The strange politics of millionaire rock stars
Brian Doherty -- October 2000
"A good song should make you wanna tap your feet and get with your girl. A great song should destroy cops and set fire to the suburbs. I’m only interested in writing great songs."
So says Tom Morello, guitarist for the Los Angeles—based band Rage Against the Machine. He and his bandmates are not simply against cops and the suburbs, of course. They also stand for the Zapatistas and the Shining Path, for freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, for giving California back to Mexico, and for destroying stores where rich people like themselves shop.
That’s pretty strong stuff coming from work-for-hire employees of one of the great cogs in the global capitalist machine, the megaconglomerate Sony, which wholly owns and distributes Rage’s music and even is a co-owner of the group’s publishing. Since 1992, Rage has sold nearly 7 million records, and it’s safe to say that nobody has benefitted more from that commerce than the band’s unabashedly capitalist paymaster.
In the world of high-profile popular music, Rage Against the Machine is far from alone in advocating a radical leftism, even one that shades into old-style, let’s-nationalize-everything-but-the-music- industry communism. Indeed, Rage has plenty of fellow travelers, most of whom are equally unironic about being fabulously wealthy rock stars.
Comrades in the struggle to overthrow "late capitalism" include Chumbawamba, a collective of British anarchists who hit major pop stardom with their rousing 1997 sing-along drinking anthem "Tubthumping."
Chumba (as their fans call the group) declares on its Web site that it wants "to destroy the moral code that says you can only have what you can afford to pay for." And it wants a social order where nothing happens without everyone–everyone!–agreeing to it.
Folk-rocker Ani DiFranco is best known for refusing to be part of a "corporate" machine, saying that the record business is "dehumanizing and exploitative, not much different from any other big business."
Thus, refusing to work on Maggie’s Farm no more, she operates her own corporate machine, Righteous Babe Records (and pockets far more per record as a result).
Then there’s Patti Smith, the over-the-hill punk poetess who once wowed Madison Square Garden audiences with songs about adolescent alienation and all-night sex. Smith includes a 10-minute-plus tribute to Ho Chi Minh and a snappy pop tune against the World Trade Organization on her latest album, Gung Ho.
The members of the British band Primal Scream, who originally gained fame as drug-addled hedonists, have taken a page from Rage Against the Machine’s little red playbook, lately recasting themselves as born-again followers of Noam Chomsky, the tenured MIT professor and favorite "dissident" intellectual of politicized rock bands everywhere.
If pop stars’ politics aren’t hard left, they can at least be counted on to be firmly liberal, as evidenced by the anti-nuke, pro-green activism of the likes of Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Sting, and Bono (who has also met with the pope and Bill Clinton to help forge policy on debt forgiveness for the Third World). Oddly, this even holds true for ostensibly redneck bands. When George magazine, that self-styled arbiter of what’s important in politics and popular culture, devoted a 14-page spread to rock and politics in March, it found notable such glorious rockin’ moments as the Allman Brothers’ endorsement of Jimmy Carter. The Georgeists suffered no mental strain reconciling support for Jimmy Carter with their declaration that "rock is the music of rebellion and freedom of expression. [It] pushes limits and challenges the established order." Jimmy Carter, the ultimate Ramblin’ Man.
To be sure, fighting The Man has its rewards: Rage Against the Machine has landed on the covers of both Rolling Stone and Spin to promote its capitalist products. There’s no social capital to be lost, and much to be gained, by being a socialist.
Despite such occasional freakish and unrespected outliers as that pro-gun and anti-immigrant Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent (whose music is mostly a distant memory as his stage pronouncements against non—English speakers still get negative press attention), and the Ayn Rand—grokking band Rush (which produced a screed about trees who end up getting hacked with axes when they try to enforce equality among themselves–"that song about the trees who join a labor union," as Village Voice music editor Chuck Eddy once put it), leftism in one form or another is the backbeat of much modern pop. If a political message is an integral part of any pop band’s image or music, it’s bound to be leftist. If otherwise nonpolitical bands make public comments, those comments are almost inevitably left-leaning.
