This week’s earworm, for some reason or other, is Moving the Goalposts, a 1991 song by Billy Bragg on the album Don’t try this at home. I have no idea why, but I started thinking about the song earlier this week and have listened to it about a dozen times. It’s a wonderfully-arranged song, but also a very strange one.
The opening stanza speaks of something like unrequited love by an unlucky fellow: the sort of person who can bring on bad fortune just by anticipating it. Also the sort of person who simultaneously imagines his love having a grand old time, if somewhat disingenuously. (At least that’s what I gather from my understanding of British slang… “wallies” are a false set of teeth, I imagine “dancing with the wallies” to mean something like plastering a big fake smile on one’s face.)
Well, that’s a sad setting. One that is very relatable to be sure, and very in line with Bragg’s other love songs, which tend to be about love gone wrong in some way or another. We are well on our way to a pretty nice, bittersweet tale!
But the next stanza is deeply, deeply strange. “Gennady Gerasimov drops his smile”, Bragg sings. Who on earth is Gerasimov? An obscure Soviet diplomat from the Gorbachev era, hardly a household name. I’d wager that never in the man’s life did he imagine himself to be the subject of a love song, yet here he is. What’s more, he’s being called into the lyrics because he’s got a pleasant smile that belies more cunning, perhaps underhanded efforts to get what he wants… which makes him a fairly pedestrian politician, really.
It’s pretty uncommon for love songs to incorporate politics. I can’t think of a single one that does so, certainly not in such an overt manner. Bragg is a socialist, he sings about it and the failure of Soviet communism plenty - so there is a certain logic to name-checking a Soviet official in one of his songs. But why this particular official? In this particular song? It remains a mystery to me.
What is kind of interesting, and fairly clever, about this second stanza is the last line: “a portfolio pregnant with gains.” That’s a suggestive way of talking about a self-interested politician!
I’m reasonably sure that there’s a kind of unusual love story here, because we start out with a stanza that sounds a lot like unrequited love and moves on to a kind of tired but tender and earnest love towards the end. In totality the story sounds more like the story of a middle-aged parent with elementary school children (hence the line “safe to leave them in the park”), who is maybe trying to have yet more children (the last lines being somewhat graphic but also meaningful - “moving the goalposts” in this sense referring to changing the structure of the family.) There are not many love songs about this specific setting - in fact the only other love song I can think of which speaks about a couple beyond the courtship phase is Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da. If the song is indeed about such a love story, then it’s a very touching evocation of the trials of parenthood, arranged rather beautifully.
But it’s more than that, it’s also somehow about the promise of socialism. Hence the stanza about Robin Hood, who, to my understanding, is something of a mythical proto-socialist figure in Bragg’s symbolology. Gerasimov and his Soviet colleagues are cynical and self-serving, Bragg seems to suggest, and we’re not going to see anything like the pure, for-the-people, joyous brand of socialism that Robin Hood symbolizes. Since this song was written in the shadow of Margaret Thatcher’s reign, and Bragg absolutely detested her politics, I have to imagine that the disappointed tone of this stanza is to a large degree a response to that era. As an idealistic socialist, Bragg is caught between the self-serving politics of Soviet officials and the cruel politics of the Tories.
The overall message seems to be that idealism (whether in love or in politics) must reckon with the difficulties imposed by reality. The element of rain - of which jackdaws are a symbol, at least according to Plato - seems to draw out the reckoning in somewhat concrete terms, and the first line about the raincoat comes into focus in this light. It’s all well and good to be idealistic and hopeful, but really we must protect ourselves against the rain that will dampen those hopes.
I first heard this song when I was something like 15 years old. It’s an odd and angsty time to be hearing a message like that, and at the time I think I felt this theme of disheartened resignation to reality even though I didn’t know who Gerasimov was or what jackdaws had to do with anything. (I didn’t have Wikipedia back then!) These days I hear the song as something a little different - yes, resignation, but also with a glimmer of hope. There’s a very tender love that creeps in toward the end, even in the face of difficulties and pain, and that is something to enjoy. Does that glimmer of hope extend beyond family life into public life? That remains to be seen.