Category Archives: music

Commies vs. AnCaps: Welcome to the Rap Metal Terrordome

Throughout America and the West, the political Left have overwhelmingly dominated the culture through the arts. This dominion extends across the entire sphere of pop and rock music. With the possible exception of country, the political opinions in the pop and rock world tend to run the gamut between progressive and communist. While most generally save their grandstanding for DNC appearances, award ceremonies and social media, there is a notable handful of artists who put radical leftist politics front and center. Rage Against the Machine made Marxist angst a mass market success, so it should come as little surprise that the supergroup followup, Prophets of Rage, cashes in on the same sensibilities. Comprised of the rhythm section reactor that powered RATM and augmented by members of Public Enemy and Cypress Hill, Prophets of Rage want to make America rage again by synthesizing the combined legacies of its members.

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While propping up establishment politics under the veneer of radicalism passes for “rebellion” on the Left, you’d think that liberty would resonate as a theme in a genre that prides itself on being the Voice of the Disaffected™. For whatever reason, very little liberty oriented subject matter has translated into mass success beyond the odd Rush or Megadeth record. Libertarians are starting to recognize that culture is upstream from politics and are now making inroads into the pop culture realm. One of the unexpected success stories has been the emergence of rap-metal Rothbardians, Backwordz. Fronted by Eric July, a man who is already recognized as a rising star in the liberty movement, Backwordz is plying their own brand of rap-metal but with a message that stands in polar opposition to the leftist grunting of the Prophets. Drawing almost exclusively from the more recent history of rap-rock hybrids, Backwordz sound invokes comparisons to Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park, Static-X and Body Count. If you had told me even a year ago that the nexus of politically fueled music converges at the intersection of hip-hop and hard rock, I’d have looked at you sideways. Yet here we are. So let’s jump into the rap-metal terrordome and see how they stack up.

Prophets of Rage vs. Backwordz

In many ways, Prophets of Rage is one of the most successful rap-rock hybrids I’ve heard. It pains me to say it because the politics of the album alternate between idiotic sloganeering, boring clichés and braindead incoherence. Prophets of Rage seem tailor made for the Age of #SocialJustice, and they’re cashing in on it by openly advertising themselves as the soundtrack to the #RESISTANCE. If you simply gathered up the highest trending hashtags from #WOKE Twitter from the past couple years (#Blacklivesmatter, #RESIST, #DumpTrump, #TakeAKnee, #HandsUpDontShoot, etc), that pretty much sums up what they have to say as a band. Add in some communist iconography, weed references and Antifa-inspired branded merchandise, and the package is complete. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear some group of campus SJWs chanting the chorus to “Unfuck the World” at any given protest.

No Hatred
Fuck Racists
Blank Faces
Time’s Changin’
One Nation
Unification The Vibration
Unfuck the World!

 

Wow. That’s deep, bro. Pass the bong.

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Conversely, Backwordz have a lot of interesting things to say on their debut release, “Veracity”, but it is simply less enjoyable as a musical experience. And by interesting, I mean songs that represent the perspective of a full throated Rothbard style anarcho-capitalist. That’s not to say that they are less accomplished musicians or that their vision is any less cohesive. It’s just that I found myself wanting to sing along with Prophets, but didn’t have the same experience with Backwordz. If nothing else, the fact that Backwordz have written an anti-Keynesian rap-metal anthem which name checks Ludwig von Mises and The Road to Serfdom makes them deserving of respect. “Praxeology” is not necessarily a song I want to put on repeat, but I think it’s commendable that they wrote it in the first place. There’s probably more than a few people out there who scooped up copies of Anthem and The Fountainhead after rocking out to 2112, so I suspect it won’t be long before we begin to hear testimonials of kids who picked up Human Action after jamming Backwordz.

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Backwordz songs follow a general formula. Eric July spits out a manic flow over some chunky syncopated riffage which is followed by a melodic emo chorus sung by Alex James. What the riffs lack in memorability, they make up for in rhythmic interest and mechanical precision. At their best, Backwordz’ riffage falls somewhere in between the jagged chugging of Meshuggah and the militant ratatat of Disturbed. July alternates between a smooth, rhythmically energetic flow and a full on aggro scream. There is the occasional chill electro beat section, too.

Backwordz cover a lot of ground in one record. A tour through the song titles and lyrics reveal a pretty broad spectrum of liberty oriented themes. Unfortunately, the songs are a little like monologues from Randian heroes. The content is great, but there’s something wooden and slightly cringe inducing about it. July is hitting excellent subjects, but he’s just not the greatest wordsmith. However, the one song that’s both lyrically and thematically devastating is “Statheist”. If there’s one thing that progressives don’t like to hear, it’s having their own religious faith called out.

Say it, we know the truth
Saying Hail Mary’s at the voter booth
You are a fraud
Stop acting like you don’t believe in god
Acting like they made us
Politicians are your saviors
You are a fraud
Stop acting like you don’t believe in god

 

To my ears, the Prophets’ overall sound has more breath and a deeper reach back into rock history. The Prophets successfully negotiate a rhythmic pocket that reconciles Led Zeppelin, P-Funk, MC5 and The Stooges. Tom Morello’s politics are vile and stupid but the man is quite simply one of the most innovative guitarists in rock working today. I defy any rock lover to say that the chorus to “Hail to the Chief” isn’t the very epitome of The Riff. The Prophets’ superior conception of groove also ties into their superiority in songcraft. I can’t remember a single hook from the Backwordz record, but I can remember practically every single one from the Prophets of Rage. Having the Morgan Freeman of hip-hop doesn’t hurt, either. Chuck D’s gruff, leathery bass and relaxed flow is just more appealing to listen to than July’s rapid fire rhymes. If there was only one message that I hope to convey to the members of Backwordz, I would encourage them to learn from the Prophets’ songwriting example.

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What pisses me off the most about the Prophets of Rage is that, in contrast to their ideological brethren GY!BE, they’re cashing in on leftist anger without being explicit about that for which they stand. Admittedly, it’s not that hard to discern their intentions, but it’s masked amidst the fist pumping sloganeering. They want you to “know your rights”, but exhort you to “burn that goddamn flag”. They lament that you “pretend there’s democracy” in one song, but insist that you should “legalize me” in another. Morello himself has been pretty explicit about his communist convictions throughout his career, and Prophets of Rage is just the latest update to the packaging. Their anti-authoritarian posture masks their authoritarian designs. It’s not that just that they want to “Smashit”; they want to “go Molotov” and “become the gun”. They insist that you know “who owns who”, but want you to ignore the question of who owns them. I contend that the following photo from their Twitter account summarizes their true intentions. The Statue of Liberty is a symbol of the one political ideal that America sought to institutionalize: liberty. Though the #TakeAKnee campaign was supposedly meant to symbolize a protest against police brutality and racial injustice, the act of kneeling is actually an act of submission. Not defiance. The fact that the Prophets of Rage would promote an image of Lady Liberty kneeling in submission is exactly what I’d expect from communists, sadly.