This nearly ubiquitous connection is, to put it mildly, rather strange. Pop music–especially that expansive, vague subcategory known as rock–is universally recognized as the soundtrack of rebellion, whether the authority in question is Daddy taking the T-bird away or the Soviet Union. (The former Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution was so named in part because its participants drew inspiration from those poster children of bourgeois decadence, the Velvet Underground.) While rock hugely, hilariously upset right-wing record burners in the ’50s and ’60s, it was also officially outlawed in all the great Worker’s Republics of the same era–indeed, it was seen as the very apotheosis of capitalist hedonism. (But then if only Richard Nixon, that notable Elvis fan, could go to China, then perhaps only Rage Against the Machine, those millionaire communists, could bring Mao back across the Pacific.)
As important, rock and the larger pop music scene are so clearly a function of the wealth, innovation, and leisure time thrown off by capitalism that it should be nothing less than mind-boggling that pop stars themselves mutter incessantly about toppling the very system that pays them so well. But to most rock stars and rock critics, the link between the music and left-wing politics is so natural and so expected that it is simply assumed.
The connection, however, is a matter of attitude and style, not logic. In truth there isn’t even any necessary connection among the varied elements of most "progressive" causes: Rage Against the Machine tries to jerry-rig such a link, but it doesn’t really argue it so much as assert it. Of course, the band’s members assume, someone who doesn’t want women raped also hates the rich, wants to return California to the Mexicans, and craves the utter abolition of private property–but there is no logical link between those attitudes.
As impossible as such givens may be to justify intellectually, they are of great importance culturally. By insisting on a connection between a set of logically unconnected propositions, people can forge powerful coalitions that make these fake categories real. For examples of this sort of group building, look no further than the Democratic and Republican parties, neither of which is particularly philosophically consistent–try to find the logical link between socializing medicine and expressing support for free speech, say, or between prayer in school and lowering the capital gains tax.
Or consider the inchoate American gang identified as "Bohemian" in New York Times rock critic Ann Powers’ new book, Weird Like Me: My Bohemian America. Powers casually links rock music with her version of bohemia, that world of young and not-so-young hipsters living and behaving in nontraditional ways. Rock, she writes, "inspires fans to dye their hair green and wear thigh-high leather boots; to defy their parents, skip school, and tell off the boss; or even, sometimes, to take a new turn and change their lives completely." Her bohemia is inexorably linked with progressive politics, not holding down a decent job, being kind to gays and minorities, and all else that’s "cool."
Powers fails to recognize that her bohemia is predicated upon a market liberalism that throws off so much wealth that you can live like a Pharaoh just by scavenging what other people throw out–as she and her slacker buddies did in San Francisco in the ’80s and early ’90s. Her bohemian lifestyle is part of the same system that underwrites free markets, consumerism, and tolerance for all sorts of offensive speech and alternative lifestyles. In other words, the liberty to be bohemian is a glorious result of the very capitalist reality that Powers says a real bohemian must be against.
In a slightly different vein, well-known rock critic Dave Marsh asserts a necessary connection between the progressive left and rock music. Marsh, a former Rolling Stone mainstay, brings it all back home to race and class in Rock and Rap Confidential, the monthly newsletter he’s edited since 1983. Rock, he says, was the result of breaking down traditional race and class barriers. It represents, Marsh writes, "a chance to communicate across all the gaps in our society–gaps of class, race, region, gender, generation, education, you name it. Used this way rock ’n’ roll became not just a ‘way out’ of impoverished working class or straight-jacketed middle class existence but a method of absolutely transforming yourself, a means of becoming who you’d always dreamed of being…Of such things is freedom constructed."
A certain poetic internal freedom, yes. But about more mundane freedoms–to earn money, say, and spend it how you see fit, or to not have decisions made for you by a nanny state–Marsh is as quiet as audiences at a Canned Heat reunion.
Unlike many leftists, Marsh understands the oppressive potential of government clearly enough to tell me this in an interview: "The difference between a left-progressive-socialist or communist, or whatever the fuck anyone wants to call me, and a liberal is precisely the degree to which you trust the government. And the difference on gun control is precisely the degree to which you trust the government. The First Amendment is first for a reason, and the Second Amendment is second for a reason."
