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Why The Conservative Songs Were Bad Choices

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I know it is silly to label songs or artists as “liberal” or “conservative” but since John Miller of the National Review Online started this debate I’ll take the bait.

A variety of other people have also responded to the list from Pete Blackwell here at Blogcritics to Pete Townshend of the Who  – who had the #1 song but was not crazy about the selection – to the Proclaimers, who were amused by having one of their songs picked.

At first I thought this was a joke. Maybe it’s a desperate attempt for one or more conservatives to appear hip and cool. Seriously, how can anyone in their right mind consider ANY songs by the Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger or The Clash as conservative?

But when I saw the story about the list in the New York Times I knew this piece by Miller, National Review Online’s national political reporter, was serious. John Miller responded to the reaction by adding a few thoughts and then listing 50 more conservative songs. Blackwell responded to that list too.

Miller laughingly complained about rock critic Dave Marsh calling the list “a desperate effort by the right to co-opt popular culture.” Miller responds: “In other words: The 62 million Americans who voted for President Bush’s re-election don’t actually participate in the creation and consumption of pop culture, but we steal it and twist it in dastardly ways.”

To which I say, “What? I don’t remember there being anything on the ballot about the Who, the Sex Pistols or music at all? What does George Bush have to do with rock music?”

The whole polarizing piece by Miller reminds me of the time President Reagan referenced Bruce Springsteen during one of his speeches. He seemed to have no idea about the true meaning of the songs on Born In the USA, which was not exactly an endorsement of the conservatives' position on Vietnam.

My thoughts on some of the selections:

1. “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” by The Who
The only way this song is conservative is that conservatives repeatedly voted for Bush (senior and junior) and then were dismayed by his decisions. Yes, they got fooled again. Incidentally Pete Townsend says that this song is neither a conservative song nor a liberal song. And he should know since he helped write it.

2. “Taxman,” by The Beatles
Miller uses this song as an attempt to get on a soapbox and suggest only conservatives oppose taxes. That’s simply not true. That’s like suggesting only conservatives oppose crime and support law enforcement.

3. “Sympathy for the Devil,” by The Rolling Stones
Well, I agree with this one. How else can you explain Dick Cheney and Karl Rove still being part of the White House administration?

4. “Sweet Home Alabama,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Sure, if the conservatives want to claim this song, a favorite tune of those who are sad the south lost the Civil War, then they can go right ahead and have it.

5. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” by The Beach Boys
Miller says this song is about marriage and being pro-abstinence. This song reminds me of John Lennon’s “Imagine” in that both are what-if scenarios. But I don’t suppose the National Review wants to be associated with any song with the word peace in it.

6. “Gloria,” by U2
Saying U2 intentionally wrote a conservative song is about as silly as suggesting the same about the Sex Pistols (“Bodies,” #8), Metallica (“Don’t Tread on Me,” #9) or Bob Dylan (“Neighborhood Bully,” #12.) The Dylan song is chosen, Miller said, because it is pro-Israel. Again, why is that a solely conservative stance? Are there no liberals who support Israel?

7. “Revolution,” by The Beatles
Miller writes:

"You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world . . . Don’t you know you can count me out?” What’s more, Communism isn’t even cool: “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow. (Someone tell the Che Guevara crowd.)

The Beatles would be saying, “Count me out” on the Iraq war. (Someone should tell the pro Iraq war crowd.)

13. “My City Was Gone,” by The Pretenders
Miller writes:

Virtually every conservative knows the bass line, which supplies the theme music for Limbaugh’s radio show. But the lyrics also display a Jane Jacobs sensibility against central planning and a conservative’s dissatisfaction with rapid change: “I went back to Ohio / But my pretty countryside / Had been paved down the middle / By a government that had no pride."

But wait a minute – that sounds like a cry for controlled growth, which is more often a liberal position than a conservative one. Miller can’t have it both ways.

14. “Right Here, Right Now,” by Jesus Jones
Miller writes:

The words are vague, but they’re also about the fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War: “I was alive and I waited for this. . . . Watching the world wake up from history.”

Since when are conservatives the only ones who want peace, who want walls to come down between countries?

18. “Cult of Personality,” by Living Colour

Miller writes: A hard-rocking critique of state power, whacking Mussolini, Stalin, and even JFK: “I exploit you, still you love me / I tell you one and one makes three / I’m the cult of personality.” You think Reagan, along with other gods of the Republican party, did not also have a cult of personality??

23. “Brick,” by Ben Folds Five
Miller writes:

Written from the perspective of a man who takes his young girlfriend to an abortion clinic, this song describes the emotional scars of “reproductive freedom”: “Now she’s feeling more alone / Than she ever has before. . . . As weeks went by / It showed that she was not fine.”

Because this song deals with abortion, somehow that makes it anti-abortion? That’s quite a stretch. The songwriter himself has said the song is not taking a position on the abortion issue.

33. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” by The Rolling Stones
Miller writes: “You can “[go] down to the demonstration” and vent your frustration, but you must understand that there’s no such thing as a perfect society — there are merely decent and free ones."  Well, this choice makes sense: Republicans say they want smaller government but then Bush took the United States to war and into deficit. Sing with me, “You can’t always get what you want…”

38. “I Can’t Drive 55,” by Sammy Hagar
Miller writes: “A rocker’s objection to the nanny state." This is too funny. I don’t even need to show how stupid this choice is. Or do I? This would imply that the conservatives are in favor of speeding and driving recklessly.

43. “Wonderful,” by Everclear

Miller writes:

A child’s take on divorce: “I don’t wanna hear you say / That I will understand someday / No, no, no, no / I don’t wanna hear you say / You both have grown in a different way / No, no, no, no / I don’t wanna meet your friends / And I don’t wanna start over again / I just want my life to be the same / Just like it used to be.”

Again, this suggests that liberals are, what, soft on divorce? Liberals are pro-dysfunctional family? Am I also to believe there are no conservative dysfunctional families that are not divorced?

My responses to some of his other 50 songs:

“Alive,” by P.O.D.
Miller writes: “An expression of Christian faith by a super-hip band.”  I guess only conservatives are Christians. That's news to non-conservative Christians.

“Back in the U.S.A.,” by Chuck Berry

Miller writes: "A patriotic rock song: “Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway? / From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay / You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U.S.A." This is getting tiresome. On every issue Miller seems to have decided that conservatives are morally superior and therefore a song about missing the United States, i.e. patriotism, must be conservative.

“Date Rape,” by Sublime

He writes:

Many liberals probably think this song blames the victim; conservatives will see it offering a bit of common sense: “The moral of the date rape story / It does not pay to be drunk and horny.”

Really? I don't know anyone who thinks the song blames the victim. I think Miller is playing the rape card and trying again to suggest that liberals are soft on crime.

“Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds

He writes:

Originally written by Pete Seeger and sometimes interpreted as anti-war, the words are taken from Ecclesiastes and announce that to everything there is a season, including “A time to cast away stones / A time to gather stones together” and “A time of war, a time of peace / A time of love, a time of hate / A time you may embrace / A time to refrain from embracing.

You have got to be kidding! So a song written and performed by anti-war activist Pete Seeger, and often played in anti-war rallies, is actually conservative because that's how this writer interprets it?

I could go on but I won’t because this is crazy. I usually avoid lists but this one was so stupid, so polarizing, that I just had to point out how incredibly dumb and bad some of the choices are.

Lastly here are my three nominations for conservative songs:

1. "Opportunities (Let's Make a Lot of Money)" by Pet Shop Boys
A great summary of capitalism and fun to dance to.

2. "It's Hip to Be Square" by Huey Lewis

Some conservatives should embrace their inner squares instead of fighting it by writing lists like this.

3. "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" by Toby Keith


Oh, justice will be served and the battle will rage:
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage.
An' you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.
'Cos we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way.

An excellent summary about why residents of other countries despise the United States' arrogance.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • “An expression of Christian faith by a super-hip band.”

    P.O.D. was never hip, let alone super-hip.

  • I’m sorry who uses the word “hip”? Only the deeply un-hip.

  • I’m not the biggest Sammy Hagar fan, but I like that pick.

    I also agree with his view of “Back In The USA.” I would expect a conservative and/or capitalist to praise things like skyscrapers and freeways more than a liberal would.

    Help – I’m turning into Ayn Rand!

  • So, why is this “conservative rock” list so important?

    Will we see a list of random conservative songs in the future?

    Besides, the list is bogus. The most conservative songs are?

    Anything by Bush. Thank you, try the veal.

  • JR

    I Can’t Drive 55: “A rocker’s objection to the nanny state.”

    Yes, it is. Why don’t “liberals” object to the Nanny State?

    I don’t even need to show how stupid this choice is. Or do I?

    ‘Fraid so.

    This would imply that the conservatives are in favor of speeding and driving recklessly.

    This would imply that people who are pro-choice are in favor of unsafe sex and abortion. It would imply that those who want to decriminalize drugs are in favor of addiction and overdoses. It would imply that those who oppose censorship are in favor of hate speech and pornography.

    Oh wait, no it wouldn’t.

    You’ve got a good start on your own list, though. How ’bout “One in a Million” by G’n’R?

  • R. D. Hobbs

    “So a song written and performed by anti-war activist Pete Seeger, and often played in anti-war rallies, is actually conservative because that’s how this writer interprets it?”

    Smartest sentence out of this critique and out of any article about this topic really. Here’s the truth artists (or anyone who disagrees or agrees with this list): once your art is out there, it’s open for interpretation. And any song, based on when and who hears it, can mean just about any damn thing. For an example see “Every Breath You Take” by the Police.

