Heavy Meddle

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NOVEMBER 8, 2004

Heavy Meddle

"If you're listening to a rock star in order to get your information
on who to vote for, you're a bigger moron than they are." This was
the recent advice of the moronic rock star Alice Cooper, a heavy
metal icon from the 1970s, who, in his decadent glory days, made
Ozzy Osborne look like John Denver. "Why are we rock stars? Because
we're morons. We sleep all day, we play music at night, and very
rarely do we sit around reading The Washington Journal," Cooper
explained, handily proving his point by citing a nonexistent
publication. "[R]ock is the antithesis of politics. Rock should
never be in bed with politics."But rock has never been more in bed with politics. After three
decades during which Cooper's apolitical vision reigned, politics
now seems to be the rule, not the exception. Recently, we've seen
major rock albums with titles like Hail to the Thief, American
Idiot, The Revolution Starts Now, and Stealing of a Nation. A group
called Punkvoter has released a pair of brisk-selling Rock Against
Bush compilations. Rolling Stone has grown as lustily anti-Bush as
The Nation. This fall, rock icons like Bruce Springsteen, REM, the
Dave Matthews Band, and Pearl Jam teamed up for a MoveOn-sponsored
"Vote for Change" tour of major swing states. Even megastar rapper
Eminem opines about the phony Saddam- Al Qaeda linkage and features
a track blasting Bush--who "is definitely not my homie," the rapper
tells Rolling Stone--on his upcoming album. Meanwhile, MTV is
running an election documentary hosted by hip-hop mogul Sean "P.
Diddy" Combs, who's started a registration campaign with the
arresting (if nonsensical) slogan "Vote or Die." "Thug to thug,"
one of Puff's cornrowed co- hosts asks a young black man, "how you
gonna vote?"

Popular music hasn't been this socially conscious in 40 years--not
since Vietnam and the civil rights movement produced the polemical
likes of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs (whose sardonic indictment of
radical chic, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," may be the only song ever
to name-check The New Republic). That revolution quickly fizzled in
the '70s, however, when pop music received a frontal lobotomy from
disco. The following decade did bring a political boomlet as
Reaganism fueled punk's anti-establishment anger ("I am Emperor
Ronald Reagan/born again with fascist cravings," the Dead Kennedys
raged in 1982) and alarmed the sensibilities of more genteel
rockers like REM and Sting, who crooned about nuclear war ("I hope
the Russians love their children, too"). But this new activism only
went so far. REM's boldest statement in the 1988 campaign was to
release its album Green on Election Day.

In the 1990s, grunge and slacker culture drove rock's ethos into a
state of self-congratulatory apathy, epitomized by Kurt Cobain's
famous existential shrug, "Oh well, whatever, nevermind." For many
rockers, political activism amounted to railing against concert
ticket prices or file-sharing networks like Napster. There were
exceptions: Rage Against the Machine, for instance, was worshipped
by young leftists for its funk-metal broadsides against capitalism
and U.S. power. But nothing approached the engagement of today's
rockers, who deconstruct Fox News, analyze swing states, and follow
liberal blogs. Pearl Jam's website actually features a link to Josh
Marshall's Talking Points Memo. You can almost imagine Springsteen
starting his day with The Note.

It's hard to tell whether these rockers are actually accomplishing
anything, but there's certainly evidence that young voters are
jazzed for John Kerry. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll
showed Kerry leading Bush among 18- to 29- year-olds by a 57-38
margin. In 2000, that group split nearly evenly between Bush and
Gore.

If today's rockers are more effective, it's because they've become
more savvy. The Vote for Change artists, for instance, maintained
impressive message discipline; conservatives hoping for
self-destructive Bush-as-Hitler rants were disappointed. The rock
world has even learned to play hardball. Rock the Vote, a record
industry-backed voter turnout and registration group, has
infuriated Republicans by flogging the notion of a potential draft,
even drawing a cease- and-desist letter from the Republican
National Committee. So far, it's not backing down. "It's time for a
candid national dialogue about this issue so that we know where the
politicians stand before--not after--the election," explains the
group's website, with all the feigned neutrality of a Fox News
anchor.

Musically, rock's anti-Bush slant hasn't been as clever. Much of it,
in fact, has been irritatingly self-important: Radiohead's tedious
Hail to the Thief, for instance, and the normally sensible David
Byrne's recent tune, in which he frets that we're "In a democratic
fever / for national defense" and implores, "Young artists and
writers / please heed the call." Likewise, on the MoveOn- sponsored
disc Future Soundtrack for America, former Soul Coughing front man
Mike Doughty's lyrics have all the rock panache of a Rand Beers
memo: "Yeah, I believe the war is wrong / I don't believe that
nations can be steered / Lead the world with smarts and compassion
/ By example, not coercion, force, and fear." It hasn't all been so
bad, though. Steve Earle's The Revolution Starts Now is a great,
rollicking record whose politics succeed because they're leavened
with humor and self-awareness. For example, Earle's arch faux-love
song to the national security adviser--"Condi, Condi"--is not to be
missed: "Oh, Condi, Condi, beggin' on my knees / Open up your heart
and let me in won't you please.... Oh, she loves me, oops she loves
me not / People say you're cold, but I say you're hot!"

Ultimately, I tend to side with Alice Cooper. To my taste, the best
rock deals in artful abstractions that allow listeners to derive
their own interpretations. In high school, I loved the moody REM
song "Fall On Me," thinking that its refrain--"Buy the sky and sell
the sky"--was a profound statement about rampant commercialism, or
perhaps the bleakness of cold urban skylines. I was disappointed to
discover that the song was a faddish treatment of the acid rain
scare. It lost its appeal. So politically, I wish anti-Bush rock
well. But musically, well, let's just say that, if Bush wins again,
it might be time to pull out some of those old disco albums.

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