Dear Rock ‘n’ Roll: It Is Time To Act

The vote needs to be rocked again, now more than ever

Courtesy of American Recordings (PRNewsFoto/Universal Music Enterprises)

We fear torchlight parades in a way we would never fear a Facebook post.

Social media provides a false sense of community. The immediate response factor makes us think that our outrage is being reacted to and acted on. There is a statement! There is my agreement (or dissent)! Thanks to my thumb, the world spins with a little more justice!

Of course, nothing of the sort is true. Our words go out there in space, with the force of feathers in a storm. They do not frighten the foes of democracy, equality and compassion, and they certainly do not change the world. At best, these blurts of indignation exist as an honest way of allowing us to let off some steam; at worst, they fool us into thinking an action has occurred when nothing of the kind has taken place, thereby inhibiting genuine activism.

Likewise, rock ‘n’ roll is a paper tiger (that is, something that appears to be strong or threatening, but is in fact ineffectual and weak). Our head (and our memories, and the backs of our notebooks, the tape-scarred spaces on our dorm room walls, not to mention the tack-holed corkboard on our cubicles) is full of slogans promising engagement, revolution, resolution, peace, and war. From Buffalo Springfield to the Clash, Jefferson Airplane to Green Day, Sham 69 to Metallica and many, many more, rock ‘n’ roll has promised us White Riot, provided we confine said riot to Hot Topic.


VIDEO: The Clash “White Riot”

The era of social media has grotesquely inflated this distortion between fury and effect, and greatly expanded the audience for the ineffectual leftist outrage of our musical heroes (and everyday pop stars). A simple look at the state of America reveals that all those fist-thumping tweets and righteous shout-outs from all those arena stages amounted to next-to nothing in terms of providing useful tools for engagement and change, or inciting meaningful action.

The left has been conditioned to mistake noise for meaning.

Trumpism comes hand in hand with the implication (both real and imagined) that his supporters will actually show up for a fight, show up with torches, show up with banners, show up to shout “Lock her up.” But the left are afraid to take such action. We mask this fear behind a smug sense of superiority, as if we are somehow above such engagement. Instead, we say, “Will you put your name on this internet petition? Why yes, I will! And I feel so good about myself that I did! And why, just two Sundays ago I shouted at someone at Pier One Imports!”

Musicians, who so very often are in the business of selling the idea of rebellion, who traffic in the absurd paradox of making millions feel they are different by buying the same thing as everyone else, count on the fact that you will think you did something just because you sang along to their little childish anthems. See, the only thing worse than inaction in the face of the rise of fascism is inaction that labels itself action.

Poster for memorial in honor of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner

Almost exactly 55 years ago in Neshoba County, Mississippi, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were brutally murdered when they dared to go to Mississippi to register African Americans to vote. They were 21, 20 and 25 years old. Perhaps that’s the age of your children. Imagine if your children were murdered while handing out flyers for Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris. Stop for a second and consider that.

I note this tragedy not to lecture you on history – or to draw parallels with the current, losing battle to secure voting rights for African Americans in Mississippi and elsewhere – but to note this fact:

Just days before the murder, folksinger Phil Ochs visited Mississippi. He had come as a musician, agitator, activist, and someone who hoped his small fame would draw attention to the catastrophic civil rights violations in Mississippi (and elsewhere in the former CSA). He did this at a time when people were regularly being killed, beaten, and jailed just for trying to protect the voting rights of African Americans. But he came. He played his guitar. He made himself a target, in order to advance a vital cause.


VIDEO: “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” by Phil Ochs

Bob Dylan, the chameleon genius whose insincerity is a constant factor of his art, also showed up in Mississippi to play for the victims of economic and legal oppression. He did so a year before Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner were martyred, but after the murders of Medgar Evers, William Lewis Moore, Paul Guihard, Herbert Lee, Cpl. Roman Ducksworth, Jr., and many others. Other musicians did the same and performed in the same milieu, including Pete Seeger, Nina Simone, and Joan Baez. Let’s underline that, and here’s why:

Men and women who went down south in the early 1960s to assist in the fight for equality were genuinely risking their lives. Corrupt, venal, and terrified southern law enforcement officials (not to mention civilians) eager to defend their racist way of life, ingrained notions of heritage, and skewed idea of justice were as likely to attack northern college students and folk singers preaching ideas of equality as they were to attack and jail protesting or defiant local African Americans.