  • Yeah, let’s see more important topics like baseball stories before the all-star break.

    Open for interpretation does not mean all interpretations are correct. My favorite moment at a wedding is the inappropriate song when some fool uses “Every Breath You Take” or “One” or “Something” because they like the sentiment of line and don’t know what the whole song is about.

  • Mohjho

    “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” by The Rolling Stones
    Um…Anybody else know this ripped off line from the Hermann Hesse’s book, “Steppenwolf”?

    In the book, cocain is involved.
    Yea, thats conservative.

  • Scott Butki

    Thanks for the comments and feedback. I’ll add more tomorrow.

  • Another one for the conservative list – “Born To Be Alive” by Patrick Hernandez. That good old 70s disco hit. It’s pro-life, yeah? It must be, based on the title.

    Oh, and I guess “F*ck the Police” by Public Enemy is a conservative song because it advocates having sex with law enforcement officers. They’re so bonkable because of their profession, after all.

    I love Miller’s comments on “Winds of Change”, “Janie’s Got A Gun” and “Stay Together for the Kids”. Perhaps his interpretations reflect what he wishes the songs were about?

    Eh, who am I to criticise: he writes for a living – surely he must be doing something right but analysing rock songs is clearly not his forte.

  • * At least he didn’t use Born in the USA.

    * Turn! Turn! Turn! by the Byrds really is anti-war. It deliberately amends Ecclesiastes to emphasize peace (I swear it’s not too late!) over war.

    Conservative and Republican are **not** the same thing! Another issue at work here is that there are several definitions of “conservative”. And politically, it means slightly different thinks in the USA, UK and other countries.

    To me the two main connotations are “conservative policy goals tend towards libertarianism but not as radical” and “conservative persons have tradditional social values” (and so this aspect is anti-progressive). These are two seperate concepts that may or may not be combined in any individual person.

    Some possibly conservative values can in fact be found in these songs — ignoring their context within the song or the context of the song or artist perhaps — but none of them have anythnig to do with Republican party policy.

  • 2. “Taxman,” by The Beatles
    Miller uses this song as an attempt to get on a soapbox and suggest only conservatives oppose taxes. That’s simply not true. That’s like suggesting only conservatives oppose crime and support law enforcement.

    You know, I hit the links you provided, and found Miller and the whole enterprise silly, but you’ve gone and joined him in the silly department. Tell me about the “liberals” who oppose crime and support law enforcement, ’cause I’d like to meet me some.

  • Wow. Scott Butki sure comes across a little angry here doesn’t he? Imagine those horrible neo-cons stealing from the Beatles! Let me tell you, you bad old conservatives, The Beatles would never support your dirty old Iraq war!

    Scott doesn’t sound at all like someone who wants to discuss the other side of an arguement, he just sounds shrill and whiney.

    By the way, Won’t Get Fooled Again works quite well as a conservative song. The line: “The parting on the left is now the parting on the right…” is quite prophetic. Don’t worry Pete, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.

  • Independent vs. statist would be a better dichotomy.

  • Joey

    I Can’t Drive 55: “A rocker’s objection to the nanny state.”

    I disagree. This is obviously directed at authority.

    Objection to the “nanny state” would be something like…. “I can’t wear my seat belt and I’ve disconnected the airbag, momma”.

  • Scott Butki

    Reed, yes, conservatives and republicans are different things. But the National Review has been pretty solid in being both pro-conservative and pro-Republican. So when Miller endorses a song as conservative I think he also means Republican.

    Nicholas, as a voter and a reporter I’ve covered many elections and I have yet to meet any candidate who says he or she is for crime and against law enforcement.
    Republicans and conservatives love to paint liberals and Democrats that way but show me where a bunch of them have made votes that fit that description.

    Snark, I love your f the police comment. That’s the wittiest thing I read today.

    El Bicho and others –
    The comments about interpreting being ok but not neccesarily are spot on.
    I have always thought the author of a piece – be it the Proclaimers or
    Pete Townsend – would know what it means better than, say, a politics reporter.

  • Scott Butki

    Any further thoughts on these songs?

  • Steve

    Frankly, the more political an artist sounds on either side of the spectrum, the less I enjoy their music. If they really think their politics are so hot, they should become politicians themselves and show them how it’s done! Whining about it in song just doesn’t sound good.

    Re. interpretation, if an artist has taken sides publicly during elections, then it’s only fair to assume their songs might lean the same way politically. Otherwise though, it seems to me alot of artists prefer that their songs DON’T have a single interpretation, in the hopes that more people will buy their music.

    Re. these songs, frankly, thinking about them on a political level would completely spoil them for me (at least the ones I like, which number maybe 3 or 4 on this list), so I’m not gonna try!