But Marsh can’t sensibly reconcile the liberty whose praises he sings with the kind of state necessary to forge the classless egalitarianism that he wants. "I’m trying to find a way to develop a society where people work cooperatively most of the time in order to act on individuality some of the time," he tells me.
But Marsh’s conflation of rock as class-and-race mixer with rock as progressive force foists a narrow, partisan political agenda on a more general form of pre-political expression. Certainly such fathers of rock as Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley shattered race and class taboos: Crossing such lines explains in large part why they were loved and hated by so many.
More than that, though, such figures helped craft the legend of being young and being American as very heaven. Their foot-tapping, ass-shaking rhythms communicate Dionysian excess, a liberating, often frenzied release from all sorts of restraint and control. It is precisely this aspect that cultural conservatives on both the right and the left have always found suspicious about rock ’n’ roll. Rock inspires a devil-may-care sense of fun in both individuals and groups, one that doesn’t crave any social purpose higher than making the listener feel a particularly energetic and lively brand of good.
Elvis, Chuck Berry, and the rest did this as artists, not proselytizers. If they were the voice of those suffering social injustice and prejudice, they broke free by standing up for a joyous liberty of pleasure and expression, not by campaigning for campesinos and a ban on nuclear power. They were about flamboyance and excitement–especially their own highly individualized visions of such things–not dour attempts to institute Chumbawamba’s dream of endless town meetings.
It’s easy, of course, simply to accuse stinking rich entertainment celebs who talk about overthrowing the system that pays them so well of being hypocrites. Easy, perhaps, and necessary, since of course they are. It’s a pose that, however stylish, is just that. But there’s something more interesting going on than either conscious or naive hypocrisy.
What rockin’ leftists have the hardest time facing up to is rock’s reality as a product of capitalism. Chumbawamba claims it is playing the game of "exist[ing] within [the capitalist system] and at the same time trying to find ways to bring the bastard down." The members also admit that, thanks to their deal with a major label, they have "a decent standard of living for the first time in their lives." (These quotes all from the FAQ on their official Web site, www.chumba.com. On the site, they also fend off accusations from young fans who complain that Chumba should never suggest that it’s all right to get drunk if you enjoy it–that beer money, after all, could have been spent helping the downtrodden.)
To justify its compromised position, Rage Against the Machine drags Noam Chomsky into the debate, making the twisted analogy that Chomsky wouldn’t object to Barnes & Noble–a big, bad company–selling his books, because that’s where people buy books. That analogy might explain why Rage would allow its records to be sold at Tower megastores, but not why its members would become employees of and sell ownership of their music to Sony, which makes far more money selling Rage records than Rage itself does.
Leftists desperately want to avoid real discussion of such contradictions. That’s because such contradictions suggest that if it’s impossible to escape acting like capitalists, maybe there isn’t anything wrong with openly being one.
In a curious way, left-leaning rockers and critics are abetted in their cognitive dissonance by right-wingers, who are similarly uncomfortable with the liberating and wild aspects of capitalist culture, especially its willingness to give people whatever they want regardless of the "morality" of the desire. Right-wingers, every bit as much as their left-wing counterparts, are fundamentally troubled by the cultural implications of capitalism.
As Bill Bennett’s periodic jeremiads against advertising that exhort consumers "to break the rules" and "to peel off inhibitions" suggest, ostensibly pro-market conservatives are among the last ones to sell capitalism for what it is: a realm of groovy freedom filled with a dizzying and ever-expanding panoply of strange and wonderful and disturbing lifestyles and identities in which even the lousiest jobs can buy enormous amounts of leisure and the coolest movies, music, video games, and whatever else you want.