In order to make a statement and inspire others, these artists who traveled to the south to campaign for basic human rights risked being killed. Killed. Dead forever.

Dear rock ‘n’ roll: Where are your risk-takers? Where are you tonight, when you should be registering voters, when you should be showing solidarity with men and women who may be denied their right to vote on Tuesday, November 3, 2020? Where will you be tomorrow, when you should be standing on the steps of statehouses in the states that want to turn choice into crime? Where is that great march to the charnel grounds at the border, where you protest the abuse of children and refugees, refugees just like your father, grandmother, and grandfather? Why are you orating from a stage or from behind a smartphone, when you could be marching down Main Street?

No Nukes, 1979

Rock ‘n’ roll always had meaning, I mean a deeper meaning, a meaning that told America’s story. That story was the long trail and tale of America’s disenfranchised, set to song, set to rhythm, made electric, made eternal. Yes, rock ‘n’ roll told that story. And I have always wanted rock ‘n’ roll to be worthy of that story.

Once upon a time, musicians were willing to risk their lives – or at least a good beating, or a night in prison – for the idea of defending freedom. Even crass, shape-shifting careerists like Bob Dylan were willing to do this.

Today’s musician believes that tweeting – or throwing out the occasional audience-pleasing leftist slogan at some arena concert where they are as well protected as some mid-century Baltic despot – actually accomplishes something.

It accomplishes nothing. It is a cowardly (rather, courage-less) action that incites and inspires no one, apart from those of us who like to hide behind the self-congratulatory cause onanism of social media posts.

“Did you see?!? At her Barclays Concert, Paris Pierced-Bold of the Nude Eels said something rude about Trump!!!! Wow, she made a difference! And I made a difference by posting this phone video of her saying it! And you made a difference by clicking like! Wow! We are having an orgasm of non-engagement! I have to go get cleaned up now!”

Meanwhile, at rallies all over the country, there are red-hatted Americans who will happily stomp you and your balls and/or ovaries full of your unborn commie fag children if you get in their face.

No one is afraid of you and your click-finger cause onanism. No one.

No one is afraid of the lefty slogans your singers shout, or their angry tweets. No one.

These furious, red-faced episodes of cause onanism pose no threat to the rise of racism, misogyny, homophobia and the potential rise of fascism in our country. These choleric tweets fire wadded-up paper through pathetic plastic straws at the flag-bedecked iron walls being built to abrogate democracy.

We have confused noise for action for so long that we seem unable to recognize that participation involves not only physical presence, but also physical risk.

The MAGA brigade understands this. Why don’t we?

Because we are afraid, or because it is inconvenient.

Every single popular singer who gets huzzahs, hurrahs, likes and re-tweets from their drooling fanbase each time they say something vaguely anti-Trumpian, pro-choice, or pro-immigrant needs to change their strategy entirely…unless, of course, they are only interested in the materialism of leftism, the ability to earn credibility and capital off of the correct political stance.


VIDEO: Rage Against The Machine at the 2000 Democratic Convention


If they mean what they say, their next tweet should read:

Join me as we march to the Georgia Statehouse to demand protection of a women’s constitutional right to choose.

Join me as we march to the Capitol to demand that laws are in place to prevent foreign influence in our elections.  

Join me as we march to the southern border to insist that refugees are human, too, and that those victimized by criminals and anarchy in their homelands who seek a better life do not belong in fetid cages.

Listen, musicians of respect and power:

In order to defend the right of a woman to determine the fate of their own wombs;

In order to protect the right of Americans to go to the polls;

In order to establish that our nation will protect civil and human rights as fiercely as it will protect its borders;

In order to demand that our elected officials and the media understand that there is a difference between as truth and falsehood, and to insist on truth;

In order to protect the essential American freedom, the separation of church and state;

You must be willing to take that step from ethereal engagement to actual engagement.

It is time. It is time to put feet on the ground, not just fingers on the keypad.

We must show our discontent not with the weight of our thumbs but with the weight of our bodies.


VIDEO: Fugazi Gulf War protest concert, January 1991

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He is the author of Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish and has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Learn more at Tim Sommer Writing.

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