up. Silence isn’t the answer, but creation? Well, that’s another story.

Anger and creation are the greatest emotions in the world. A powerful ally to you and yours. To your struggle. It allows you to wear your emotions on your skin like a branding iron. You can tattoo the story of your life on to the tapestry of earth – make people listen to you by simply being better than them. Don’t go down the road that leads to hate. Take the anger with you to creation – to the constructive improvement of earth. Hopefully, with a little luck, and a lot of hard work, the future evolution of Earth will look a little less ugly.

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