I realize Backwordz don’t need my support, but I sincerely wish that I could offer a more unequivocal endorsement. If there was a way to swap the message of Backwordz with the Prophets’ sound, I’d be singing a different tune. Backwordz’ music belongs to different generation, and the fact that they’ve attracted as much attention as they have is a testament to the fact that their music is speaking to people and providing value. The Left have been tremendously successful in mainstreaming their ideas through culture, so I’m glad they’re out there doing their thing. It’s entirely possible that they’ll reach more new people with rap-metal than the combined efforts of every single Mises Institute fellow.

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Heterotopia Live: Oberon, September 29, 2017

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Warriors of the Metaphysical Wasteland: Schooltree

Among the various types of rockers one encounters in the world, I believe the heart of the prog rocker is uniquely romantic. In contrast to all other genres, the prog rocker is the one who sees music making as a mythic quest and a sacred calling. The prog rocker has a story to tell that is so epic, the danger and drama can only be conveyed through labyrinthine compositions and spellbinding feats of musical virtuosity.  The prog rocker is going to unsheath Excalibur from the stone and slay the dragon while on his way to Mordor to destroy the One Ring while simultaneously telling you the story of how Stonehenge was built. It’s an artistic quest that many attempt, but at which very few truly succeed. Especially in 2017.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to attest that Lainey Schooltree has chased that Holy Grail and brought it back to the land of the mortals in the form of 100 minute epic called Heterotopia. She has kept her covenant with the ancient gods of progressive rock and delivered a work that deserves a place in the pantheon. After seeing Heterotopia in its embryonic state, I was especially excited to see how it translated in a proper live setting in its final form. Not only did it exceed my already high expectations, but I left having the sense that I had witnessed the launch of a significant work that demands to be judged on the global stage.

Heterotopia has an elaborate narrative, but you don’t need to follow it or even understand it in order to enjoy it as a pure rock spectacle. Backed by a 10 person Greek chorus, some choice lighting and two exceptionally well timed releases of dry ice, the five members of Schooltree powered through Heterotopia in its entirety like world class heavyweight champions.

Every band aspires to make an album that’s all killer and no filler, but Heterotopia actually is one of those records. There were, of course, notable standouts. In the role of Metanoia, Kristin Santangelo was positively captivating in “The Leitmaiden” and “Enantiodromia”. There is probably no one on earth better suited to the role of Enantiodromia than the incomparable Mali Sastri. “The River” is the one track on Heterotopia where the emotional tenor turns pitch black, but it delivers just as much doom laden grandeur as you’ll get from Magma or Van Der Graaf Generator. In addition to her already considerable feats of vocal sorcery, the combination of her wild eyed stare, gothic makeup and flared black dress left you feeling as though you were in the presence of a supernatural being. And a rather terrifying one at that.

Besides providing so many of the glorious backup harmonies to many of the songs, the 10 person Greek chorus had several standout sections of their own. “The Bottom of the River” managed to synthesize English folk music and Sondheim all in one piece. “Rocksinger” sounds something like a track The Sweet were commissioned to write for Schoolhouse Rock, but was rejected for its references to Suzi’s indiscriminate drug usage and sexual favors.

Heterotopia is solidly a work of progressive rock, but it never strays too far from its rhythmic anchors in the straight ahead rock tradition. The motorik pulse of “Dead Girl” draws you in and builds up to an outrageous climax.

For my money, “The Edge Annihilate” is the song for the ages. I’m convinced it’s the hidden track from The Sensual World in which Kate Bush collaborated with Journey. It’s “Don’t Stop Believing” for the goth crowd with backup harmonies provided by the Trio Bulgarka. It’s a strange conjunction, but I swear I was ready to hoist a lighter aloft as soon as Tom Collins’ fill kicked off that final chorus.

By far, the musical and emotional pinnacle of the performance was “Day of the Rogue”. Starting with a piano riff that sounds damn close to “Great Gig in the Sky”, “Day of the Rogue” is the culmination of Suzi’s transformation and the beginning of her reentry into the physical world.  It’s a testament to Schooltree’s artistry that she’s able to constantly subvert your expectations by setting the emotional tenor of the music against the dramatic events and make it soar. The final stretch of the song was among the most triumphant two minutes of gloom I’ve ever heard. Even without a Stonehenge replica descending from the ceiling to cap it all off, it was an experience that was only heightened by the release of dry ice and a dazzling flourish of psychedelic lights. One could imagine that if they continued to ramp up the design and visual production values, Heterotopia could easily be a big ticket entertainment option in any major city. 

This incarnation of Schooltree is the second iteration I’ve seen and is marked by a complete turnover in the bass and guitar duties and the welcome addition of a dedicated synthesizer player. While it’s eminently clear each musician is accomplished in his own right, they exercise such discipline in executing this music, it’s often hard to tell where Lainey’s vision ends and their individualism begins. Filling the role vacated by the estimable Brendan Burns, Sam Crawford more than proved his mettle by juggling rhythmic chores, melodic lines, sonic textures and one all too short solo in “Specter Lyfe”. The addition of Peter Danilchuk on synthesizer was an inspired and welcome addition to the Schooltree sound. Besides all of the excellent written material, he churned out some first rate spacey psychedelia on “The Abyss”. Forming the foundation of the entire musical edifice of Heterotopia, Ryan Schwartzel on bass and Tom Collins on drums were models of taste, economy and restraint.

Decked out in goth chick glam, Schooltree herself seemed content to let Heterotopia speak for itself. And that’s exactly as it should be. While so many are eager to confer automatic legitimacy and priority to “womyn in rock” these days, Lainey Schooltree has simply thrown down a gauntlet of stone cold artistic achievement. Heterotopia is a musical monument that stands tall in the valley of its ancestors and demands to be judged alongside them. I may not have seen Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis back in their heyday. But I did see Heterotopia at Oberon in 2017. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a perfectly comparable experience.

Masters of Unreality: Sam Crawford, Peter Danilchuk, Lainey Schooltree, Tom Collins, Ryan Schwartzel

 

Red Rockers: GY!BE’s Empty Commie Agitprop

Luciferian Towers is the seventh release from Canada’s preeminent purveyors of apocalyptic art rock, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. As expected, the music media have rolled out the red carpet and showered the album with praise. And understandably so. They are a band for which the most hushed tones of reverence are reserved, and the album delivers the musical goods that GY!BE fans have come to expect. Doom laden slow burn reveries build up to ecstatic peaks which manage to be beautiful and foreboding all at once. Jagged and charred dronescapes which channel a multitudinous howl at the injustices of the world lodge themselves into the deepest recesses of your mind. It’s all good stuff, and GY!BE truly are among the best at this kind of thing. Like Swans and NIN, existential angst and politically charged dread have a place in the artistic landscape. I would argue that their particular brand of paranoid musical fever dream is effective precisely because they have successfully given a musical voice to the anxiety, fear, and embittered rage that lives at the heart of the Left’s political worldview. 

