Jul 292011

Even though I am, as this blog demonstrates, overtly political, one thing I have always tried to keep away from, as a general rule, is imputing political messages to music that isn’t overtly political. For one thing, it’s pretty difficult to know what was in the lyricist’s mind at the time of inspiration, and for another, openly attaching political significance to art can be extraordinarily divisive, whether it’s the audience or the artist doing it. (Let’s just say I lost some respect for J K Rowling when I discovered she’d given £1m to the Labour Party.) People are protective of their art as they are of their politics; to find that a revered artist has repellant views sometimes feels like betrayal.

One of our goals in creating Heaven Is Whenever (now, sadly, defunct) was to create a kind of haven for all of these political people we were connected to where they could engage with each other about something they could love together. Bringing politics into Heaven Is Whenever was verboten.

I was reminded of this today when I happened upon, through pathways measureless to man, this article at the National Review called, cringeingly, ‘Rockin’ the Right.’ What, the author asks, are the 50 best conservative rock songs? And then he proceeds to appropriate a bunch of songs for the American right wing, most of which are far from overtly political.

Now, if we’re talking about ‘Bloody Sunday’ or ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ as being political, that’s one thing.

But in this case, we’re talking about the following:

‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ by the Beach Boys—Pro-marriage, yay, conservative! This song is a conservative rock anthem? What?

‘Heroes’ by David Bowie—East Berlin is bad, yay, conservative! Yeah, okay, if you ignore the fact that Bowie was dressing up like a Nazi during this era and going on stage in the persona of a fascist. Oh, wait…

‘Brick’ by Ben Folds Five—Anti-abortion, yay, conservative! I don’t think this dude has listened to the rest of the words to this song. Incidentally, I ran into Ben Folds once or twice while I was at university. Given this place is often referred to as ‘the People’s Republic of Carrboro,’ I can’t say I feel his lyrics were all that conservative in their intent.

‘The Battle of Evermore’ by Led ZeppelinWhat? The basis for this judgment appears to be, solely, the line ‘The tyrant’s face is red.’ Therefore Robert Plant was against communism. Or something. Incidentally, I have actually met Robert Plant, who in his own words ‘doesn’t do it for the money.’

‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ by Aerosmith—Pro-guns, yay, conservative! I may be wrong, but isn’t this song about a girl who shoots her abusive father? Possibly there is more critique here of traditional family values?

‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Iron Maiden—Old poets, yay, conservative! Seriously, Coleridge was an opium addict. I’m pretty sure that songs based on poems based on opium dreams don’t have a place in the conservative heuristic.

It’s a shame he’s picked these as some of the top 50 conservative rock songs, because they really detract from the first four or so in the list, which I would say probably have some vaguely conservative message.

Yes, even ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ though certainly this does not begin to resemble what passes for conservatism in America. True story: I once had a student who wrote a phat term paper about this song. When I was teaching history in the US, I used to assign term papers on subjects of historical interest. Because I am not a fascist, I didn’t choose the topics for them.

(Why? Because I had a history teacher who did that to me when I was in school. He had these file cards with topics written on them, and he put them all face down on a table, swished them around, and made us pick one blind. Imagine my dismay when I turned over the card: ‘Pinochet? What the fuck is that?’ And this was in 1997 or so, when there was no internet to speak of and I couldn’t find a damn thing in the family set of World Book Encyclopedias from 1977. I had to trek all the way to the state fucking library and read newspapers on microfilm. Contrast this with my best friend, who picked ‘The Tudors.’ This deep injustice still haunts me.)

This one kid, he was not the brightest, but he loved music: proper music as well, not the Britney Spears and whatever that his classmates were listening to. He came to my office hours after I gave out the assignment, wanting to know what on earth he should do his paper on, because he didn’t really ‘get’ history. After some discussion, it came out that he was really into the Who, and into this one song.

‘Write about something to do with that,’ I suggested lamely.

Two months later, he handed in this masterpiece, all about the post-war consensus in Britain, the principle of democratic choice, and the long decline of Empire—as an exegesis of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ To this day, it is one of the two best pieces of work I have ever seen from a student.

(The other was a short video about the career of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. There is an unsubstantiated theory that Sulla disguised himself as a German to spy on the invading tribes in 104-103 BC. To depict this, the student playing Sulla turned his back to the camera for a moment, and turned around again wearing a Hitler moustache. This was his interpretation of ‘disguising oneself as a German.’ Hilarious.)

So yeah, I can seem some politics in some of these songs, sometimes even conservative politics.

Ultimately, however, I deplore this article and this idea. Much of the reason music is evocative is because each of us, as individual listeners, can read into it that which is meaningful to us. Appropriating music for political purposes (see also: Labour Party Conference, ‘Sit Down’) robs us of that meaning. When I listen to ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ I don’t want to think of the personal judgments of John J Miller at the National Review.

I want to think of that kid I taught who loved listening to the Who.

  10 Responses to “Music and politics”

  1. Another song which may get the faux conservative treatment: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxHcx7FO8nI

  2. I remember that site, and in fact I was going to say that I haven’t heard from Neil Robertson for ages. I hope nothing has happened to him, and he one day returns to the internet.

    I recall this, albeit it isn’t as long or detailed as I’d like it to be:

    I keep meaning to set up one of these last.fm profiles so I can show what I listen to without writing a long and drawn-out description that won’t convey it fully anyway. Suffice to say I listen mainly to metal and allied genres (hard rock etc) and will take aa few detours but always return to my routes. Iron Maiden have been my favourite group since I was 15 and don’t look like being dislodged any time soon :)

  3. I don’t like Ayn Rand and I wouldn’t call myself a libertarian but I do love “2112”. Listening to something like “Temples of Syrinx” makes me think of Brown, to this day.

    • Funny you should say that. I was listening to 2112 the other night, and thinking of it in the back of my mind when I wrote this post.

  4. Whoever wrote that needs to have their head examined. They have totally misinterpreted the meanings of so many of those songs…and Rime of the Ancient Mariner, seriously? And frankly The Trees ought to have been at the very top for overt intent and the guts of going against the prevailing zeitgeist of the time.

  5. They can keep ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ I’m a Maiden fan, but that was one of their metal-by-numbers worst. Seriously, riff-chorus-riff-chorus-guitar solo-bridge-chorus then find some words -any words!- to sing over the top. Attempting to put any meanings to that song, at all, is an exercise in futility.

  6. Are you sure you really met Ben Folds?

    • Well, yeah. He’s pretty well known in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area. When you run into him in the Cats Cradle when he’s just finished a set, you can be pretty sure he’s actually Ben Folds…

  7. Art is spiritual. The spirit of these artists’ is corrupt, therefore their art will portray that corruption even in subtle ways.

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