You might recall the Elvis Costello lyric in "Tramp the Dirt Down," referencing Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who died Monday: "I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down."
Then there is the Morrissey lyric: "The kind people have a wonderful dream, Margaret on the guillotine," ending with the line, "Make the dream real." Or the Pete Wylie ode to "The Day That Margaret Thatcher Died."
With the arrival of that very day, left-leaning arty types in Britain have been facing a seemingly delicate situation: What to do about all those hateful references from years ago, back when antagonist Thatcher, in many a fevered and impassioned artistic imagination of the 1980s, occupied an indomitable, omnipotent, seemingly indestructible place somewhere between Darth Vader and Attila the Hun.
Do good manners and an awareness of human frailty and political complexity — perhaps acquired with the wisdom of middle age — require some softening of those former vitriolic positions? Maybe even some apologies and regrets? Does not death end political rancor? After all, politicians, when an opponent dies, generally consider it good form to find something nice, if neutral, to say. Thus, upon the death of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton praised him for "keeping America at the forefront of the fight for freedom."
But it's more complicated for the artist, whose insults are artistic statements enshrined for good on albums, in play scripts, in cartoons. Thatcher's role as a cultural icon was, in her era of power, peerless. An artist with a politicized past does not want to be seen as hypocritical or expedient or, worse yet, as someone who has grown rich in Hollywood or the music business, and thus has gone soft. Nobody wants to suggest that, horror of horrors, they have become a happy beneficiary of those Thatcherite economic positions, opposition to which fueled one's art in the first place. Hmm.
Perhaps that insecurity explains why Thatcher's death was greeted with such striking indecorum by her former cultural opponents. In an open letter distributed by his publicist, Morrissey referred to Thatcher as "a terror without an atom of humanity." But that was polite when compared with the British cartoonist Steve Bell, whose cartoons for the Guardian newspaper in the 1980s seared on Thatcher's face a withering, angular note of evil, matched only by the satirical TV puppet series "Spitting Image," which saved its most vicious puppet of all for Thatcher.
Bell's parting shot this week was a cartoon referencing the British coal industry and depicting Thatcher in hell, falling into a trough of smoke and flames. "Why is this pit still open??" reads the caption.
The musical "Billy Elliot," which played in Chicago for many months and still plays in London, probes Thatcher's contentious relationship with coal miners (the source of much of this hatred). Act 2 of the musical begins with a caustic number, "Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher," set to the music of Elton John. "We all celebrate today," goes the lyric, sung by striking miners, "because it's one day closer to your death."
Not so appropriate, you might think, a day or two after Thatcher's actual death. Heck, the Broadway show "Avenue Q" even made changes to the way it handled Gary Coleman after the former child actor died. But if you were in the Victoria Palace Theatre in London this week, you still heard the Thatcher song in "Billy Elliot." Unexpurgated.
The artists involved did buy themselves some cover, with one of the actors, in character, taking a vote from the audience as to whether they felt it appropriate to go ahead with the number. A spokesman for the show put out the word that only three people felt not, which is either a staggering repudiation of the American assumption of British politeness or, more likely, a revelation that Thatcher had long ago passed from human politician to unique cultural symbol, stripped of humanity.
And thus Thatcher's political opponents have felt safe in their determination that death required them to change nothing — on the contrary, it has provided a burst of energy. The Daily Mail reported last week that the BBC was facing the dilemma of whether to play Judy Garland's "Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead," buoyed by social media campaigns in the wake of Thatcher's death and thus rising up the charts, during one of its radio countdowns.
That brings up something that's been quietly talked about: the sexism implicit in the anti-Thatcher cultural legacy.
No male politician has received such treatment. Then again, no male politician has been anything quite like Thatcher. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was on to something when he said that Thatcher's memory "would live long after the world has forgotten the gray suits of today's politics." Boris, as people like to call him, is talking about naming an airport after Thatcher.
Stateside, where Thatcher was widely admired for her role in modernizing the British economy and partnering with Reagan to bring down the Berlin Wall (President Barack Obama last week said "America has lost a true friend"), all of this rancor in death seems strange to many. Whatever one might think of Thatcher's economic policies, she did not put artists in prison or limit their freedom of expression. Actually, Thatcher did British artists a favor, acting as a lightning rod, a person to be hated, a locus of rage.
Hers was a culturally fertile era. She allowed artists to do some of their best work.
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