When You Mistake The Beatles For Ché, You Get What You Deserve

By believing that singing about working for the clampdown was the same as working against the clampdown, we worked for the clampdown

The Fab 5? (Art: Ron Hart)

We are people of the older generation, raised in suburbs and educated in universities where the hallways echoed with Joy Division and Springsteen, looking uncomfortably to the world we gave our children to inherit.

We are the people who fought parents over haircuts and mistook that for an actual war. The wars we fought in the name of rock ‘n’ roll made us think of ourselves as rebels, as people who took a stance. All around us, the evidence roars: We were grotesquely mistaken. 

We are Americans. Therefore, we love personalities and we love stars, to the exclusion of common sense. This, along with the fact that we came of age during a time that we perceived, mistakenly, as an era of continual upward slope of social, cultural, and spiritual realization, led us to ignore this fact: Trump was a symptom, not a disease. The America he electrified and empowered was always there, we just chose to ignore it, because we were too busy fighting the wrong wars. 

The story of my generation is the extension of teenage vulnerabilities and insecurities into adulthood, and mistaking that for a political and cultural stance. We will deny this, but we respond to the world through the same cultural lens we looked through when we were fourteen: “I am rock ‘n’ roll, that in itself is a statement, and that is enough. Rock ‘n’ roll is not only my distraction, it is my political party, my union, my army, my flag.” We may not even be aware of this, but it is a fact. We mistook our culture for our weapon, for our shield, for our dogma. By believing that singing about working for the clampdown was the same as working against the clampdown, we worked for the clampdown. 

 

VIDEO: The Clash perform “Clampdown” on ABC Fridays

Loving attitudinal music and art is not a stance; it is just a pastime. My god, we confused the two until it was too bloody late. The story of my generation is a profound selfishness and an unwillingness to be inconvenienced; and a sucker’s sensibility that invited us to con ourselves into thinking a slogan or a song could save the Republic. These factors made us so extremely vulnerable to fascism. 

The entire motherfucking trip we have been on since Woodstock, when we began to mistake drugs and sex and the crowds that congregated to do them and hear people sing songs about them for things that had actual fucking meaning, is an invitation to fascism. Woodstock was our Pearl Harbor, only we surrendered immediately. Our rock ‘n’ roll culture was a motherfucking paper tiger, educated white people mistook style for action again and again and again, until it was too fucking late: As stated, Trump is a symptom, not a disease, and when the disease was spreading we thought it was enough to listen to and quote Public Enemy; and we misunderstood, again and again, that simply singing from the ‘man of the people’ perspective is NOT the same as dispensing advice or taking risk. 

In other words: Ladies and Gentleman, when you mistake the Beatles for Ché you get what you deserve. 

We not only left this door ajar but wrote a note on the fucking door with our bank codes on it. I believe this is due to this thing I shall call Seinfeldism: When television reflects your values back at you (as it did for much of the last quarter of the 20th century), it’s easy to think everything is hunky dory A-Ok! How bad can things be, man, if Seinfeld sounds just like us?!? 

Seinfeld was motherfucking opium, man, it kept you quiet and made you think winning the culture wars was enough. All your kids shopping at Hot Topic had the same damn effect. 

 

VIDEO: Seinfeld “The Rye Clip”

It wasn’t. You retreated to your cities, to your cars, to rooms full of songs that made you feel both safe and engaged.

Recently, I was driving away from the sunset, and the car was full of a golden, dusky light, like my happiest memories from the crib. And at that moment, “Waterloo Sunset” came on the radio, and I thought, “If something like ‘Waterloo Sunset’ exists, how bad can things be?” 

AND THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT IS MOTHERFUCKING WRONG WITH MY GENERATION. We thought because a song could save us, a song could save the world. A song can elate us, even inspire us, and certainly provide us with a mnemonic for our emotions and our empathy. But the moments of grace music provides, however personally profound they may be, did not save our world. Loving rock ‘n’ roll, even rock ‘n’ roll that shouted all the right slogans and supported all the correct issues, did not save our world. It did not, face it, and face it hard.

And the best thing a song can do is provide genuine instruction; that is, a song can be the focal point for a rally, it can provide specific information. But most of the songs our generation loved were statements, descriptions, or complaints, not instructions. I’m not saying we all should have been storming the ramparts, but we have to recognize that the cultural hills we chose to die on were beyond meaningless; beautiful, entertaining, distracting, but of absolutely no consequence (or very, very little) politically. Think of a singer or a song you absolutely adore, or think of eighteen of them; then tell me, did that song change someone’s vote? Did that song strengthen a union? Did that song pass a law that made it harder to abuse a transgender person? Did that song remind you, in a way that stirred you to action, that there were three bodies buried in the Mississippi Mud? 

Look at rock ‘n’ rollers, look at us. Our ambitions and goals were so childish, so based in teenage fantasy that we chose to remain virtually inert and powerless when the streaming revolution chose to cut the artist out of the economic chain. In any other business, the supplier of the material being purchased would have figured out a way to get paid, and/or gone on strike, and/or engaged a powerful union to demand that they get a fair or reasonable share of the profits; but for musicians, oh, it was enough just to scrape a little dust off of the soapstone of fame. So it is no wonder that an entire effing generation that perceives itself via the platform of rock ‘n’ roll and its cultural and stylistic symbols should also settle for such powerlessness. 