And that brings us to my beef with what is otherwise a fantastic art rock record. GY!BE have always worn their political stripes on their sleeve, but on Luciferian Towers, they’ve basically hoisted the hammer and sickle flag and started singing the “International”. This is not a startling revelation, but I applaud them for being forthright and specific about their political goals. Communists tend not to be open to arguing the merits of their ideology, but I’m happy to take this opportunity to hopefully disabuse Menuck and company of this barbaric and regressive point of view. My bigger problem is that they’re a band that asks to be taken seriously, but if we take the message at face value, I’m not sure they’re entirely serious about their own message. If the critical response is any indication, I’m not sure the critics or the fans do either. My sense is that, like Rage Against the Machine and other Marxist poseurs, it’s a way to score points with the cool kids and affect the standard leftist posture of being some revolutionary badass. And if they are as serious as they seem to be, this is yet another example of the Left’s insanely pathological fawning and blasé indifference to what is quite clearly a call for open borders, violent revolution, and another socialist dictatorship. Admittedly, that’s apparently what the Left is after, but one hopes that such an explicit declaration of political intent would elicit a little bit of concern for anyone who might have misgivings over that agenda. 

Think I’m being hyperbolic? Let’s listen to each track, take a look at the editorial behind it and discuss the list of “demands” that served as inspiration for this recording. 

Apparently written by GY!BE’s prime mover, Efrim Menuck, the Luciferian Towers press release is written in affected, broken English that’s straddles the line between half baked poetry, pretentious art school twaddle, and infantile, semi-literate rantings. This kind of fractured, would-be deconstructionism is barely distinguishable from Tumblr grade bilge and practically memes itself. The deliberate insertion of an incorrect and unnecessary indefinite article in the title to the opening track, “Undoing a Luciferian Towers”, sounds retarded and feels pointless. So are we to take this editorial as boilerplate Marxist contempt for urban architecture and all of the capitalist rapacity it symbolizes or is it a tacit endorsement of terrorist destruction? Or is it a veiled celebration of 9/11? It’s not entirely clear, but one presumes that the violent nihilism of the image is sufficient to convey their “revolutionary” contempt for modern society. Setting that uncertainty aside, the song itself is another triumph of GY!BE’s tormented beauty. Sheets of kaleidoscopic noise punctuated by shards of atonal shrieks march into the gloom accompanied by a lonely and spartan snare drum cadence. The song culminates in a surprisingly triumphant sounding melody reminiscent of Albert Ayler if he were backed by Black Sabbath. It’s more upbeat variation on the kind of song on which GY!BE have built their career, and it’s a stunning opener. 

“Bosses Hang” is a three part suite which picks up where the previous song left off. Part I gives us another soaring anthem which sounds something like an electrified Liberation Music Orchestra track in a major key. Part II is a minimalist heavenward climb worthy of Branca which ratchets up the tension through steady accretion of rhythmic and harmonic layers and explodes into climatic recapitulation the original theme.

Because the music is so expertly conceived and executed, I’m especially annoyed by what they’re saying on this track. The press release spews more dumb Marxist clichés about capitalist producers extracting surplus value from the proles while whinging about how beleaguered and alienated they are. Listen, guys. Suck it in and cope, cupcakes. You’ve achieved more commercial success than most musicians on the planet achieve in an entire career. I get that it’s hard to feed a family on this stuff, but you make music that mostly appeals to young, urban hipsters. This whole posture of oppression smacks of spoiled ingratitude. You make make music on your own terms while promoting a political ideology that would absolutely destroy the ability to make this music in the first place. What more do you want, guys? But hey. Whatever, man. DOWN WITH THE BOURGEOISIE, AMIRITE COMRADES?! HANG ‘EM HIGH! THAT’LL SOLVE EVERYTHING. IT’S NOT LIKE THIS VERY AGENDA HAS ALREADY RESULTED IN THE DEATH OF 200 MILLION PEOPLE OR ANYTHING. WE’LL FINALLY GET IT RIGHT THIS TIME AND MAKE IT 400 MILLION. And what’s with all this horseshit about shovels, wells and barricades? Are you planning on building the Montreal Commune or are you digging mass graves for the executions you and your fellow revolutionaries plan on carrying out? 

Do GY!BE LITERALLY want bosses to hang? If I had to bet, I’d wager that they aren’t serious and just want to be regarded as edgelords. But then again, I can’t be sure. The actions of the radical Left are getting closer to their overheated rhetoric lately, so maybe this is another provocation. Lately, this kind of sentiment is de rigueur, and leftist calls for violence are A-OK. But man, if you say “nigger” on a live stream while playing a video game, WATCH THE FUCK OUT, BRO. 

Even if we get past the dumb postmodern affectations and tortured blathering that accompanies “Fam/Famine”, it’s another sad projection of what their ideology actually produces in the world. The socialist always blames privation, repression and conflict on capitalism, but mysteriously dismisses the ACTUAL privation, repression and conflict of socialism. Venezuela is resorting to rabbits to feed its population, and like clockwork, socialist apologists have already declared socialism blameless. While I’m sure they’ve got some variation of #NotRealSocialism at the ready for people like me, this is basically GY!BE telling you exactly what you can expect if their utopia were implemented. 

They wrap up the record by bitching about kanada and agitating for “anarchy” in the three part epic, “Anthem for No State”. Once again, when it comes down to the music, they have earned the accolades. If Sergio Leone collaborated with Alejandro Jodorowsky on a follow-up to El Topo, this would be my top pick for the soundtrack. Part III begins with a thundering wall of toms while peals of feedback scream overhead like some infernal hellbeast. The Morricone inspired battle cry enters on guitar and is answered by the strings. As is the case with everything they do, it’s very dramatic and it has a rousing, martial quality to it. This GY!BE suite wants to be a call to arms, but I sense that it’s more a soundtrack to anarchist LARPing. 

All in all, the record is very good as a pure musical achievement. I actually like GY!BE and consider myself a fan. I just can’t abide all this AnCom horseshit. Either it’s a pose or they haven’t thought it through. But if you are serious, Efrim and company, may you get all the communism you ask for, Comrades. Clearly, some of us only learn the hard way.

But what about the “grand demands” that informed this record? Because, after all, nothing says you’re dedicated to the emancipation of humanity quite like a set of DEMANDS I always say. 

