BY JEFF LEVEN
There’s an unmistakable tension in the air these days. Winds of war, rumblings of fear and uncertainty somewhere in the great American gut, spasms of anguished dissent in flashes now and then on college campuses and in the tirades of the occasional actor — you get the feeling that we stand on the edge of an era where we as a society have yet to sort out just quite who stands where and why. These are strange times. Was it just me, or was there a strange pallor of silence hanging just off the screen during the Grammys this year, a tension several quantum above and beyond the simple embarrassments of Erykah Badu haplessly flubbing her lines or the unknown party crashing an award acceptance alongside Dave Grohl? Throughout the relatively tense and fast-moving broadcast, a gigantic white elephant seemed to be standing outside the auditorium, waiting for someone — anyone — to acknowledge its all-pervasive presence. This lumbering beast, this unanswered question of the hour, was one that few inside seemed equipped to answer: namely, what role the music industry might carve out for itself in this time of national soul-searching.
Before I dive into who is saying what, I should pause to admit that the proper role of politics in music and vice versa is in and of itself a source of serious debate. Most musicians have some dawning recognition that their relative celebrity gives them a platform from which they can send messages to the rest of society, and a smaller subset of this group takes this fact to heart and considers it their deepest moral duty to use this platform to disburse their most strongly held views instead of or in addition to endorsing a product or two. For some artists, therefore, politics are often the lifeblood of their music, and nary a note enters their catalogue without some social commentary attached. Even for these artists, however, sometimes their earnestness and passion outweigh the intellectual provenance of their statements. Undoubtedly, celebrity affords one’s views a leverage that they might not have if stripped of their glittery speaker, and the fact that popular performers can sometimes get uncritical fans to take stupid ideas seriously leads many to insist on the stark separation of music and politics. While it is probably worth pausing to consider why we should solicit the opinion of, say, Madonna, on matters of high international politics, the standard rejoinder to the keep-politics-out-of-music line is that popular music plays a crucial role in speaking for a segment of society that might not otherwise find voice in the political process. Or does it?
It strikes me that rock n’ roll today is a mouthpiece in search of a mouth, and that the politics of yesteryear have left it grasping for a role it has been unable to comfortably fill since about 1970.
We all know the story of how rock came of age in the heady, heavy, druggy, lovey, hell-no-we-won’t-go, flowers and sit-ins 60s. But what we forget is that the same Doors songs that are standard fare at every baseball game, car commercial, sitcom, junior high dance and company picnic used to be out on the farthest fringes of the counter-culture. For those of us born the morning after the revolution, it is all too easy to lose touch with the fact that the fire of Hendrix, the lethargic simmering of the Jefferson Airplane and the sprawling raunch of Janis Joplin were the salvos fired by a turbulent generation against the established order, and that the established order was none too comfortable with the paisley hedonistic fury of this, the music that they thought would bring America crashing down in shambles. With the subsequent aging and taming of the baby-boomer generation, however, the music followed many of its makers into the mainstream. While history has left some of the most radical noisemakers (like Tuli Kupferburg and the Fugs, for instance) behind, it has taken many of the others and recast them as icons and classics, embracing them into our shared heritage by relegating their inherent divisiveness to footnote status. What we have been left with is the rough chalk outline of their contextual import — the stock clips of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” or Neil Young’s “Ohio” blasting whenever we show archival footage of picketers protesting Vietnam.
But while the Doors and the Dead themselves may have lost their status as subversives, the shadow of the 60s has in some measure haunted the rock n’ roll world ever since. My mind wanders back to the Gulf War and to an all-star video covering John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” On the brink of a war that Congress rather overwhelmingly voted to approve, here were Sebastian Bach, MC Hammer, and a host of equally notable entertainers joining Sean Lennon in an almost cutely self-conscious effort to bring back the glory days of protest rock and marry it with the all-star marketing tactics of the USA-for-Africa era. After a brief period of heavy rotation, it was met with a shrug and onward into Kuwait we went. The example is telling in that it says a great deal about the self-image modern rock has inherited from its ancestors: while the rest of the nation seeks to avoid another Vietnam, the rock n’ roll community is looking for another Vietnam to coalesce against.