Because we declared victory in the cultural wars, we abdicated from assuming any greater risk. Even worse, we confused being a spectator with being an actor. We have grown extraordinarily and sadly accustomed to our stars shouting, singing, or tweeting slogans that are grabbed lustily by the outstretched hands of the already converted, and somehow thinking that the performer has “taken a stance.” A stance, a slogan, is meaningless unless it either comes from a source that the unconverted might actually respect, or is taken by someone willing to withstand the ire of the unconverted. 

And here I note what I fear is inevitable in this sort of rant: There are, likely, half a dozen (or possibly less) pop stars who could actually shift public opinion in this coming election. And (let us assert and underline) shouting or tweeting a slogan that affirms the already extant opinion of your followers is absolutely, positively not the same as taking an action. A great artist demands the chance to preach to the UNconverted, regardless of the risk. This would be an example of an action: Bruce Springsteen spending some of the quarter billion (yes, billion with a “b”) he made on Broadway to take out TV ad time in swing states, and then standing there and looking at the camera and saying, “I am Bruce Fucking Springsteen, it is important that you vote Democratic, and here’s why” (or words to that effect). To do anything less is to be either complicit or cowardly, unless, of course, he does not agree with that sentiment (which is utterly his right). We have reached the stage in the life of this nation where to have the power to change minds and still refuse to act is an act of complicity. I hate every musician who has a constituency of the Democracy-endangered and refuses to act to preserve Democracy. 

It wasn’t always like that. 

There was once a time, not terribly long ago in rock ‘n’ pop terms (where we still luxuriate avidly in thrall of albums made thirty, forty, fifty, sixty years ago), when artists who leaned left or artists who believed that there were statements worth making regularly risked not only their careers but their lives to do so. The Weavers, Paul Robeson, Phil Ochs, even the MC5, not to mention the Fugs, they said, go ahead, send in the goons, send us death threats, black ball us, red-line us; we still sing. Even Elvis, this emblem of the mainstream, emerged as such a radical bisection of influences drawn from different races, ethnicity, and classes that his very existence has to be seen as profoundly challenging and physically dangerous. And this is even without detailing those genuinely willing to lose their freedom and their lives for their songs, like Victor Jara, or the musicians willing to support their sloganeering with actual guerilla action, like Gerry Hannah. 

 

VIDEO: Gerry Hannah “Living With The Lies”

The fact that this species no longer really exists is our fucking fault. We began to accept slogans about action instead of genuine action, and the appearance of risk instead of actual risk. The pop industry burst into full bloom, creating a fantasy that did not exist when Seeger, Guthrie, Geer, or Robeson were young men. Future “rebel” musicians fulfilled rock star fantasies first, the needs of a cause second (this model did not exist when Seeger and Guthrie emerged; they were drawing on the balladeer tradition, which was based around using song to tell a story or communicate news and information). And honestly, though this may sound extreme, I think one of the reasons the American Left lost the American white working class is because we no longer had performers who risked their tails to stand up and sing in defense of their unions, their wages, their jobs. And universally, we happily and idiotically and destructively mistook songs that described working class life – say, your average Springsteen or Mellencamp song – for songs that advocated for the rights and dignity of the working man (I here refer you to Pete Seeger’s American Industrial Ballads collection, which freaking Springsteen should have covered YESTERDAY). Once again, empathy is all well an’ good, but it should not be confused with empowerment, or with risk. 

Mostly, I think, we got swept away by a wide-scale form of Seinfeldism: Assuming that because people on TV sounded “like” us, and because mumbling nihilist heroes emerged from the same saloons we did, the whole nation had changed. Who needs artists to risk bullets when the whole world luvvvvs Central Perk and Nurrrvana? Didn’t that mean we won? Seriously, man. Because that element of style – not to mention all that freaking pink hair and tattoos – was in all those living rooms, we assumed everyone was us. Hah-haw, says Nelson. Secondarily, we were ruined by Woodstock: We assumed the prevalence of longhairs and counter-cultural sentiment had some actual political meaning. But one only needs to look at what happened in the world since August of 1969 (another half decade of the Vietnam War, the reelection of Nixon, the twice-election of Reagan, the willingness of those in power to ignore the AIDS crisis, not only the perpetuation of the myth of the renascent CSA and its’ values but the rise in its’ power, and on and on and on – all long before Trump) to know that Woodstock-ism, Punk Rock, and the plastic soul of rock ‘n’ roll itself (which allowed us to dress as rebels while reinforcing the status quo) was not only a paper tiger, but actually something worse: It made us think that action was being taken, that change was underfoot, when none actually was. It created the impression of change because we mistook cultural and stylistic change – the right to grow hair, dye hair, and tattoo our bodies – for actual change. And because we looked out into our world and we saw Seinfeld and the Clash, we thought, ah, all is well, we must have won. 

The right has to love rock ‘n’ roll because it sapped us of our power. It was an utter time waster, a distraction; like Seinfeld, the prevalence of good rock ‘n’ roll fooled us into thinking the world was like us, and the world had changed. 

It didn’t. That’s why we are in this mess. 

Because we grew up under the stinking shadow of Woodstock, a million flowers without the poison of power, we grew up thinking winning the cultural wars was the same as winning the war for America’s egalitarian soul. 

We were wrong. 

The right is not a viper in our midst. We were a paper tiger in theirs. 

 

VIDEO: Pete Seeger: The Power of Song

 

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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 has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

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