An end to foreign invasions.

Ok. Fine. I’m with you on this one, Comrades. I gotta say though. This doesn’t seem too high on the progressive agenda. It also doesn’t really square with the whole trend towards arbitrarily declaring everyone who disagrees with you a Nazi and then punching them. That seems to be the MO of your fellow Antifa LARPers these days. Not exactly the most peaceful approach to things, IMHO. But kudos to you for your antiwar position, brothers. 

An end to borders.

I’m calling bullshit on this one, fellas. You don’t really want this. You don’t. I know it makes you look cool and it’s a great way to virtue signal how #TOLERANT you are, but this is a terrible policy. This is actually being attempted right now in a place called Europe, and guess what? It’s not working so well. Ask anyone who isn’t drinking EU KoolAid. Notice that most of the immigrants are coming FROM the Islamic world TO the West. If they’re all just good hearted people trying to improve their station, what does this say about the quality of life in Islamic countries? Is it possible that there are limits to the great experiment of multiculturalism? Is it possible that some cultures have no intention of assimilating the values to which those of us who grew up in America and the West have become accustomed? Is it possible that even in a borderless world, you will have to contend with the issue of creating social cohesion? If Western countries are just bigoted shitholes, why are so many people from other countries clamoring to get here? How many of you would emigrate to an Islamic or African country? 

Let me guess. #Brexit, Poland and the Netherlands are all just death throes of reactionary, residual Eurocentric white nationalism. All that pesky Islamic terrorism will go away when the capitalist pigs stop waging war and white people stop being such Islamophobes. Everyone needs to learn to love the EU, be more like Sweden and take their daily dose of oxytocin and everything will be great. What an edgy and contrarian position to take. I wonder where Mr. Menuck and company got this radical and fringe opinion. 

How anti-establishment are GY!BE?

Open borders. That’s just WAY OUT ON THE EDGE, dudes.

Besides, what about the immigration policy that’s being enforced by your homeboy, Justin Trudeau? Come on now, Comrades. Surely, you guys are up in his shit every day for upholding such an oppressive border policy. 

And what about all that crap about shovels, wells and BARRICADES you wrote in the notes to “Bosses Hang”? A barricade is a form of BARRIER to limit egress, is it not? Sounds a little bit like a BORDER if you ask me. 

The total dismantling of the prison-industrial complex.

LMAO! It’s the Virtue Signal, Batman! Look, I’m sure we can agree that the pursuit of law and order has gone too far and the system has swallowed up nonviolent offenders and ruined a few too many lives. But guess what? Even if we allow for the slim possibility that there is some percentage of the prison population who are nonviolent offenders or victims of a miscarriage of justice that can reenter society and function as law abiding citizens, we’re still left with a significant population of ACTUAL FELONS. You know. Rapists. Murderers. Terrorists. 

What then, Comrades? A peaceful reign of brotherly harmony where we all drink kombucha, listen to GY!BE and chill? I suggest you think this through a little more. 

Healthcare, housing, food and water acknowledged as an inalienable human right.

Ah yes. At last we arrive at the “anarchist” conception of rights.  What you actually have here, Comrades, is a self-detonating argument. If you consider the provision of material goods and professional services to be RIGHTS, then that means that certain individuals who possess the ABILITY to produce said goods and services are now OBLIGATED to provide them for others. So if you truly consider these rights to be INALIENABLE, as in cannot be taken away, then that means that some group of people will be FORCED to provide goods and services for others. And another group will be charged with ENFORCEMENT of said rights. As in through the barrel of a gun. I don’t see how you can declare all of these things inalienable rights given that the forcible provision of these goods and services destroys the humane incentives that are built into the market economy and necessitates the creation of a permanent class of enforcers. As in RULERS. Not very anarchist, is it, Comrades? Lots of contingencies if you catch my drift. Pardon me for raining on your parade, but that sounds like a recipe for enslavement. Maybe you’re cool with that. This little trick has been tried before, Comrades. It doesn’t have a happy ending.

Not only that, you’ll have shot yourselves in the foot by executing the capitalists. I know it’s hard to believe, but you can’t run businesses unless you have….wait for it….SKILLS. I know. You guys love your Marxism and insist that they’re just soulless predators, but your anarchist utopia is going to be badly thwarted if you go through with the purges. Just sayin’.

Also, I don’t get why you guys are grousing about all this. Canada is lauded as a model of progressive governance by leftists throughout the world. Rolling Stone had such a hard on for Justin Trudeau, they gave him what amounted to an act of journalistic fellatio. If you think things are so shitty in kanada that you’d enslave others at gunpoint in order to bring about utopia, then what does this say about the progressive agenda? I’ll tell you what it suggests to me. Either you can’t be content with the soft socialism you already have, or that progressivism inevitably leads to totalitarianism. Or maybe you’re just saying all this shit in order to look cool.

Or maybe all three.

Isn’t he dreamy?

The expert fuckers who broke this world never get to speak again.

I’ll just leave this right here.  

Fooled Again After All: The Mind Numbing Ideological Homogeneity in Rock Music

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.  

Schooltree: Heterotopia

When I heard that Lainey Schooltree was composing a rock opera, I could hear my own inner Boromir at the Council of Elrond. It was as though I had just heard the news that the One Ring was to be brought to Mordor. 

One does not simply write a prog rock opera, Lainey. The black gates of the music industry are guarded by more than just Orcs. There is evil there that does not sleep. And the great Eye is ever watchful. It is a barren wasteland. Riddled with Arianna Grande and DNCE and Beiber. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume. Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly!

Never one to back down from an epic musical calling, that’s precisely what she set out to do. Fortunately for us, she succeeded and Heterotopia is the prog rock opera you’ve been waiting for.  A project four years in the making, Heterotopia is a sprawling 100-minute epic which earns a place alongside Tommy, The Wall, or any other comparable effort you can name. Yes, it’s that good. 

Heterotopia is a sort of metaphysical Hero’s Journey mixed with gothic fantasy. It’s a pomo Alice in Wonderland meets Lord of the Rings by way of Neil Gaiman. It’s a story of a down and out singer named Suzi who is disillusioned with the music industry, but finds her reality shattered when she follows a 100-legged cat down a rabbit hole into an alternate reality called Otherspace. While in Otherspace, she discovers that she has detached from her physical form and may not be able to recover her corporeal self. Worse, Otherspace is slowly being overrun by an encroaching darkness which threatens to enter the physical world and Suzi finds herself faced with an existential choice.

