Thursday, May 25, 2006

this and that

Rockers of the fourteenth Century.

A few posts ago, I wrote a post called Things I don't believe in any longer, and I complained about the Democratic Party. I was going to write at least one other installment about Rock & Roll. I still listen to quite a bit of it, depending on how you define it (I really don't care what section the cd is in the store -- there's a place by my apartment where they break music into two categories: 'independent" and "establishment (released before 1990)." Oh, so The Residents are establishment and Britney Spears is independent, you smirking young mamones? -- anyway, I'm getting off the subject). Still, I don't see it, as a style of music, as really being more liberating or anti-authoritarian than any other. When I was an angry teenager growing up in the Reagan years, it seemed different. I bought my electric guitar and listened to the Who, and it seemed that the music had some kind of redemptive force. As Lou Reed sang, it could change your life:

Jenny said, when she was just five years old
You know there's nothing happening at all
Every time she put on the radio
There was nothing going down at all
Not at all

One fine morning, she puts on a New York station
And she couldn't believe what she heard at all
She started dancing to that fine-fine-fine-fine music
Ooohhh, her life was saved by rock n' roll
Hey baby, rock n' roll

Despite all the amputation
You could dance to a rock n' roll station
And it was all right
It was all right

Of course, Lou was singing partly tongue in cheek and partly recognizing the force popular music has had on youth since long before rock was invented: the liberation for the hormone-crazed, angry and confused that comes from dancing to that fine fine music. There's nothing really political about it. But forty years of pretentious rock critics and the marketing of a faux-rebellious attitude has made rock & roll what my friend Guillaume le Fou refers to as "one of the great all-time liberal myths." It is nothing more than a consumer product that allows people to pretend they are more rebellious than they actually are. Once again, I am not talking about any given song or performer, but rather about a concept: rebellious, anti-authoritarian rock & roll.

I say this as a prelude to an article about some very silly people that was in the Times today. A silly writer for the National Review put together a "top 50" list of songs he considers "conservative." Here's the article and here's the list. This is what John J. Miller, the silly writer, has to say about the project:

"Any claim that rock is fundamentally revolutionary is just kind of silly," he said. "It's so mainstream that it puts them" — liberals — "in the position of saying that at no time has there ever been a rock song that expressed a sentiment that conservatives can appreciate. And that's just silly. In fact here are 50 of them."

The Times of course got a counter-opinion from a silly liberal:
Asked to comment on the list, Dave Marsh, the longtime rock critic and avowed lefty, saw it as a desperate effort by the right to co-opt popular culture. "What happened was, my side won the culture war, in the sense that rock and related music is the dominant musical form, not only in the U.S. but around the world," he said. "Once you lose that battle, you lose the war, and then a different kind of battle begins: the battle over meaning."
They are both silly because both of them miss the point. Rock is conservative, not because of any of the lyrics are or are not conservative, but because it is a perfectly marketed item that makes rich people richer, repeats the same forms it's been using for fifty years, often harkens back to a golden age of simpler and purer rock, and confirms rather than challenges simple senses of identity. I mean, really. I see 17-year-punks with mohawks, safety-pin jewelry, and tight red plaid pants. That's 1977 -- I'm too young to have worn that style in its heyday, and I'm turning 40 in two months.

Miller's lists of songs do contain some songs whose lyrics would probably not offend and might well please the most rancid reactionaries on the far-right wing of the Republican Party. Other choices show a certain amount of fantasy on his part. Some show the weird sense of definition of political stance that some conservatives have, for example, "Revolution," by the Beatles. Since John Lennon sings "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow," Miller identifies it as conservative. Right, I guess liberal = Maoist. "Why didn't you vote for John Kerry?" "I was afraid of the Cultural Revolution."

One of his picks that annoyed me personally was the following:

6. "Gloria," by U2.
Just because a rock song is about faith doesn't mean that it's conservative. But what about a rock song that's about faith and whose chorus is in Latin? That's beautifully reactionary: "Gloria / In te domine / Gloria / Exultate."
Excuse me, dude, but I love Latin. Look at the title of my blog. I have a secret to tell you: I can be a person of faith who loves Latin and my politics are way, way to the left. Amabo te, tace stulte Miller. Potesne etiam hoc legere? Linguam et liturgiam latinam diligo, sed rationem tuam et partidem Rei Publicani parvi aestimo.

Enough of this -- I have to get to work.


Darius said...

Good point. And to me it looks like what happened to rock n roll refects what happened to the larger culture.

The sixties was supposed to be the dawinig of "The Age of Acquarius," right? But it turned out to be the dawning of the Age of Greed. Hippies were calling their parents, members of the WWII generation, "materialist fascist pigs," etc. - but look at the world we baby boomers have made.

The civil rights and anti war movement - the people involved with those things were sincere. The rest of it was fashion, trend, and fluff.

crystal said...

It's true, any rock and roll song that makes it to publication must probably be part of the establishment. The closest to not that I can think of might be some anti-war rock of the 60s like Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth", or Crosby, Still and Nash's "Ohio", but even then ...

Folk songs are probably closer to not establishment?

Liam said...

Like I said, it's not a question of individual songs, it's a question of mythologizing a genre -- it happened in a different way with folk, which is why people got so upset when Dylan plugged in his guitar.

