Editor’s Note: Well, the Republican National Convention is now behind us, and to my eternal surprise, there wasn’t even a major outbreak of violence. There was, however, a reprisal of that decades-old debate that rears its head like clockwork every election season: namely, should politicians (in particular conservative politicians) be “allowed” to associate themselves with rock music? And, as usual, I had a 10-year-old post lying around that just happened to address the issue. The usual warnings about my older work apply–namely, that it was written by a 22-year-old, and reads like it–but I tried to tone down some of the most wince-worthy parts. I also feel like younger, gentler me tried too hard to make a bipartisan/generational argument, so I’ve rewritten the conclusion to acknowledge the important fact that Millennials and Gen-Xers are also garbage. But whatever. The point is, let’s be glad that the RNC is over, and that no matter what happens next week, at least there will be a lot more people at the DNC clapping on the two and four. – Z.H.
This May, John J. Miller of the National Review published a list of what he called “The 50 Greatest Conservative Rock Songs.” Feathers, unsurprisingly, were ruffled–most notably those of Dave Marsh, whom the New York Times quoted as calling the list “a desperate effort by the right to co-opt popular culture.” Miller’s reply was predictably sarcastic, but on the surface defensible: “In other words,” he rolled his eyes, “the 62 million Americans who voted for President Bush‘s reelection don’t actually participate in the creation and consumption of pop culture, but we steal it and twist it in dastardly ways. Yawn.”
Indeed, the question posed by Miller’s list, as well as the follow-up appending 50 more “conservative” songs and defending his choices against the likes of Marsh, was a reasonable one: with more and more Baby Boomers leaning right as the years go by, shouldn’t political conservatives have as fair a shake at pop culture as their more traditionally “rock ‘n’ roll” neighbors on the left? The only trouble was, Miller didn’t make his point with songs by authentic right-wingers like Ted Nugent, Johnny Ramone, or Lynyrd Skynyrd. Instead, he did “co-opt” lyrics by everyone from Bob Dylan and the Beatles to the Clash and the Dead Kennedys: twisting a series of mostly progressive icons until his own ideologies were wrung out, like blood squeezed from the proverbial stone.
Again, the backlash from (mostly liberal) bloggers and journalists was swift and well-deserved, and I have nothing to add to this six-month-old debate that a clear-eyed look at Miller’s lists won’t immediately underline: namely, that the day Jello Biafra writes a “conservative” rock song, at least in Miller’s terms, will be a cold day in hell indeed. What I do have to point out, however, is a disturbing trend of which the National Review articles are a symptom, not a cause. I’m talking about the wholesale theft of rock ‘n’ roll music, by nefarious forces on both sides of the political aisle.
It’s tough to say exactly when this phenomenon occurred. Obviously, politics have been a part of rock music ever since Alan Freed spun “Tutti Frutti,” but traditionally the relationship has been an antagonistic one; from the conservative politicians who decried 1950s rock ‘n’ roll for its delinquent edge and open embrace (or at least appropriation) of Black culture, to the Parents Music Resource Center brouhaha of the 1980s, the establishment’s place has been one of obstruction between “the kids” and their music: a paternalistic, authoritarian force whose very presence (and ultimate impotence) made rock’s juvenile rebellion that much more appealing. But somewhere between “Cop Killer” and John J. Miller, the line in the sand disappeared. Ever so subtly, rock and politics laid aside their differences and participated in that most dreaded of corporate maneuvers, the merger. Hence the Sex Pistols‘ “Bodies“–a grisly, bourgeoisie-spooking punk rock horrorshow if ever there was one–being spun as some kind of pro-life anthem; or the egregious/oblivious use of the Who‘s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” during George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign.
So what happened? The most apparent answer–and almost certainly the correct one–is to blame rock’s new acceptability on the same thing that unintentionally spawned prog rock, Hair, and any number of other sins against the spirit of rock and roll: the Sixties. It was during that decade when rock musicians first began to lay claim to the idea of political relevancy; and when, thanks to the introduction of “kinder, gentler” (and whiter) rock and rollers like the Beatles, politicians began to look at the music with more than just their typical outrage. This is not to equate the flowering mid-’60s musical protest movement with the sickeningly close meetings between rock and politics mentioned above; nor is it to suggest that the MC5 playing the Democratic National Convention is in any way comparable to the Black Eyed Peas playing the Democratic National Convention. But in the dawning of political consciousness for rockers in the 1960s lie the roots of more ambitious, more establishment-approved ventures, from Elvis in Nixon’s White House to Bono getting chummy with Rick Santorum.