Putting aside the question of whether any current political quandaries could or should be compared to Vietnam, the simple fact is that rock n’ roll has become too diverse, fragmentary and deracinated to heed its own ancestral yawp. Sometime between the 1960s and the present, rock n’ roll became unhinged from its generational moorings, and splintered amongst various genres and subcultures. Instead, much of the politicized energy of the rock counter-cultural tradition crept back underground after relative hibernation in the 1970s and spent the Reagan Era in the hardcore punk scenes of groups like Government Issue, Minor Threat, the Minutemen, Fear and the Dead Kennedys or else in the first upswellings of hip hop, culminating in the radical howl of Public Enemy. But aside from a simple resentment of the establishment, there was relatively little common ground between the ennui-frenzied suburbanites of, say, the Orange County skater-punk scene and the burgeoning b-boys of the South Bronx. Superimposed on top of this underground was a massive commercialization of the mainstream such that the self-absorbed rock-star dream hinted at by Morrison and Robert Plant began to reach its ultimate expression in Frampton, then Kiss, then Journey, then Motley Crue. But unlike even Morrison, these rock stars — the terminally larger-than-life — speak for no one but our own wildest imaginations.
The rock world stands today as a confusing mix of perspectives and postures. Floating somewhere on the traditional folk-punk-protest trajectory are the artists we most often tend to think of as “political” — Tom Morello, Steve Earle, Ian Mackaye, Paul Weller and maybe even Moby or the members of Pearl Jam — are the denizens (or wannabe denizens) of the anti-corporate Naderesque left. Bowhunting somewhere to their right are NRA guru Ted Nugent and the generally conservative Nashville country set. Scattered in between are just about everyone else in the rock, pop and hip-hop worlds, with the compass nominally pulling musicians leftward on average, perhaps sometimes a gesture of fashion as much as ideology. What has vanished, however, is the sense of commonality and representation. When Bono speaks, is he talking for your little brother who just bought his album, your father who just bought his album, or just himself?
It is my impression that this cultural disembodiment, this gap between music and the public, has reached its sullen apex vis-à-vis the war in Iraq. Given that I, living in a college town with hot-and-cold running internet, radio and television access am having trouble getting a gestalt sense of where the bulk of the general public stands on the issue, I f
ind myself suspecting that the scattershot of musicians who have thus far protested do so mostly on their own behalf, registering their opinions in the hopes of communicating with those who model their politics on those of rock stars. As an individual, I have my own feelings about the politics of America and the world these days, but for me that’s the stuff of my own reflections and prayers, and not a topic on which I’m keen to take marching orders from John Mellencamp or Jay-Z. And when I finally do come to my conclusion on the matter, I find myself unable to imagine just who exactly will write a song to carry my voice into the streets.
For a moment I’m torn between being sad about modern music’s inability to meaningfully rattle itself into the fray of American political discourse and relishing the hope that it may finally free itself of its most pervasive typecasting. Perhaps there’s something to be said for music being more than, to paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, politics by other means. For my part, I should hope that if music can’t be my weapon, it can at least be my pillow. In this, a time of confusion, angst and self-examination, perhaps music can serve us all the better by engaging the soul in other ways. More than just simple escapism, perhaps the intensely personal musings of Jesse Malin or the jagged warbles of Steve Malkmus, the dusty shuffle of Calexico or the moody poise of even my beloved Ryan Adams can bring moments of peace and comforting introspection. If our country has become infinitely more complicated since the heyday of the rock n’ roll 60s, so too has our need for music. If the us-against-them rock revolution of social chasms past has died, let us celebrate and make the best of its diversification, letting the music speak to us if not for us, and inside us if not behind us. The simple soothing quality of the music we love is itself a point of eternal commonality, and in that we all stand together, united in song.