As good as it is, Heterotopia walks a very interesting tightrope. It has a seemingly populist heart, but it’s counterpoised by an overall vibe of gothic gloom. It may be a difficult pill to swallow for those expecting the kind of ecstatic emotional peaks one might reasonably expect from a rock musical.  As a work of progressive rock, it’s an unmitigated triumph. Heterotopia is a cornucopia of musical riches for even the most rabid prog head. It has all of prog’s virtues and none of its vices. It has epic melodies, knotty riffs, angular rhythms, squiggly synth lines, dense harmonies, and plenty of odd metered nerdity. There’s also plenty of old fashioned arena sized, fist pumping rockage. None of it feels excessive, and all of it is ultimately subordinate to Schooltree’s impeccable instincts for songcraft.  It is short on any kind of extended improvisation, but when the guitar jam and synth freakout finally arrive, it’s some serious lighters-in-the-air shit. 

Schooltree’s prog bona fides are unimpeachable. She has clearly done her turntable homework. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway is an obvious musical and thematic touchstone, but Schooltree hacks the prog genome and produces a refreshing and satisfying mutation of her own. Heterotopia reaches for the towering heights of Yes, Genesis, Queen, Supertramp and even deeper recesses of the family tree like Klaatu and Gentle Giant. I’m even going to second Jon Davis at Exposé by saying that Heterotopia bears some similarities to early Saga. One also detects the unmistakable DNA signature of Broadway musicals like Into the Woods and Jesus Christ Superstar coursing through its bloodstream. Musicals should be judged on the strength of the vocal storytelling, and Heterotopia doesn’t disappoint. Schooltree has an equal gift for the anthemic hook, the spectral vocal choir, and the spooky incantations of Dreaming-era Kate Bush. The songs are packed with hooks, but Schooltree always manages to subvert your expectations with a clever turn of phrase. The catchiness of the songs is offset by lyrics filled with ghosts, zombies, illusions, and pits of darkness. Schooltree is one of those artists who writes the most beautifully captivating melody or irresistible pop earworm, but when you listen to what she’s saying, the subject matter often belies the emotional tenor of the music.  

The drama of Heterotopia centers around Suzi’s quest to reclaim her corporeal self. In order to achieve this, she must confront the fallen queen of Otherspace, Enantiodromia. The mythological surface of the piece is merely a vehicle for some rather morbid existential ruminations over the nature of consciousness, death, and free will. By combining prog, epic fantasy, and abstract philosophy, Heterotopia has certainly sealed a trifecta of high concept artiness. There’s a Nietzsche reference or two to be found amidst the Foucauldian mindfuckery. The central theme seems to revolve around the line between reality versus illusion, and the extent to which the latter shapes the former. Prog has always been a platform for big ideas and epic narratives, and this conjunction of mythic storytelling and philosophical speculation places Heterotopia squarely within the canon of classic prog.  

All of which returns us to the unique position this work occupies.  Prog enjoyed a cultural moment back in the 70’s and, to a certain extent, the 80’s. Nowadays, progressive rock of this kind caters to a niche audience. The type of prog that Schooltree is offering will doubtless please the faithful, but whether this particular delivery system will move the meter beyond the prog laity remains to be seen. It’s a Hero’s Journey, but the metaphysics are pretty abstract and the tone is very dark. Beneath the patina of mythological fantasy, Suzi’s tale involves what appears to be a standard dramatic arc tracing her fall, redemption, and resurrection, but it remains strangely suspended in a state of perpetual discord. Even when it reaches its conclusion, it sounds triumphant and the music signals resolution, but you’re left with lingering questions. Suzi’s transformation is obviously meant to be a profound shift, but there’s something slightly underwhelming about it. This is where Heterotopia tilts towards postmodernism. Schooltree herself says that the central idea is that “reality is an illusion”, and this insight is supposedly what liberated Suzi to shape her reality. This is a fairly standard postmodern premise, and it’s an idea that has been explored pretty extensively in every corner of the artistic world for some time. 

However, none of these concerns detract from the heroic achievement of this record. There is a level of ambition and flat out artistic brilliance in this work that simply cannot be denied. If this sounds like your thing, buy it now

La La Land (2016)

It’s not going to replace The Sound of Music in the pantheon of greatest musicals, but it’s a nice throwback to Old Hollywood with a modern sensibility.

La La Land is the kind of film that you thought was consigned to the scrap heap of Hollywood history.  In other words, it’s a boy-meets-girl love story with song and dance performed by two charismatic and attractive leads.  It’s colorful. It’s fun. It’s a film with a smile on its face that wants to entertain you. Ryan Gosling is the idealistic jazz musician, Sebastian, and Emma Stone is aspiring actress, Mia. Even with its bittersweet ending, the film is refreshing because of its unabashed old fashioned approach.

Besides the love story, La La Land deals with the question of what it means to be an artist and being true to your principles by finding your own voice. Sebastian is the quintessential jazz purist who wants to rescue jazz from cultural oblivion. He dreams of opening a club that features Honest Jazz, but bides his time playing lounges and 80’s cover bands. Mia is just another actress hunting for scraps in the Hollywood meat grinder until Sebastian encourages her to tell her own stories by developing her long abandoned writing.

More specifically, the film addresses the ideological divide in jazz between innovation and tradition, and which takes priority when it comes to attracting audiences. Is jazz a fixed tradition with specific, definable parameters or is it a blank slate which must incorporate modern technology and borrow from other idioms in order to innovate and attract audiences? In Sebastian’s case, his version of artistic radicalism was to return to jazz tradition despite being given an opportunity to play in John Legend’s globetrotting pop/R&B act.

In one scene, the film does an excellent job showing the chasm of misperception between the jazz aficionado and the casual consumer. Mia tries to explain that she finds Kenny G perfectly enjoyable and her parents would put on a smooth jazz station as background music. Instead of being an elitist snob, Sebastian draws her attention to the musical action happening on the combo performing in front of them.  The film clearly wants us to see the beauty in jazz that Sebastian sees and show what makes jazz such a dynamic and rich art form.

Where La La Land really shines is in the romance between Sebastian and Mia. How long has it been since Hollywood unironically presented the pursuit of love and companionship between a man and a woman as a virtue? Hollywood has been so far up its own ideological ass for so many years trying to fulfill every politically correct agenda that a scene with Sebastian and Mia holding hands in a theater while watching Rebel Without a Cause feels pretty radical. 

It’s multicultural, but it is blessedly free of hamfisted racial or identity politics. Sebastian’s sister marries a black man, but they didn’t insert some tortured narrative about racism. The jazz club scenes contained multiracial audiences and showed people getting along and having a great time enjoying an art form that has succeeded in building cultural bridges.  Since Hollywood seems so solidly intent on propping up politically divisive narratives by constantly emphasizing America’s sordid history in films like Race and Birth of a Nation, the absence of these tiresome themes in La La Land is noticeable and welcome.

