The talk about music and contemporary politics in the United States puts me in mind of some other musical responses to the in extremis nature of our geopolitical reality. My awareness is heavily tilted toward the Old Guy Rock I still keep up with, and I began to notice an uptick in musical desperation after the turn of the millennium, especially after 2004. Mark Knopfler’s arch “Don’t Crash the Ambulance,” from the 2004 CD Shangri-La, is an imagined monologue of George H.W. turning the keys over to young W, and it is laced with Knopfler’s typical acerbic irony. Since then, I have seen more and more rage, and given the age group and long histories of the singer/songwriters it’s something different from youthful rage and protest. It seems to have somewhat less heat but more weight than youthful rage; it is as if old soldiers (to use a potentially disastrous image) have been driven to get out their old weapons and uniforms, with the fatalistic, anguished realization that people don’t learn, especially lessons these guys thought were clarified,once and for all, decades ago. Younger ones line up and wave their hats and organize and march against obvious demons, but the anger of the older ones seems—to my older, jaded eye—to have both a deeper resolve and much more sadness.
The added complexity benefits the music.
I raved about Springsteen’s latest album Magic here and here, so I won’t go into it again except to say that he takes his usual approach to commentary, using personal, individual stories to hint at much greater ills. “Born in the USA” (mid-1980s) was one obvious example among many, and at that time—as a more bald statement—he was also doing Edwin Starr’s “War” in concert. (He was also, to his credit, refusing to meet Fawn Hall backstage.*) Back to the 2007 Magic, I find it hard to hear “The Last to Die for a Mistake” and not to think of a certain ongoing national disaster, or to conceive the line “your own worst enemy’s come to town” independent of some of the most persistent cultural propaganda.
Neil Young’s 2007 album Living With War is another case. His politics are no secret (cf. “Rockin’ in the Free World”), and this entire CD is a yowl of anti-war rage, but there’s a particular tone and quality that results from an opening line like “Today’s the day our younger son is going off to war.” It’s something that can’t be explained, just experienced: the difference in injustice and affront between sending me (figuratively) and lots of young men into the meatgrinder—something done since time immemorial**—and sending/squandering my son. I can’t pretend to have ever fought or faced guns, but the affect still seems very different; the soldier himself is too young to really understand the gravity and risk, while the father’s age and experience put the picture in realistic, disturbing view.
Conservative musical commentary presents different challenges, not least being finding it and not dismissing it. Too often we might say “Well, I don’t listen to Country, so I don’t even remember who announced his ‘Shockin’ Y’all’ tour,”*** and leave it at that. “Conservative” does not necessarily mean foot-soldier for Karl Rove, convenient as that oversimplification might be. John Fogerty, the leading light of Creedence Clearwater Revival in the late 1960s and solo artist for decades, announced his essentially conservative worldview in “Who’ll Stop the Rain” (early 1968 I think) with his commentary on Bobby Kennedy’s candidacy: “Bobby plans a New Deal, wrapped in golden chains.” He was always anti-war, though: in Creedence songs during the Vietnam war, in the grim 1984 “I Saw It on TV” (off Centerfield), and in the 2004 “Déjà vu (All Over Again),” off the eponymous CD. Fogerty’s 2007 CD Revival is interesting here because he’s still essentially conservative in outlook, but now is a shrieking maniac about the myriad levels of betrayal. Somewhat like Springsteen in that his songs often use a personal story to comment on a bigger picture, Fogerty now allows himself, in a couple of songs, just to blow his cork and rail. “Long Dark Night,” for example, calls out Georgie (“wants to have a war”), Brownie (“in the out house”), Rummie, and Dick (“stealin’ everything he can”), while “I Can’t Take It No More” is just a primal scream (“You know you lied about the casualties/You know you lied about the WMDs/You know you lied about the detainees/All over this world”). Protest, rage, sure, but still conservative: in the song “Gunslinger,” he suggests that what we really need is a big, strong, badass to set it all right. Here, the U.S. is a town overrun, bullied, and intimidated by a crowd of thugs (“wild-eyed bunch”), the people (including the leaders) are too tired to fight, everyone’s being taken or a ride, etc. We need a gunslinger, “someone tough to tame this town…there’ll be justice all around.” Enraged critique, but still essentially authoritarian: I’ll work hard and do my job and you keep the streets clean and folks nice. Beautiful! Until we start talking about who pays for it and who has to make sacrifices, and then, to use the words of St. John Chrystostom in another context, “all the Devil’s great heap of garbage is then introduced.”
And all protest songs, of liberal or conservative outlook alike, are simplistic, too apt to dissipate like smoke when the lights come up. “Don’t you wish it was true,” sings Fogerty in another song, and sure: niceness and happiness and solid, hardworking folks—his personal American Idyll—and good times with a pretty girl and plate of chili and fries nearby. Sure; great! Problem is, humans are involved, and that seems to be the root cause of most…ah, human problems.
OK, you lot; back to work. Practicing and writing and voting and working and raising and getting a flipping clue and everything else to do. Might not take long if we all pitch in…
*From p. 188 of Eric Alterman’s Springsteen book: “At a show…in Washington, D.C., not long after the outbreak of the Iran-Contra scandal, Oliver North’s infamous secretary and fellow document shredder, Fawn Hall, sent word to Springsteen backstage that she and her date, Rob Lowe, would like to come backstage and introduce themselves. Bruce responded with his own note: “I don’t like you. I don’t like your boss. I don’t like what you did. Thank you.”
**George McGovern, decorated World War II hero: “I am sick and tired of old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”
***The phrase was really a prodigy of tastelessness.