Songs can move and inspire good people to do good things, and the two songs you mentioned, Crystal, are examples of that. There are thousands of others. But just listening to a kind of music does not make you a revolutionary.

Darius -- You were right, there were some very courageous people in the 60s who did great things. The baby boomers as a generation, though, tend to be overly narcissistic, and that's why I think they are so prone to fads and fashions when trying to find their identity.

I'm not a baby-boomer myself, being born in 1966. Imperatrix pulcherrima Africae occidentalis keeps trying to convince me that I'm Generation X like herself, but I believe I'm too old for that. I think I'm Generation Why?

Jeff said...


The co-opting can make you crazy, and as Darius suggests, that 60's generation writing and listening to all that counter-cultural music sold out. Look at all these 60s rockers like Jagger and McCartney and the Kinks who let financial and IT companies use their songs for ads. It reminds me of when all this sort of thing started with the guys at National Lampoon like P.J. O'Rourke, who wanted to prove that he could be a Republican and still be cool and smoke dope at the same time too. He called himself a Republican Party Reptile, or a "Pants-down Republican". It wasn't your grand-dad's Republican party anymore.

Some of this co-opting in marketing is so incredibly brazen it leaves you shaking your head. Springsteen's "Born in the USA" for the Reagan campaign... The Pretender's "Ohio" for the Rush Limbaugh Show theme music... There's a local financial show on our local radio station that's all about stocks, tax shelters, real-estate, mutual funds, etc... The theme music is "Money", by the O'Jays.

Steve Bogner said...

Well, not much I can contribute here in the way of intellectualism... but your post did remind me that I need to go buy The Clash (London Calling, if I remember the title correctly) on CD. I had that record back in the day, and mentioned it to my kids a while ago. Just to let them know that some of what they listen to today is really just an imitation of earlier genres.

It's funny how politicians look for justifications and other ways to buttress their platforms...

Liam said...

Jeff -- A lot that is "subversive" in popular culture (protest music, National Lampoon)is surprisingly easily co-opted. It's funny how conservatives complain about "moral relativism," but they support a consumer culture that makes anything that can bear meaning so flimsy that it can be bent to any purpose.

Steve -- that is a GREAT album. The Clash is one of those groups that could almost make me reconsider everything I said. Only almost, though. I'm grown-up now.

Brian Cubbage said...

Liam, it's good to hear someone call social conservatives on the extent to which they are willing to exploit all meaning ruthlessly to serve their ends. That's actually one of the themes of a paper I'm working on right now that has to do with arguments about abortion. The radical pro-life side, in my view, is so convinced that they have the right position that they are willing to exploit any opportunity to convince others of their point of view, logic, evidence, and principles of sound argument be damned.

Jeff said...


Well, if there's a buck to be made, big business will jump all over it, subversive content or not.

Here's an irony... You always hear the far-right excorciating public television and the tax dollars that get sunk into it. Supposedly it's all liberal propaganda, etc..., etc... PBS happens to be the only television I can let my kids watch without reaching for the clicker all the time beacuse of the show content or the commercials. For the most part, it's the only station my wife and I ever feel like watching.

The guys running Fox go on about conservatism and family values, and the shows on Fox are the ones that you would * least * want your kids to watch, with the possible exception of the WB network, which is probably part of the same conglomerate anyway. So much for family values when there's that much money on the line.

Deloney said...

liam, do you know the album "The Who Sell Out"? If you have it, put it on. If you don't have it, buy it. It's helped to sustain me for decades.

Liam said...

Brian, I'd like to see that paper when you've finished it.

Jeff, one of the great contradictions of the conservative movement is their absolute idolatry of unfettered free-market capitalism on one hand and their condemnation of what that means culturally on the other. They should make up their minds.

Right now, I'm watching Fox -- a baseball game. Go Mets!

Deloney, I lost all my Who albums in the transition from vinyl to cd. I used to have several, but never "The Who Sell Out." I'll have to check it out.

Deloney said...

A few years ago I decided to buy a bunch of early Kinks albums on CD. They were pricey because of the "bonus tracks" which, almost without exception, sucked.

Liam said...

yeah, the "bonus tracks" are often a pain that way. Even when they're good, they mess up the integrity of an album -- because the last song is not the last song the artist planned.

Deloney said...

And another thing! Many a rebel-with-a-cause rock star, starting in the mid-70s, was secretly doing tv commercials for Japanese tv, shilling for everything from shampoo to luggage. I'm cynical to the hilt when it comes to rock n roll's involvment in politics. A counter-culture? Like Tony Bennett I left my heart in San Francisco a loooong time ago. End of rant.

(But I'm not cynical at all when it comes to the joyous, transforming power of music.)

crystal said...

Hi Deloney :-)

Liam, this is off subject, but I came across an article/abstract about Nick Cave and thought you might like to see it. It's here

Liam said...

Thanks, Crystal.

Sandalstraps said...


Interesting post, and great comments. Nothing to add at the moment. Just wanted to send you some props!

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, this discussion goes so over my head. I'm an opera freak who can't tell the difference between Abba and the Rolling Stones. :)

Darius said...

'66... That is a problem! My little sister was born in 64, and she's a late boomer (not quite the same as a late bloomer).

Guess you're either a post-boomer or a pre-X-er. If it were me, I'd take the opportunity of slipping through the cracks and claim membership in The Greatest Generation.