Both the right and the left are fully invested in a Puritan-work-ethic version of capitalism, no matter how at odds with reality such an approach is. For the right, Max Weber’s world of long hours and forgone pleasure is precisely what is good about the system: It creates a society of God-fearing, hard-working, well-behaved individuals. For the left, capitalism not only immiserates all but the top 1 percent of income earners, it crushes difference, breeds racism, and regiments free expression; hence the need for revolution. (Precisely how Ho’s Vietnam, say, or Mao’s China, two alternatives invoked by rockers as preferable to contemporary America, provide models for a freer world is left unspecified.)
It’s not clear who is listening to Bennett and his ilk’s worries that record companies and others are "exploiting the youth rebellion instinct." Nor is it clear that music fans either understand or pay much heed to their favorite performers’ anti-capitalist rants. Beyond the question of whether the lyrics are actually intelligible, one great truth of capitalism is that the consumer is king and often, perhaps typically, uses products in unintended ways. (Just ask manufacturers of model airplane glue.)
This is certainly the case with music, often with comical results. During his 1984 re-election run, for instance, Ronald Reagan–dubbed Ronnie Ray-Gun by punk wags–coopted Bruce Springsteen’s anguished vet’s lament "Born in the U.S.A." as a feel-good campaign anthem. Springsteen and his leftish admirers cried foul and asked Mr. Ray-Gun–if he could read–to read the lyrics, for God’s sake. The song’s lyrics are about a shell-shocked vet with "no place to run, nowhere to go." But who’s to say Reagan wasn’t right to insist the song was an upper? When I hear those notes and that drumbeat, and the Boss’ best arena-stentorian, shout-groan vocals come over the speakers, I feel like I’m hearing the national anthem.
For its part, Rage Against the Machine performs music that eloquently conveys anger and the desire to tear things up; indeed, that inchoate destructive energy may be the real draw for the band’s largely adolescent male fan base. But what the lyrics actually convey is another matter. Not only are they frequently impossible to decipher, they are frequently incomprehensible even on paper. Try figuring out the specific call to action embedded in lines such as: "Merge on the networks, slangin’ nerve gas/Up jump the boogie then bang, let ’em hang/While the paranoid try to stuff the void/Let’s capture this AM mayhem/Undressed, and blessed by the Lord/The power pendulum swings by the umbilical cord/Shock around the clock from noon til noon/Men grabbing they mics and stuff em into the womb."
Politically engaged pop artists don’t like to think about the fact that most people don’t get what they’re trying to say. Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, arising from a punk rock bohemia that saw intolerant, stupid mainstream dudes and dudettes as the enemy, killed himself at least partially because of this dilemma. Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine believes he doesn’t have to worry about fan misunderstanding (a much hardier type than Cobain, Morello presumably would just picket that Guess? Jeans store with an extra ounce of determination if his fans weren’t quite getting his band’s message). Morello doesn’t see Rage as educating its fans. He says, "It’s not at all the case where our audiences are empty glasses that we pour knowledge in…a lot of them are pretty pissed off and have got their own ideas."
Do they ever. If you surf Rage Against the Machine fan Web boards, you find kids shouting things like, "Spring break! Woooo!" On one board, an earnest Rage fan gives a long definition and defense of democratic socialism, while another, not clearly trying to be a wise-ass, replies, "Sweden is run by social democrats–All it really is is super high taxes."
The medium is resolutely not the message when it comes to rock songs and rock style. Aping their favorite performers, fans may dress like Che, sport a stylish, pre-Monica beret, or even get a tattoo of him. But that doesn’t mean they’re signing on to Guevara’s economic plan, which helped sink the Cuban economy during the ’60s.
On another popular Rage message board, a fan told of spotting a fellow high school student wearing a Rage T-shirt. The fan engaged the shirt wearer in a discussion of Rage’s socialism. But the shirt wearer didn’t believe it: How could his rockin’ rebels be socialists, since "socialists were fascists who stifle freedom"? The wounded reporter of this exchange noted, "I hope people will actually find out what a shirt stands for before they wear it."
But the other kid knew what he knew. And in the market system that pays Rage so handsomely for its anti-capitalist songs, he’s the one who imposes value on the objects that he uses to create his public personality. No matter what Rage’s members might think, he knows they stand for freedom when he listens to them.