The film is not just a candy coated sugar high though. The tradeoffs, compromises, self doubt and financial insecurities which come with the territory of being an artist create the emotional and dramatic tension between the characters. Artistic idealism is an admirable virtue, and one which resonates with me, but Damien Chazelle is correct to point out that absent clear communication, the pursuit of a stable family life and the artistic dream can easily become irreconcilable goals.  It’s great to see that the pursuit of artistic individualism is upheld as a heroic virtue, but it’s worth remembering that it is not an ironclad promise of financial remuneration or commercial recognition.

Needless to say, the SJW media factions and progressive Twitterati have predictably heaped condemnation on La La Land for the very reasons that it’s good.  Hopefully, studios will pay more attention to the positive acclaim and box office receipts, think twice about pushing ideological agendas, and remember that people enjoy being entertained and watching attractive people fall in love on screen.

Le Tigre and Feminism’s Cult of Government Worship


In case you still harbored the delusion that feminism was some kind of edgy, contrarian ideology, the original purveyors of 90’s Riot Grrrl feminist electroclash, Le Tigre, have returned from the dead to destroy all doubt. In this sad attempt at cultural relevance, these would-be “rebels” become full throated propagandists for corporatist, neocon-approved Hillary Clinton. 

That’s right. Apparently, cheerleading for the woman who has voted for wars which have killed tens of thousands, taken money from Islamic regimes, and actively undermined her husband’s rape accusers is super feminist and like totally empowering. She’s a Democrat, she has a vagina, and she’ll be the first womyn in the Oval Office, so set aside all those petty right-wing conspiracy theories, PYGS!

If you can even make it past the knife-to-the-skull intro, the song is nothing more than a moronic and childish pander-fest. Filled to the brim with idiotic clichés, feminist straw men, obligatory talking points, and canned Trump hate, the song achieves new heights in cringe.  

Apparently, neither Le Tigre or Pitchfork are all that interested in feedback on this song because the voting buttons and comments have been disabled.  

Way to stand behind those feminist convictions, SYSTERS.  

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Stories of musical pop culture icons are being adapted for the screen with increasing frequency in recent years. Most fail in one way or another, but Straight Outta Compton is one that’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in the story of one of hip-hop’s most controversial and influential groups. SoC tells the story of the rise of seminal gangsta rap group NWA as well as the ascent of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as solo artists. Thematically, the film covers a lot of ground. It’s a story of music industry glory, but it’s another vivid reminder of the difficulty in maintaining integrity within the band when the money starts rolling. More broadly, it confronts us with the challenges of urban black families faced with the prevalence of inner city crime and gang culture. SoC is also an important film for this political moment since free speech and police brutality are themes that are deeply embedded into the fabric of the story. 

The film opens with a drug deal between Eazy-E (aka Eric Wright) and some random gang bangers which escalates very quickly. Right away, the film is taking us into the Compton underworld of the mid-80’s. Everyone is packing heat, drug dealing is one of the few engines of economic mobility that’s easily attainable, every negotiation carries an implicit death threat, and “bitch” and “nigga” are freely deployed throughout normal conversation. It wasn’t called gangsta rap for nothing. The deal devolves into threats, but everyone scrambles for safety when the armored military-style battering ram vehicle rounds the corner, plows right through the front door and cops swarm the house. Welcome to Compton, bitches.

When we’re introduced to a young Dr. Dre (aka Andre Young), his Roy Ayers induced blissed out reverie is violently interrupted by his irate single mother. She castigates him for failing to attend a job interview while simultaneously reminding him how hard she worked to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Dre isn’t having a word of it, and packs his bags so he can pursue his music career free of persistent maternal nagging. The film is giving us a sense of the burden black single mothers carry imparting the importance of developing personal responsibility and meaningful job skills in the absence of strong, paternal role models.  

We meet a young Ice Cube (aka O’Shea Jackson) penning rhymes as he stares out the school bus window. Middle-class white teenagers idle away to pop music in fancy cars and clothes while he awaits being shipped back to the dreary impoverishment of Compton. The bus ride home is interrupted by armed gangsters whose sole intention is to intimidate the kids who taunted them during the route. Once again, we’re reminded that gangsters were a common phenomenon in South Central LA, and the thug life offered a sense of purpose, belonging and upward mobility for young blacks who faced a seemingly hopeless existence short on positive parental figures or examples. 

Upon his arrival home, he is treated to the prodigious turntable skills of Dre who had recently taken up residence on his couch. With the knockout combination of Dre’s instincts for production and Cube’s pugilistic street poetry, the two friends set their sights on carving out a new sound in rap that reflected the gritty reality of life in Compton. The bonds of friendship which created a new hip-hop dynasty were sealed.  

One of the great strengths of the film is the absence of phony PC propriety and artificial attempts at racial correctness. The unvarnished portrait of urban black speech and gender relations all by itself is a glorious kick in the teeth to social justice warriors who are constantly bitching about “harmful representations in the media of Marginalized Group (fill in the blank)”. Admittedly, the portraits are not the most flattering towards this particular segment of the African-American population, but when contrasted with the modern Hollywood PC orthodoxy which mandates that blacks always be portrayed in a positive light, this film feels like it’s making an above average attempt at honesty instead of trying to pander to phony leftist piety. In an early scene where Dre and Cube are given a slot to perform at a popular nightclub, the owner sternly reminds the young MCs that he wants the people focused on “pussy, not pistols”.  They ignore his admonitions and perform the track to overwhelming enthusiasm. The track contained many of the lyrical themes which became commonplace within the gangsta rap genre: gritty, profanity laced realism defined by unrepentant portraits of guns, criminal activity, and raunchy sex.  

In many ways, the film is the story of Eazy- E’s role in creating NWA’s success. Emboldened by the positive reception to their track, Dre and Cube convince Eazy-E to bankroll their first recorded effort. When the crew they hire unceremoniously quit, Dre persuades E to sing the lead vocal. Here, the film gives an interesting insight into Dre’s gift for producing as well as E’s unsteady flow at this early stage in their career. The result of this effort was “Boyz In Da Hood” and this initial success laid the groundwork for NWA.  

A big theme in the film is the challenge of maintaining integrity, professionalism and independence in the music industry. Especially when the money, drugs and women are readily accessible and the behavior and habits they acquired in the streets of Compton informed their business interactions as adults. The two dubious business partnerships between Eazy-E, Jerry Heller, Suge Knight and Dre drove a lot of the interpersonal drama between the characters.  Heller discovers E when “Boyz In Da Hood” was climbing the charts and helped steer the Ruthless crew to global success, but the absence of transparency in the contracts eventually drives a wedge between the friends. It’s insinuated that Heller took advantage of NWA, but it’s not entirely clear that he was completely unscrupulous, either. Not only does Heller exhibit courage and loyalty throughout NWA’s ascent, but he talks E down from exacting vengeance on Suge Knight after a business meeting turns violent.  Suge Knight, on the other hand, is portrayed as a sociopathic thug with few scruples, a hot temper and a propensity towards arbitrary violence. Clearly, the relationship between him and Dre wasn’t completely fruitless since Dre’s career went stratospheric during the Death Row era, but it brought with it a great deal of dysfunction and more than a few hangers on.

