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The Rockologist: The Politics Of Dancing Rocking

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When you get to be my age, you find yourself doing more and more reminiscing about the good old days. I never understood this when my parents did it back when I was growing up. I mean, what little I knew of their generation was things like the Depression and the war, and what possibly could have been “good” about those old days, right?

But like a lot of folks my age, I find myself yearning for those younger, more innocent times — which for me, means the seventies, and especially the sixties. This is particularly true when it comes to music.

Now, before you go leveling the charges of “old fart” and the like, I’m not one of those folks who gave up on music after Woodstock was over, and Hendrix or even Kurt Cobain were dead and gone. Nor am I one of what I like to call those old “Steve Miller” guys who look like Homer Simpson, and never quite got past their worn old vinyl copies of Fly Like An Eagle or “Free Bird.”

Nope. You won’t catch me grousing about how “all today’s music is crap” like a number of my contemporaries have. On the contrary, I listen to and actually like quite a bit of the music out there right now. I could probably do with a little less Justin Timberlake and a little more White Stripes if I’m being one hundred percent honest. But for the most part I’m okay with most of what I hear these days.

One thing I’m not so okay with though, is the lack of political activism in music. I mean think about it. We are living through times which in many ways run directly parallel to the sixties — they had Vietnam, we have Iraq; they had Nixon, we have Bush — and yet, there is precious little out there in the way of musical reaction or resistance.

There are exceptions, of course. Tom Morello’s former work with Rage Against The Machine, and currently as the Nightwatchman, as well as Serj Tankian, and some of the more politically aware hip hop artists like the Roots and Erykah Badu spring most immediately to mind here.

But I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of the few musicians out there fighting the good fight are the old duffers. Guys like Springsteen, Neil Young, Pearl Jam — hell, lets throw the Dixie Chicks in there too, ever since they more or less fell into the role of musical politicos courtesy of an unfortunate onstage quip about George Bush.

The other thing though, is that despite all of the publicity people like the Chicks or even Neil Young got after he released Living With War, I can’t think of one song now that so captures the incendiary (or what should be) mood of this time, the way that this particular one did back in its day:

When you hear the words “Stop! Hey, what’s that sound?” there is no mistaking what the Buffalo Springfield were singing about. That’s why the song is used in so many movies today dealing with that time period. And that’s just one song. I can rattle off several more without even thinking about it. Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance,” and just about anything by Dylan back then come most immediately to mind.

Not that the mix of politics and rock and roll was by any means confined to the sixties and seventies. By the time the eighties rolled around, that battle was still being waged on a number of fronts. The punk-rock of bands like the Saints, Tom “Glad To Be Gay” Robinson, and especially The Clash on albums like Sandinista is the most obvious example.

The reggae music of artists like Third World and especially the late, great Bob Marley and The Wailers also served as a political flashpoint during the seventies and well into the eighties. Marley’s anthems like “Get Up Stand Up” and “Exodus” not only made him a God at home, and an international star abroad — they also nearly got him assassinated.

But there was also a lot of that revolutionary spirit during the embryonic, early stages of hip hop in the eighties too.

Grandmaster Flash was the first to voice it on the landmark single “The Message,” where Melle Mel’s lyrics “don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge” captured the rage of an entire generation of disenfranchised black youth. Chuck D’s Public Enemy would later take that same anger to an entirely new level on albums like It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet.

In fairness to today’s music however, one simply can’t overlook the fact that not just the times, but the actual climate is quite a bit different than it was back then. So while Tom Morello, Erykah Badu, or even Radiohead may be making music that is crying for change, it is also unfortunately crying for airplay.

The songs may in some cases be every bit as powerful as the anthems of the sixties were. But unlike yesterday’s top-forty radio — where it wasn’t at all uncommon to find “For What It’s Worth,” “Who’ll Stop The Rain,” or “Street Fighting Man” sandwiched together with something by the Monkees or the 1910 Fruitgum Company — that type of music just doesn’t play well today next to Justin, Mariah, and the rest.

But it is out there.

It just comes in a different variety of shades and forms, and you may have to look a bit harder to find it. You’ll find it on songs like “Last To Die” and “Livin’ In The Future” from Springsteen’s Magic album. You might also come across it at a System Of A Down concert. Or maybe, you’ll hear it on some out of the way underground podcast on MySpace or elsewhere on the internet.

Whatever the case, it is there.

And a lot of it — from Neil Young’s Living With War, to Tom Morello, to Public Enemy’s “Son Of A Bush” (Chuck D is still at it, God Bless Em’), is as direct and in your face as so-called “protest rock” has ever been.

I promised my good friend, rap-music promoter Nasty Nes that I would post a video by an artist he’s promoting called Tha’ Brain when I got around to writing something where it would fit. Since Tha Brain’s song does deal with a political theme (it supports Obama’s presidential bid), I figure this is as good a spot as any to do that.

Besides, with all the flack Obama is catching right now over the Rev. Wright deal, I figure he can use all the help he can get.

Okay, so that wasn’t exactly “Fight The Power” or “The Message.” It’s still pretty damn funny in its own way.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Nice write up, Glen. I think the protest is out there you just have to look for it, but people get savaged nowadays for taking a stand, so it’s no surprise that many take the easy way and remain quiet. Besides, people see the ’60s didn’t accomplish what it suggested, so they don’t want to stick their necks out. The dream failed as HST illustrated in F&L in Las Vegas. Keep fighting the good fight.

  • Thanx Bicho. Like I said, I know it’s out there. It’s just too bad that radio formats have become so fragmented that there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of room for it. George Bush makes Nixon look like a freaking choir boy. yet, a song like “For What Its Worth” or “Give Peace A Chance” would most likely be relegated to a podcast or something today.