Let’s also not forget the aging Baby Boomers themselves. As the disillusioned late ’60s and ’70s trudged steadily toward the Reagan ’80s, the same generation that had caught butterflies at Woodstock and painted peace signs on their Volkswagens found themselves growing gradually more Republicanized: clinging on to their cultural ephemera as they went, and thus radically changing the very meaning of their collective youth. Just call it the Sonny Bono Effect. Thus from youthful idealism to ideologically neutral nostalgia can be traced a clear path for rock and establishment politics: two seemingly divergent movements, sadly destined to intertwine. The same bitter cultural irony that allows corporations to sell life insurance with a trip down flower-power memory lane has also handed rock music over to be commandeered by straitlaced Democrats and Republicans alike, all in the name of appearing culturally relevant and relatable (i.e., human). And while apparently it’s still not okay for politicians to embrace certain “other” aspects of rock culture, nobody said they can’t cop a power chord or two to go with their red, white and blue balloons.
By this logic, then, the threat is nearly over. After all, when members of my generation “grow up” and become the targets of politicians, the use of Fleetwood Mac‘s “Don’t Stop” for campaigning purposes will feel as hopelessly irrelevant to us as…well, frankly, as it did in 1992. There’s also the fact that hip-hop artists (Black Eyed Peas aside) have still mostly resisted the lure of mainstream politics–proving that, when it comes to conservative attitudes toward Black culture, little has actually changed since 1956. But this is avoiding a larger issue, which is that the Man, for lack of a better word, is getting smarter. If the powers that be can shift from total opposition against rock and roll to savvy appropriation in just a few short decades, who’s to say they aren’t already cooking up new ways to make this generation’s culture safe, regulated, and ideologically approved? Who says that in ten years (or five), we won’t be hearing about insurance bonds to the strains of Nirvana‘s Nevermind, or watching the latest “family values” candidate take the stage to the sound of “The National Anthem“–as in, the one from Kid A?
I wrote the above in late October of 2006, and I wish I could say I was wrong; but really, things have only gotten worse. Like many other young people who subscribed to the faulty logic that time equals progress, I failed to realize that there are plenty from my own generation (and younger!) who are more than willing to do the dirty work I attributed to a more nebulous, older, and possibly imaginary “establishment.” The recent rise of the “alt-right” has further complicated the discourse of popular music and politics (among other things): giving rise to a group of mostly young people for whom the ideology of popular culture is not only malleable, as it was for John J. Miller, but actually irrelevant. Who’s to say you can’t like rap music and also think Trayvon Martin deserved to be killed? Who’s to say that G.E. Smith and his RNC “house band” of reanimated corpses can’t entertain a crowd of unapologetic racists and homophobes with “Station to Station” by David Bowie: a queer, left-leaning artist who collaborated regularly with Black people and eventually married Iman?
So I think that in 2016, I need to end this essay in stronger terms than I did in 2006. The fact is, it’s not okay for conservatives (and hell, even some “liberals”) to use rock music for political ends. Frankly, for many of them, it’s not even okay to listen to it. Rock and roll is a liberatory music at its heart; it comes out of America’s underclass, and that’s where it ultimately belongs. It is, at its most basic level, pro-poor, pro-Black, and pro-youth–all groups marginalized, to varying degrees, by the Republican Party in particular–because those are the people who invented it. And no matter how many times your Chris Christies and your Mike Huckabees try to prove they can hang, it just isn’t for them.
Here, then, is a very simple rule: if you can’t appreciate the cultural roots of “your” music, then you shouldn’t engage with it–full stop, end of story. And if the idea of a life without rock and roll sounds bleak to you? Well, maybe it’s time to reconsider your shitty politics. See you next time, RNC. Maybe by then you’ll have learned your lesson; I’m not holding my breath.