What Are Your Rock Stars Going to Say?

We only promised you a raised fist, not the revolution it was a symbol of

American Fist (Image: ClipArt)

(Note: This is not from an actual Rock Star, but It could be.)

I am a Rock Star. Maybe I am your favorite rock star, or maybe just one who is as familiar to you as your favorite brand of breakfast cereal, or your least favorite late-night host. For decades I have played stadiums and arenas; my words and music span your life, they are the mnemonic for all your great and small moments. And at this extraordinary time in the arc of our republic, I share this thought with you:  

Today, we are all the fathers of daughters. Every one of us who has a heart and a conscience, we are all fathers of daughters. And tonight, the daughter amongst us who is furthest away from the assistance and resources they need, the daughter in America who shakes in fear of the future…she sleeps under our roof, too. 

Then I remember: Who am I kidding? My daughter, the child of a billionaire (or maybe they’re just the child of a multi-hundred millionaire, I’m afraid to check my stocks), will always have access to abortion, as the daughters of privilege always have, since long, long before Roe v. Wade. And those words that open this message? I would never release such a statement, never, for this simple reason: As much as a I am titan in my field, a giant whose commercial prowess and artistic credibility strides across two centuries, I still live in terror of the marketplace. Sooner or later, I will once again stomp across the wide stages of arenas and stadiums, and very likely charge my fans a thousand dollars or more for the privilege of watching me. And although I do not need that money, that terror of rocking the boat, that fear of alienating my fanbase or the promoters, is so deep inside of me that no swollen bank account, no plethora of houses, horses, cars or boats can assuage it. That terror of offending the consumer, the potential purchase of the goods I peddle, is intrinsic to me. That terror is me. 

I am not proud of that terror, but as a taxpayer, that terror has grown with the size of my income. You would think that wealth and comfort would make it diminish, but the exact opposite is true. Introduce me to a rich man who will forego or jeopardize the easy money of the future, and I will introduce you to someone who never had the mettle to become rich in the first place. 

As one of the very, very few names in pop music with such mainstream cross-political, cross-generational, cross-class appeal that I could legitimately sway public opinion, I hold great responsibility in my hand. But I have never really used that power. True, I have sent out a tweet here and there, and back in the day before you could make really big money in this game (I mean the eight and nine figure paydays you can make now), I played a couple of benefits for liberal causes or Democratic candidates.

But when it came to taking any action that might actually sway an election or impact the lives of your daughters (as stated, mine will be just fine), I have always been stalked by that terror: that terror of losing one fan, of somehow preventing even one person from putting their Visa card down to buy a ticket or buy a book.  

I genuinely apologize for how inseparable I am from this terror, but I fear that if a little dirt falls from the ground underneath me, the whole mountaintop comes down. I am not proud of this, but I want you to understand that this terror is me. 

And it’s not just me. This terror is within virtually all my colleagues. I have never met a rock star who didn’t have that fear. As I said, if they don’t have this fear, they are probably playing clubs and theatres instead of arenas and stadiums. They are probably Steve Earle. And Steve Earle doesn’t have my bills to pay, does he? Or maybe they’ve really taken it too far and they’re Victor Jara. See, as you will soon find out, there is no greater paper tiger than the millionaire rock star who poses as a working-class hero. There is no greater paper tiger than the Woodstock Generation, who so utterly confused the right to grow their hair and piss off their parents with the right to use their numbers and their influence as consumer to legitimately impact power. There is no greater paper tiger than the person who believes singing “Imagine no possessions” brings us one fraction of an eyelash hair closer to a world where there is economic equality. 

That’s the thing about rock stars. They will let you down again and again because we represent the visual style of the forward progression of rights, not the actual progression. I mean, Tom Hayden or Bill Kunstler looked like Social Studies teachers, not revolutionaries, but they got stuff done. It’s not our fault that you have confused style with action, again and again and again. That really isn’t our fault. We only promised you a raised fist, not the revolution it was a symbol of. If you thought singing about a white riot was the same as actually staging one, well, that’s on you, not me. 

Now it’s time to really see who provides resources and who just shouts slogans. And a tweet is not a resource. Money (and I mean real money — keep in mind even the lesser amongst us make far more in a night than you make in a year, and I make more in a night than your parents made in a lifetime), boycotts, aggressive voter registration, actual direction to resources…that’s the real thing. And you are about to see who is terrified for our country, and who is terrified of the marketplace. 

You will probably find this out: You have been had. 

I have no plans to change that. I will spend my money and use my power to build a higher wall around Xanadu, not help you breach the walls of oppression. Oh, and every now and then I’ll mumble something appropriately rousing from the stage to fool you. And virtually all my colleagues feel the same. Not all, but most. We dare not jeopardize a single million-dollar payday in a red state, or even a $50,000 payday in a red state. We know an entire tour, one that could reap us fifty or 100 million dollars, could be jeopardized by taking too strong a stand for the sake of our daughters (not my daughter, of course, but you know what I mean). Oh, and there’s this, and do not underestimate this factor: I can now make a quarter of a billion – that’s billion with a “b” – from selling my publishing; and let’s put it this way, the people who own some of the companies paying big money for our song publishing aren’t exactly taking Rachel Maddow for cocktails, if you know what I mean. So I have to be careful, right? You get that, right? 

The terror of the marketplace is gigantic. To paraphrase Brecht, every day I go to the market where souls are bought and sold. I am fortunate enough to line up with the buyers. After all, I am a Rock Star. 

 

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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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