An open letter to the new generation of sonic youth
Dear Rock ‘n’ Roll: The world has fallen apart on your watch. Boris Johnson sits at 10 Downing Street, Trump and Stephen Miller in the White House, and great swaths of Europe are falling under the sway of the sort of virulent nationalism that precipitates fascism.
Rock ‘n’ Roll, you did not stop these things! All that shouting, shrieking, fist pumping, jam kick-outing, white rioting, fight-the-powering, it did not prevent the supremacy of ignorance and prejudice. But, yay, we got to wear great clothes and t-shirts!
We have been hypocrites our whole lives. We believed pissing off our parents and giving the finger to our teachers could actually change the world. But the would has fallen to pieces while we were in the mosh pit.
See, this is the last presidential election where Rock ‘n’ Roll could matter.
By the time of the next election, virtually any Rock ‘n’ Roll performers famous enough to raise wads of cash or impact public opinion will have aged beyond their ability to exercise influence. That’s simple math. Also, by 2024 the public profile of Rock ‘n’ Roll in the United States will have been so marginalized by the clickbait culture of Spotify and the ubiquity of shrieking children on paper-thin TV talent shows that no new American Rock ‘n’ Roll artist could conceivably have a high enough public profile make a difference.
(Curiously, it’s different in much of the rest of the world, where plugged-in acts are making a return both to commercial visibility and social relevance.)
Ever since the initial radical experiments in integration and diversity of the 1940s and ‘50s, Rock ‘n’ Roll has essentially been about engagements of style, not political action. By the way, this is why Elvis Is King. Regardless of the way Conservative America adopted him as a totem, Elvis is the essential figure in morphing the customs of white hillbilly and former slave into the clay of modern American culture. It is arguable that no figure, apart from LBJ or MLK, did more to end the detritus of reconstruction’s failure (Elvis was the ideals of reconstruction, personified). But ever since Elvis, Rock ‘n’ Roll confused the right to grow ones’ hair (and later, chop it off and dye it pink) with rights that actually mattered. It told you, again and again, that fighting for fashion meant as much as fighting for freedom of thought, worship, and movement. It equated – disastrously – the barbershop with the constitution.
Rock ‘n’ Roll is one of our saddest paper tigers. Do you know what a paper tiger is? That’s something that appears to be strong or threatening, but is in fact ineffectual and weak. This is Rock ‘n’ Roll, definitively. For generations, people have believed that Rock ‘n’ Roll “stood” for something, and that by endorsing it and adopting its fashions and its slogans, one was fighting the establishment, taking on “the man,” taking part in a revolution. This has all been utter bullshit. We’ve all been had. We chose what elements of the establishment were easy to take on, and ignored challenging the elements that actually required risk.
Listen, I am not condemning Rock ‘n’ Roll in any way, truly. It has saved my life, it has defined my life, it is not only the soundtrack for every dream and desire but the goal of those dreams and desires, too; it frees us from the ordinary, allows us to burst through the crowded halls of expectation; it inspires us to be our truest selves. Nor am I condemning Rock ‘n’ Roll ers, those fortunate enough to have turned their dreams into our obsession. But we wanted to believe that some cute boys shouting “White Riot” actually made something change. We wanted to believe that Bob Dylan singing “Blowing in the Wind” actually ended a war.
We were wrong. Flat-out wrong. I mean, just bloody look around you. Music may have motivated our journey of personal identity, it may have been an essential cog in throwing off the shackles of suburb and parent, but it has failed, utterly, to act as a bulwark against ignorance, fascism, and oppression. Rock ‘n’ Roll , which makes such frequent and dramatic use of rabble-rousing sloganeering, has been virtually a complete washout when it comes to meaningful political action or instruction. Again, I do not want to diminish the emotional or social impact of Rock ‘n’ Roll, but it has succeeded in inspiring people to run to Hot Topic, and failed in inspiring them to storm the Bastille. This is why we turn on the TV and see Simon Cowell and Adam Levine, and not Jon Langford and Steve Earle. Who needs Che, when we have Cher?
Certainly, it can be said that Rock ‘n’ Roll painted a pretty stage set around the idea of sexual, racial and economic equality. Oh, we are Rock ‘n’ Roll, we like those things! But when push came to shove, virtually no American rock or pop artists of any standing whatsoever took any meaningful risks to fight for these rights (we note this is not true in many other countries, where popular musicians regularly risked imprisonment, injury, and loss of livelihood in order to showcase or promote a cause). Yet we are so absolutely bonded to the idea that our rock/pop meant something and stood for something that we cannot see the truth: If all those songs of outrage and individuality had actually meant anything, would we be facing down the greatest threat to civil liberties and personal freedoms of our lifetime?
Artists don’t mind spouting their political opinions in interviews and the self-applauding barking of twitter, and will play a benefit here or there. But the idea of doing anything that might cross a fence and target people on the “other” side or actually risk confrontation seems to be absolutely anathema. We all love to piss off our parents, and we all love to get stared at when we walk into Political Science class with a nose ring, and wow, when we dyed our hair the day before graduation, boy did grandma make a face! And the whole time I walked across that stage to get my diploma with my pink hair I could hear a Clash song playing in my head. Boy, I sure did fight the system. Chances are, your favorite “rebel” rocker thinks exactly like that.
There is one final, slim chance for this to change. Do you hear me? There is one last chance for Rock ‘n’ Roll to make a difference. There is one last chance for the paper tiger idealism of our classic rock heroes to actually grow teeth.
It will require billionaires to take risks. It will require billionaires to act against their wallets. It will require billionaires to act in a way that may incite boycotts, or the sneezing grunts of an angry pundit on Fox. It will require billionaires to think of their daughter’s wombs, and not their daughter’s trust funds. There are a small handful of musicians – one can pretty much count them on one hand – whose opinion actually matters in the swing states. These (mostly) old-school faux working class heroes could literally shift votes by publicly and vocally supporting a candidate, and most importantly, by appearing in the region and stating, “I am your hero, and this is important to me.” So:
Dear Mr. Springsteen, Mr. Mellencamp, and Mr. Bon Jovi: Show up in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas. SHOW UP. Wave your denim’d tushes in front of the uncertain and those who respond ferociously to the cult of personality. Dear Green Day, Dear Taylor Swift: You can open your mouths, you can take a stage, and you can actually change votes. Your actions c9an genuinely impact the water your children and grandchildren drink and the air they will breathe; whether your sons and daughters will be able to marry whom they choose, or have the right not top be fired because of whom they love; and whether your granddaughter can decide whether to terminate a pregnancy due to rape or the intimidation of a clown boyfriend. You can actually make a difference.
But will you? Or are you just going wear the leather jackets and combat boots of rebellion and the torn denims and cowboy boots of Everyman, and not actually take any step to actually change the system, or protect the everyman?
Tweeting is not enough. Tweeting is bullshit. Tweeting changes not one vote. Likewise, striding in perfect bruised jeans across stages in Los Angeles and New York and raising a picturesque fist is not enough. You must go to the stages in the states where people haven’t yet made up their minds, and where your presence, your aura of stardom and power and empathy, might actually affect an opinion.
There is a stage waiting for you. Will you take it? Will you change the world?
(A few sentences from this piece were taken from something I wrote which was published in The New York Observer the day before the 2016 election. Yes, we have looked over this precipice before, smirked, and gone back to listening to Big Star and Van Halen and telling ourselves how cool we are.)
VIDEO: Rage Against The Machine play the 2000 Democratic National Convention