Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, I was smitten by a number of rock music’s many virtues. I loved the iron studded defiance and operatic individualism in Judas Priest. I could relate to the dreamy eyed idealism and romantic yearning in Journey. I was amused by the tongue in cheek irony and theatrical absurdity of Devo. I was captivated by the pissed off mechanized malevolence of Metallica. I was swept away by the fantastical imagery and instrumental virtuosity of Led Zeppelin. I was enthralled by the decadent spectacle and the militant rebellion of The Who. I was hypnotized by the melancholy ruminations and brooding sonics of Pink Floyd. Most importantly, I was moved by the message of unity and human universalism in Sly and the Family Stone. Even though I found the music cheesy and maudlin, I could also appreciate the good intentions behind supergroups like Artists United Against Apartheid and USA for Africa. I figured if rock megastars could help bring about positive change in world, then perhaps this art form holds the potential for something more than fame and money.
Rock and pop music with social and political commentary is certainly not new. It definitely didn’t start out that way, but by the time you get to the 1960’s, rock moved further away from escapism and non-conformity and increasingly towards raising social and political awareness. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, of course. Art and music can be vessels for humanity’s highest aspirations and ideals, so it follows that artists would attempt to recreate the spiritual role that infused the gospel and R&B roots of rock in the secular sphere. Not only did rock stake a permanent claim on being the kingdom of freaks, weirdos, decadents and contrarians, it also positioned itself as the de facto moral conscience for a global secular congregation.
But rock is no longer a scrappy upstart art form chafing at the edges of social acceptance. It’s the establishment. What began as music designed to piss off your parents is now the music of your parents. Or maybe even your grandparents. It has ensconced itself into every corner of consumer culture but has carefully tended to its outsider mythology. Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of the political editorial in pop, rock and folk throughout the 20th century belongs to the radical Left. From Pete Seeger’s odes to Stalin to the pro-Sandinista raveups of the Clash, the soundtrack to the struggle of the underdog has been monopolized by the Left. The upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s that gave rock its sense of urgency and purpose have since been absorbed into the social, political, commercial and academic bloodstream. To the degree that the rock of yesteryear had a sense of moral purpose, today’s rock has devolved into a zombified corpse feasting from the carcass of its bygone glories. Desperately seeking the conscience which ignited the Flower Power generation, today’s artists try to maintain a pretense of youthful rebellion and relevance. Devoid of the sweeping narrative of intergenerational change that animated the Boomers, the idealism of all subsequent generations of rockers and pop artists has increasingly metastasized into rote nostrums of the progressive political and academic intelligentsia.
Sly Stone wanted to take you higher, but Macklemore wants to telegraph the tortured solipsism of his alleged “white privilege”. The Dead Kennedys righteously lampooned the pampered collegiate class while Green Day seem content to confirm their biases. The Sex Pistols snarled out anthems for anarchy, but Rage Against the Machine would have you believe that recycled Marxist angst is an edgy and fresh perspective. Whether it’s Beyonce’s excruciating feminist infomercials or the psychic trauma of Le Tigre’s shrieking Hillary Clinton propaganda, these would-be progressive ministrations sound less like the organic rallying cries of a voiceless underclass and more like the hackneyed script of lazy, entitled royalists.
We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgement of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song
The spirit of contrarianism that once defined rock has given way to an insufferable smug preachiness and an unhinged militancy in the wake of the Trump election. Pete Townsend may have been cheering the dissolution of the moral order of his parents’ generation in his anthems of rebellion, but he may not have anticipated that the children at his feet would construct a new moral order that would happily see him censored. The examples are numerous, but there are a few worth highlighting.
In his latest piece in the Observer, Tim Sommer lambasts Roger Waters for peddling impotent middle-aged angst without providing a mechanism for political action. He expresses his openness to “another” political viewpoint, but only in ironic scare quotes dusted off with a distinct whiff of elitist condescension. He also discusses what he regards as “four freedoms promised in January of 1941 by President Roosevelt” which include “freedom from want”. Anyone who has a rudimentary grasp of political philosophy knows this is a reference to positive rights. The US Constitution makes no reference to “freedom from want” nor does the General Welfare Clause justify the creation of a welfare state. You will never be free from want and the list of human wants is infinite. It’s fine to advocate for voluntary charity, but making this a political objective is a recipe for catastrophe.