    To me, there is really something wrong about that.


  • JC Mosquito

    Some quotes, most of which will have to remain uncreditted due to creeping forgetfulness:

    “The revolution lives on in the hearts and minds of those who yet believe.”

    “Rock and roll won’t solve all your problems, but it will allow you to sort of dance all over them.” (Pete Townsend)

    “Rock and roll isn’t about preserving your age; it’s about preserving your rebellion.”

    “Hey ho, let’s go.” (Jeffrey Hyman)

  • Brother Boyd- Your outlook here is distended by silly liberal politics. There are plenty of exceptions, but generally politics and music are a bad mix. Music is about emotion expressed through melody, rhythm and harmony. It’s a piss poor way to make a legitimate political argument.

    Generally, the more someone tries to layer on some ideological content, the more the music suffers. Rage Against the Machine are just crap artistically. They put their efforts into political posturing rather than melody writing.

    “For What It’s Worth” and “Ohio” were hits mostly because they’re good, catchy pop songs. This Living With War album was a flop most of all because it just sucked. “Let’s Impeach the President” was marginally decent, but that’s about it.

    Plus, most folks what carry on about liking politics in their music are judging based on extraneous ideological bullshit rather than legitimate musical merit. That’s pretty much the only reason anyone would have ever, ever thought the Dead Kennedys were any good.

    If you want legitimate political expression, then read a book.

    Here are a few really sharp political songs that don’t happen to be leftwing sentiments. Try them on for size:
    I’m No Communist Grandpa Jones pro-HUAC rant
    Vietnam Blues Dave Dudley singing an evil talking blues written by Kris Kristofferson

  • JC Mosquito

    Is there such thing as silly conservative politics? Do they mix any better with music than silly liberal politics? When Lowell George sang about the sign that flashed “Eat Chop Suey” and “Join the U.S. Marines” in ‘A Apolitical Blues,’ was he really being apolitical?

    Grandpa Jones may not have been a communist, but he was a hillbilly. Does that make his sentiment any more or less valid? He was also an entertainer and knew how to play his audience – same question – he knew which side of the bread had the butter.

    Dave Dudley’s most famous song is about a truck – which may or may not qualitfy him for political rant.

    I totally agree – music and politics – a bad mix – but perhaps a valid mix for some whose personal politics include a little two step, a little shuffle, and a lotta tap dancing for figurative (and maybe literal) spare change.

  • Uncle Al,

    While I may take up your argument about the musical merit of Rage Against The Machine or Neil Young’s “Living With War” another time — and lets face it, it is all subjective anyway — I will gladly the bait on what music actually means.

    You said it yourself, and I quote:

    “Music is about emotion expressed through melody, rhythm and harmony.”

    Absolutely correct.

    And emotion properly defined is all about the expression of feelings, whether they be about love, heartbreak, and relationships or a particularly strong point of view about a certain issue — be it of a personal, or even, yes a political one.

    But going beyond that, I think the best music is often a reflection of it’s time, place, and culture — and in some cases, it can actually define it. Thats why hearing a song like “FWIW” or “Ohio” (interesting we are talking about that song on this, the anniversary of the Kent State tragedy), evokes the strong images that it does.

    Another group that did a decent job of defining it’s time was the Beatles. Last night I watched the movie “Across The Universe” for the first time, and being the liberal softie that I am, I was damn near moved to tears by it. The story was pretty much your basic Romeo & Juliet sort of tragic love fable, but when framed against those Beatles songs and the turbulent times of the sixties, it just really resonated with me.

    As I said in the article, we are living in equally turbulent times right now, and I just find it interesting that not that many artists have picked up the clarion call. Indeed, political sentiments aside, these are times that demand a soundtrack.

    And I just don’t think Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” is it.


  • “It’s a piss poor way to make a legitimate political argument.”

    Not like a puppet movie, right? Since you have repeatedly proven you have no good sense when it comes to rock and roll, Al, your assessment about RATM carries no weight.

    “This Living With War album was a flop”

    Based on what criteria? All it has to do is make its money back as is it is the music business (emphasis on the latter), so feel free to post the link to the page on your site that details the accounting.

  • Ruvy

    I’m going to leave the bunch of you to argue over whose judgment of music is best. Music was always my cousin David’s medium, not mine. But given that this article has a distinctly political slant, I feel qualified to comment a bit.

    Like you, Glen, I lived through the era of “radical” music, though at the time, it did not seem radical at all to me. The 1967 tune “For What It’s Worth” is an example of what I’m getting at. If I didn’t know that the tune was from 1967, I could have easily thought it was a protest song about the deaths at Kent State, when a man with a gun indeed brought people down, and suddenly, “knowing what was going down” was of primary importance.

    There were a whole series of strikes at universities after Kent State and two campuses at the City University where I attended were closed down for the rest of the semester. I was on the “steering committee” (remember those?) for the strike at Lehman College and “knowing what was going down” meant knowing who was being arrested, who was coming in as an agent provocateur from the Feds, how were kids to be fed at school if they didn’t bring their own food, what “revolutionary classes” were being held, etc., etc….

    And talk about paranoia….

    Those were the good old “innocent” days, Glen. You’re sure you want them back?

    Getting people fired up about revolution is what we need to do here in Israel today, but folks have to understand that getting involved can cost them their lives – you know, like at Kent State?

    For what it’s worth, anyway….

  • For the most part, mainstream music has lacked any meaningful vigor for a while now. The one exception is industrial music, which is still bucking the system and shaking things up. But that’s not a genre that’s in the spotlight, so there isn’t much mass sway there.

    Great article, and you bring up a lot of important points.