I’ve been a big PJ Harvey fan since I was a little kid rocking out to Rid of Me with my parents in the early nineties. So I was really excited when I heard that my girl Polly Jean had visited DC and was releasing a song about what she saw south of the Anacostia. And I wasn’t disappointed–I think it’s a great song (you can listen on Spotify or watch the video here). Released last week, it name drops Benning Road, South Capitol, and MLK Deli, painting a bleak portrait of the landscape in Washington’s southeastern wards. This is the first verse:
Here’s the Hope Six Demolition Project
Switching down the Benning Road
The well-known “pathway of death”
At least that’s what I’m told
And here’s the one sit-down restaurant
In Ward Seven, nice
OK, now this is just drug town, just zombies
But that’s just life
The song ends with the biting refrain “they’re gonna put a Walmart here, they’re gonna put a Walmart here, they’re gonna put a Walmart here.”
Unlike many others, I didn’t take this as PJ Harvey maligning Southeast Washington and its impoverished residents at all. The line “at least that’s what I’m told” clearly indicates that she’s not making definite statements about what she thinks of Ward 7, but rather recounting what others have told her about the place. She’s writing about the perceptions of Ward 7, not saying she thinks it’s “just a drug town” herself. That’s not just my opinion. When Harvey was in DC a few years ago, she was given a driving tour of Southeast Washington by Paul Schwartzman of the Washington Post, which he chronicles in a recent article. Harvey was literally writing down what he was telling her about Ward 7 as they drove around and that’s her source material for the song. The lyrics are in the voice of her guide; it’s Schwartzman, not Harvey, who is calling Benning Road a pathway of death. Harvey is writing and singing about being shown around the poorest parts of Washington by someone describing how shitty he thinks it is, not about how she herself thinks the poorest parts of Washington are really shitty. There’s a big difference!
Beyond that, I think the song is clearly sympathetic to Southeast Washington. PJ Harvey certainly didn’t write a song to say that she thinks Ward 7 is a dump. What I believe she’s saying is: here’s a place that’s in bad shape, a place people think is just a drug town full of zombies. And the solution they came up with? They’re gonna put a Walmart here. Which she obviously believes is a bullshit remedy. It’s a critique of opening a Walmart as a means of lifting up an impoverished community. Which is a totally legitimate point that in no way denigrates those in the impoverished community. I thought this was pretty obvious upon first listen, so I was surprised when, early last week, this all turned into a big songtroversy with those claiming to represent Ward 7 coming out of the woodwork to blast Harvey for saying such mean things about their community.
These are the reactions to PJ Harvey writing a song about Ward 7, ranked:
7 Chuck Thies
After The Community of Hope was released last week and everyone started squawking about it, DCist’s Rachel Kurzius contacted those running for the Ward 7 council seat for comment. By far the worst reply to come out of this was that of Vince Gray’s campaign treasurer, Chuck Thies:
“PJ Harvey is to music what Piers Morgan is to cable news,” lied Thies.
This analogy is performatively obtuse. The only thing PJ Harvey and Piers Morgan have in common is their country of origin. Piers Morgan is a bloviating ass widely reviled on both sides of the pond. PJ Harvey has been a popular, critically-acclaimed artist for nearly a quarter century. She’s musical royalty at this point, a two-time Mercury Prize winner for England’s best album. It’s a really, really bad analogy that makes Thies and the Gray campaign look petty and ignorant.
6 Community of Hope
Community of Hope is a nonprofit organization that does a lot of good work serving Washington’s poor. But their marketing team saw the PJ Harvey song as a golden opportunity to play the victim and ask for money. Shortly after The Community of Hope was released, Community of Hope put out a scolding statement that completely misinterprets the song and blasts Harvey’s art, including this rhetorical:
By calling out this picture of poverty in terms of streets and buildings and not the humans who live here, have you not reduced their dignity? Have you not trashed the place that, for better or worse, is home to people who are working to make it better, who take pride in their accomplishments.
No, PJ Harvey has not reduced the dignity of those in Ward 7 by writing a song about how building a Walmart won’t ultimately help them. The statement is insincere. While playing the role of the aggrieved, Community of Hope clearly designed it as a PR ploy to bring attention to the organization; they were thrilled that this PJ Harvey thing fell into their lap. The last line even challenges Harvey and her fans to give them money. It’s essentially a fundraising pitch dressed up as a faux-outraged defense of the poor.
5 Vince Gray
The former future former mayor and current Ward 7 council candidate didn’t shove his foot quite as far down his throat as his treasurer. His reply to Kurzius:
“I will not dignify this inane composition with a response.”
Of course calling the composition inane and saying you won’t dignify it is a response, and not a particularly good one. If you’re not going to address it, fine, you probably shouldn’t. But don’t say you’re not going to address the song and then insult it. One would hope that’s below such a prominent local politician. But I suspect Gray is still a little cranky about losing his precious Walmarts…
4 Yvette Alexander
Gray’s opponent and the incumbent in the Ward 7 race tweeted her own response to the songtroversy:
“There were several references to both 7 & 8. I respect all forms of expression, but this song does not reflect Ward 7!”
Much better. She doesn’t needlessly insult PJ Harvey or the song, she just notes that she thinks it’s inaccurate. Fine. Perfectly reasonable opinion expressed without embarrassing herself.
3 Grant Thompson
The former pastor and current Ward 7 council candidate actually tried to engage with the song and offered a thoughtful reply, not just a throwaway jab. He said Harvey “needs to see more of the city” and used her mention of Walmart and the lack of sit-down restaurant as an opportunity to talk about the needs of the community. “One of the promises I’m making is that we’re going to bring more restaurants to Ward 7. We’re the last frontier in terms of development. We have one grocery store in the entire ward. I attribute that to poor leadership.” About Walmart, he said: “It promised economic development and viable jobs on the construction side, not to mention the jobs when the stores opened.”
2 Delmar Chesley
The former USC football star and current fringe candidate for the Ward 7 seat wisely declined to comment on something that has no bearing on his would-be constituents. Cue the Twain line: “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” Take note, Mr. Thies.
1 Andrew Beaujon of Washingtonian
The only appropriate response to the stupid responses to PJ Harvey recording a song about Ward 7 is to call out and make fun of the stupid responses. Washingtonian editor Andrew Beaujon gets it. He wrote a take basically telling everyone to relax and not make such a big deal about some song. “Stop. This is not how people in actual big cities behave. This, my fellow Washingtonians, is cowtown behavior.”
He’s right. Chill out about PJ Harvey, everyone. She wasn’t even ripping on Ward 7 to begin with.