The relationship towards law enforcement plays prominently throughout the film and gives it an urgency that speaks directly to currently escalating tensions between police and the black community.  The film portrays the incident which inspired “Fuck Tha Police”, and not only is it an example of the indignities to which inner city blacks are routinely subjected, it brings the vitriol of the song to life even more vividly.  While recording Straight Outta Compton in upscale Torrance, California, the members of NWA were minding their own business outside the studio when cops descended on the scene and demanded that each of the members drop face down on to the sidewalk. Heller arrives shortly thereafter, demands that they be released and chastises the officers for assuming criminal intent based on their appearance. Heller instructs the band members to rise, but the cops refuse to allow them rise until they give the instruction. They forced the men to eat concrete and their dignity for several minutes before issuing a command to stand up. Heller indignantly reminds the cops they’re rap artists, but the black police chief responds with a disparaging and contemptuous retort that “rap isn’t art” and tells them never to be seen in Torrance again.

NWA get their sweet revenge when the song explodes in popularity, but it draws the attention of the FBI while they’re on their first tour. Prior to their now infamous concert in Detroit, the police threaten to arrest NWA if they perform “Fuck Tha Police” during the show. Heller is rattled and advises that they abstain from performing the song to avoid any entanglements with the federal government, but NWA aren’t willing to back down on free speech grounds.  In one of the film’s finest scenes, the band members pause after finishing a song and give one another a knowing look.  The crowd is roaring with applause while Cube tells the audience about how they were threatened and the cops stationed throughout the venue grimace in anticipation of their defiance. They milk the drama of the moment just right, and when Cube instructs the crowd to hoist their middle fingers aloft and finally cues the song with, “Yo, Dre. I got something to say”, it’s positively explosive. The crowd goes mental, but shots are fired and mayhem ensues ending in the apprehension of the members of the group.

When it comes to the message of NWA and the success of the gangsta rap phenomenon, I’m divided. As a full throated advocate for free speech and free markets, I believe that NWA were fully within their rights to write and rap about whatever they damn well pleased and that the government had no business attempting to censor or silence them.  On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to cultural and religious conservatives (and even secular progressives) who find the lyrics distasteful and don’t want their children exposed to that lifestyle. I can appreciate that a parent who is attempting to impart an appreciation for monogamy, education, conventional employment and a respect for the law might feel a bit of frustration towards the success of gangsta rap. I’m also sympathetic to black community leaders and parents who also may be galled by their success because their lifestyles and message run counter to their efforts to turn their own communities around. Regardless, NWA’s message burns with intensity and relevance mostly because they were the first and arguably the best at this particular style of hip-hop. Like every innovator, scores of imitators have sprung up in their wake, but they’ll never match the originality of the pioneers themselves.

Straight Outta Compton is ultimately a story of five African-American men who achieved success by simply raising their voices and never backing down.  But like many other stories of its kind, the success came with a price.  Eazy-E’s fall from relevance, financial woes and his untimely death from AIDS was just one of the consequences of a man who was arguably ill prepared to deal with either the temptations all around him or the responsibility he took upon himself. Though neither story was a focus of the film, the death of Tupac Shakur and the imprisonment of Suge Knight also serve as a reminder that the gangster lifestyle eventually catches up with you.  Both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube may have had the talent and maturity to both persevere and thrive, but neither of them was without flaw in their interpersonal or business dealings. There are articles complaining about the ways the film glossed over some of the ugly and inconvenient truths, but I doubt there’s a biopic out there that gets everything completely right. The film makes it sufficiently clear that none of these men were saints. If you are someone who feels strongly that the omission of certain facts supersedes and delegitimizes the broader story the film is telling, then you should probably skip the film.

The filmmakers clearly wanted to connect the message and story of NWA to the current tensions over race and police brutality. The Rodney King beating and and the riots which erupted in the wake of the trial verdict were weaved into the film as a vivid reminder that the Ferguson and Baltimore incidents are not new. While many will likely shoehorn the narrative of the film into the now omnipresent and shopworn narrative of intractable, systemic racism embedded in the American psyche and institutions, the film very subtly reveals the true origins of these problems for anyone who’s actually paying attention. Like many other urban black neighborhoods, crime rates in Compton outpace the national averages. Single motherhood rates are disproportionate to other ethnic populations. Taken together, you’re going to have a community which naturally requires more aggressive policing. The police are certainly not above reproach or criticism, but the persistent effort to paint every instance of police brutality and harassment as evidence of “systemic racism” serves no one.

The performances from all the young leads are first rate and the soundtrack is filled with nuggets of classic funk, R&B, 80’s pop and hip-hop. This is a film that captures the voices of rage, defiance and alienation which changed the course of hip-hop and reverberate to this day. Like NWA themselves, the film is brash and unapologetic. Highly recommended. 

Live Aid: The Terrible Truth

Live Aid: The Terrible Truth

If you haven’t yet read Spin magazine’s stunning exposé of the true legacy of Live Aid, you owe it to yourself to give it a read.  Just like the other well-intentioned social justice musical venture whose legacy is equally dubious, Artists United Against Apartheid, this story proves that there is a vast difference between virtue signalling and being a champion for the expansion of human freedom and market economics. 

There isn’t much that needs to be added to this story other than to emphasize that Marxism creates misery and oppression everywhere it travels, and that the progressive narrative of an all-encompassing white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy is once again exposed for the pathetic, childish farce that it is. 

What Happened to the 80’s Anti-Apartheid Dream?

image

You got to say I, I, I
Ain’t gonna play Sun City
I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City

Steven Van Zandt and a multiracial supergroup, Artists United Against Apartheid, created the anti-apartheid rallying cry heard around the world. It played a significant role in turning public opinion against South Africa’s regime of racial segregation and towards full political enfranchisement for the black majority of South Africa. 

Artists United Against Apartheid was Van Zandt’s brainchild, and followed the pattern of other star-studded affairs by attracting industry heavyweights from across the music spectrum. It also distinguished itself by being tilted ever so slightly towards the edgier end of the pop spectrum by including jazz, rap and punk rockers.

As much as I might be inclined to view Macklemore’s loathsome preachiness as a phenomenon unique to our Age of Multiculturalism and Social Justice, he pales in comparison to the stadium level, globe spanning virtue signalling which occurred throughout the 80’s.  Pop music has always been a vehicle for political protest and social commentary, but the particular brand of “racial justice” grandstanding which is Macklemore’s stock in trade definitely had antecedents in the glossy megaconglomerations of the 1980’s.