Trent Reznor’s latest bromide against Trump in Vulture refers to him as a “fucking vulgarian”; a remarkably strange sentiment coming from the guy who immortalized “fuck you like an animal” in a song lyric. Is Reznor’s political philosophy so shallow that he’s evaluating political policy and politicians on a scale of “vulgarity”? Sure, Trump has broken some taboos and violated expectations around what a POTUS can or cannot say, but the discussion should be centered on actual policy and political philosophy. The fact that Reznor makes no attempt to discuss Trump’s policy ideas in contrast with his own political philosophy makes this an especially inane and counterproductive criticism. His comments in a recent Village Voice interview are only slightly more nuanced and reveal more explicitly the Manichean worldview that defines the progressive mindset.
“Look, I don’t think he’s a good guy. Some people do,” he told his son. “I don’t think he believes in science and I don’t think he believes people should be treated decently and I don’t think he tells the truth. That’s why I don’t like him.”
Good people on one side and bad people on the other. It’s not about whether you like him, Trent. The question is over what, if any, role the federal government should play in science, healthcare, immigration policy or anything else. Science is not democratic nor does it require belief. It does require testable hypotheses, transparent methodologies, and ethical data collection. When government money is funding science, the likelihood that we’ll see any results that might falsify the hypothesis and derail the political agenda behind it is greatly diminished. Furthermore, political policy never determines how people treat one another; it only delineates the sphere of action that’s subject to criminal or civil punishment. This points to the distinction between society and State to which Thomas Paine referred, but has since been collapsed by progressives. Obviously, Reznor is making a veiled reference to immigrants, minorities and transgender people, but political policy does not nor should not form the basis of how one comports oneself in the company of others. Political policy does not shape the opinions people hold about other people. Political policy is not a substitute for having a sound moral philosophy. The quest for political protection for the so-called transgender community is taking on an increasingly absurd and totalitarian aura. And very few politicians have good truth telling records. The Democrats certainly don’t have a lock on veracity. What’s perhaps most disconcerting is Reznor’s silence on the ongoing war for free speech versus political correctness. It would have been useful to hear a public position on the matter since his material is more than ripe for social justice jihad. Considering that Reznor has written a vulgar lyric or two and touched on some rather controversial subject matter, his silence as well as the dismissive crack he made about Gamergate says more than a little about his true priorities and biases.
The walking billboard for the DNC formerly known as Katy Perry fares no better in her increasingly hamfisted proselytizing for the Church of Identity Politics and #DIVERSITY. Positioning herself as the torchbearer of mass market #WOKE pop, Perry’s pleas for “unity” in the wake of the Manchester terrorist bombing sound especially hollow and tone deaf. For a pop star who has cashed in so handsomely on sugar coated pop confections and girly coquettishness, her recent turn towards #SocialJustice pandering is a disappointing downgrade.
In what is thus far the most cringe inducing bit of Trump Derangement Syndrome, second generation nu metal shitstains, Stray From the Path, literally committed their autistic screeching to tape with a bit of prefab agitprop, “Goodnight Alt-Right”. Filled to the brim with manufactured outrage and the deranged justifications for initiating violence against people who deviate from progressive orthodoxy, it reveals quite a bit about how leftists deal with people who stray from their path. Way to go, edgelords. So contrarian.
Speech is “free” but it comes with a price
And if you’re speaking out some bullshit I’ll give you advice
Hit ’em with a left a left and a right
Got ’em dropping like flies with the stars in their eyes
So fuck them and fuck you too and appreciate
That if you preach hate, then expect hate
Needless to say, blasphemy against the Church of Progressivism has been met with the customary acts of censure, vindictiveness and retribution. None other than Johnny Rotten himself came out in favor of #Brexit and Trump to the dismay of many fans. In what is thus far the biggest shitstorm in the ever widening culture war over political correctness, the little known band, The Dream Machine, were dropped from their label for
committing blasphemy making “ugly” remarks about immigration and feminism. That’s right, folks. Shit on Christians, Trump, white people and conservatives all you want. That’s #EDGY because they’re privileged and shit. But if you say even one mean word about immigrants or feminists, brace yourself. Hell hath no fury like a social justice warrior triggered.
As someone who entered the world of rock precisely because of its spirit of individualism and contrarianism, nothing disheartens me more than seeing rock musicians and rock culture breeding the worst kind of conformity; conformity of political thought. Artists are generally an empathetic and well intentioned bunch who, like many others, want to maximize goodwill and global harmony. I suspect there’s more than a few people who set out to change the world with three chords and the truth. But what most artists fail to grasp is that government policy is not meant to be the vessel through which compassion, love, and brotherhood flow. It is a very dangerous institution whose power should not be extended to satisfy your altruistic urges. If you believe it should do something not specifically enumerated in the Constitution and for which provision can be made through voluntary means, then you bear the burden of justifying the application of its coercive powers to your fellow citizens. And if you genuinely feel justified in advocating for these policies without having to make the case to your fellow citizens, then consider the possibility that you are the one who was fooled again after all.