Though USA for Africa, Band Aid and Live Aid captured the attention of the masses and drew widespread attention to the plight of starvation in Africa, Artists United Against Apartheid was unique in that it was a protest against the de Klerk regime. It was also an organized boycott of the Sun City resort and a call for economic sanctions against South Africa.  While I can appreciate that the track and the project was animated by a genuine spirit of human goodwill and brotherhood, I think it’s worth taking a look of the song’s allegedly “apolitical” message and the quality of life for post-apartheid South Africans in light of recent current events in South Africa.

On the surface, the political situation in South Africa cried out for change and justice.  The repressions and abuses of the South African National Party and the facts behind the construction of the Sun City resort created a perfect subject for a protest track. State enforced segregation, violent crackdowns, and mass relocations were among the list of human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime.  Add Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement”, and the standard narrative of the white supremacist conspiracy of capitalist state power writes itself. 

What’s more difficult to appreciate and less frequently discussed is that there was a sharp competition of economic ideas between the nascent ANC and the various militant African nationalist factions vying for political power and the minority National Party.

By his own account, Van Zandt sought the cooperation of militant group, AZAPO; a group which not only espoused socialist political beliefs, but were willing to use violence to achieve their political ambitions.  Van Zandt apparently had to dissuade them from targeting Paul Simon for assassination.

Listen, this is not gonna help anybody if you knock off Paul Simon. Trust me on this, alright? Let’s put that aside for the moment. Give me a year or so, you know, six months.

Van Zandt goes on to recount his disagreement with Simon over Mandela’s own political views. Van Zandt displays a typical leftist bellicosity towards Simon and dismisses his allegation simply because he cited Henry Kissinger as the source of his information.  But neither Kissinger’s or Simon’s claim was without foundations in fact. Mandela may not have been a communist, but he sure sounds like one.  

Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies in this country.

His association with the South African Communist Party wasn’t exactly a secret either.  While it wasn’t necessarily a carbon copy of the Communist Manifesto, the Freedom Charter was a solidly socialist program and became the guiding document of the ANC.  In his legendary 1964 Rivonia Trial speech, Mandela himself acknowledges as much.

Under the Freedom Charter, nationalization would take place in an economy based on private enterprise.

So what does this have to do with the “Sun City” track itself?

When Rolling Stone ranked “Sun City” as 100th greatest song of the 1980’s, Bono describes the message of the track in the following manner.

This is apolitical. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on — this is common sense.

See? It’s just “common sense.” But the lyrics are pretty explicit about the nature of the injustice in South Africa.

23 million can’t vote
‘Cause they’re black
We’re stabbing our brothers
And sisters in the back

Van Zandt was equally explicit about the call for economic boycott.

I thought in order to change the system, we need to enforce this cultural boycott as a means of getting to the economic boycott, which is really where the action is.

Despite winning the battle of public opinion, witnessing the release and election of Nelson Mandela, Van Zandt affected a phony posture of humility and declined to attend his inauguration and directs blame towards the Reagan administration for their alleged support of the de Klerk regime. 

Social justice warriors, artists and politicians alike agitated for economic sanctions, congratulated themselves for their moral righteousness, and went on to systematically ignore the consequences of these policies on South Africa’s already fragile economy. An economic contraction that would affect tax revenues and purchasing power for a population which depended heavily on redistribution.

One effect of this capital outflow has been a dramatic decline in the international exchange rate of the rand.  This means that imports are increasingly expensive.  It has also helped fuel South Africa’s inflation rate, which at 12-15% per year, is much higher than its major trading partners.

All of which brings us to the present. 

Longtime ANC veteran and current president, Jacob Zuma was charged with raiding the public treasury to fund improvements to his home to the tune of 246 million rand, or about $16.7 million at current exchange rates.

Where is the international condemnation of Zuma from artists?

Van Zandt and countless others agitated for universal suffrage and equal representation in the South African government, but has this made a material difference on the quality of life in South Africa?

By any objective measure, the results are negligible and have perhaps deteriorated further since the demise of apartheid.

Unemployment has remained stuck above 20% for years and certainly hasn’t improved since Mandela and the ANC came to power.  Few black children are raised by both parentsEducational performance is consistently dismalViolent crime persists, and a minority of taxpayers are subsidizing one of the world’s biggest welfare states.  Loose monetary policy has fueled the same speculative bubble in South Africa as it has throughout the developed world.  Politically motivated violence is a common feature of post-apartheid South Africa.

Everyone involved in AUAA was apparently so focused on the attainment of political power, but placed no emphasis on the necessity of economic development.  Even Bono has acknowledged that recently

But their hearts were in the right place, so why get so incensed over a pop track?

Perhaps. I would feel a little bit more charitable towards this effort if it was a one-time phenomenon, but this type of “racial justice” activism was at the very least, an early template for virtually every social justice campaign you can name.

Nowadays, if there anythng done or said that has the slightest perceived hint of a discriminatory attitude, the calls for retribution and censure from the social justice crowd is swift and immediate. With an equal disregard for economic consequences.  All that apparently matters is that egos are satiated by upholding the virtues of Social Justice prescribed by its self-appointed gatekeepers. 

But what about the track itself?

It’s pretty good.  It’s a stylistic hybrid that is a reflection of the people who recorded it; a hip-hop/Afropop flavored rave up with a fist pumping chorus.  It is propelled by its sense of righteous indignation so effectively, you can almost ignore its guilt tripping preachiness.  It doesn’t even get sunk the pretentious affectation of Lou Reed’s laughable cameo. 

I do not doubt that Steve Van Zandt and the artists who contributed to the AUAA project had the best of intentions.  Unfortunately, we now live in a world where good intentions are often all that’s required with little or no attention given to the political consequences of good intentions. 

The standard narrative that the Reagan administration’s support for the de Klerk regime was animated by racism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. Not that anyone on the Left would be that charitable towards a conservative, but anti-communist sentiment was white hot during the 80’s, and even if the fears of communist global expansion were exaggerated, I don’t begrudge Reagan for fearing the rise of another socialist regime in South Africa.  Besides, if that criticism is going to be levelled at Reagan, then it should be made of his predecessors as well.

I also do not begrudge AUAA for making a bold political statement.  In fact, I would prefer to see more artists express their political convictions with such fervor.  Of all the realms of real economic cooperation, music and art is perhaps the one sphere of human activity which allows us to experience and appreciate our shared humanity and sense of purpose.  But if you are going to make a political statement like “Sun City”, don’t turn a blind eye to the consequences of your advocacy. Most of all, make sure you’re applying your criticism consistently and directing a comparable level of indignation towards the black politicians who abused their hard won political power.