How current events highlight the utter impotency of Rock and Pop
The crisis in the Ukraine underlines the complete and total impotence of American rock and pop.
We are speechless at the horror and heroism we see on television and our phones, this apocalypse that reduces lives and freedom to rubble, restart and Armageddon reckoning. Nevertheless, we have no actual expectation that music, the force that defined our own social evolution, will actually play any part in rallying resources or resistance. We’ve given up on that, haven’t we?
We grew up under the mistaken belief that rock somehow fought for our rights, or would do so in a crisis, anyway. Think of all those fist-pumping songs we wagged our jaws to! This was a leaky shelter, always, wallpapered with easily reproduced anarchy signs and peace symbols, doodled naively on notebooks. Thanks to the process of utterly idiotic magical thinking, we believed that chanting “Give Peace a Chance” would actually increase the chances for peace one one-thousandth of one eyelash width. The real world laughed at us, and went about their cruel business.
VIDEO: John and Yoko “Give Peace A Chance”
Unmasking this paper tiger, this impotent liar we grew up believing in, barely makes any difference. After all, any real activism is being motivated, fueled, and informed by social media. We no longer even pretend that rock and pop can change the world. That myth, on life support for a generation or three, was declared dead when the Talent Show era began during the first decade of this century. That’s when pop finally admitted it was nothing at all but a platform for imitation, cheap emotion, and instafame.
Rock ‘n’ Roll, you were born of such promise: You were the sound of America’s disenfranchised, made electric. You were the melody and rhythm of slaves and their descendants, tenement dwellers and coalminers, the creation of willing and unwilling immigrants. Those who had nothing summoned and shaped you, and you shook the world. But we ultimately learned that it was easier to draw anarchy signs and shout slogans then it was to actually put this extraordinary object to work, to use these extraordinary songs, this extraordinary energy, and this extraordinary legacy to inspire picket lines, voting rights, free elections.
Why use this amazing electric art form to fight gerrymandering when we can use it to sell a T-shirt and make Jimmy Fallon giggle? Who needs Woody Guthrie, Jon Langford, and Chuck D when we’ve got Dave Grohl? After all, for our entire lives, Rock ‘n’ Roll has caused generation after generation to confuse the right to piss off your parents and annoy that guy/girl who likes that other type of music with the right to fight for anything actually meaningful.
It was not always this way. There was a moment when it changed.
VIDEO: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and others perdkrm “Eyes On The Prize” at the 1963 March on Washington
Note this: On August 28, 1963, a quarter of a million Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to advocate, with volume and grace, for the civil and economic rights of Black Americans. A number of major pop stars appeared at this event, making a strong statement, saying I am with you, and my generation is with you. Bob Dylan sang. Peter, Paul and Mary (major hitmakers at the time) sang. Joan Baez sang. Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, and Odetta sang. And this was not necessarily an extraordinary moment. In many ways these performers were just continuing a tradition of activism and awareness that was built into the DNA of rock and pop music. It was implied in its roots; it had been used by Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, the Carter Family, Josh White, Jimmie Rodgers and many others to tell the news (think of all those old country songs about floods, fires, illness, and strikes). Three chords and the truth, and all the news that’s fit to sing. Rock ‘n’ Roll was born of discrimination and segregation, social, economic, and political exclusion. That is the parents, the aunts and uncles, of even the most superficial pop bullshit. This is why even when the Treniers sing about cough syrup, or the Rivingtons howl Papa Oom Mow Mow, it’s political. “Ba-dang-a-dang-dang Ba-ding-a-dong-ding Blue Moon” is sung by people who would have been murdered if they sat at the wrong lunch counter, and that makes it a political song, dammit.
Fast forward to 1969: Half a million young Americans gather in Bethel New York for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. At this same moment, 250 Americans–Americans who were the same age as the people flopping around in the mud in Bethel–were dying every week at Vietnam. With that in the news, on their mind, in their hearts, did the performers in Bethel make use of this army of youth in front of them? Did they put down their damp acoustic guitars long enough to convince half a million boys and girls to March to nearby Albany and take over the state capitol and burn every draft card? No. They played them songs about fucking Animal Crackers and Lady Finger’s fucking sunlight splatters. Truth: at Woodstock, Woody Guthrie’s son sat in front of this amazing mob and sang them a song about his coke dealer. Man, can you imagine having that kind of army at your disposal and playing them songs about your fucking coke dealer? Fucking idiots.
VIDEO: Arlo Guthrie performs “Coming Into Los Angeles” at Woodstock 1969
Likewise, a few months later the Rolling Stones played at Altamont. And only six years after the March on Washington, at a massively attended counter-culture event, security hired by the Rolling Stones murdered an African American because his girlfriend was white. (Important note: The Stones hired that security on the advice of the Grateful Dead, an act that regularly assembled armies of young people to do absolutely nothing but congratulate each other on how rebellious they were.)
What the hell happened? I’ll tell you what the hell happened, and you are not going to like the answer.
The Beatles happened.
Undeniably, the Beatles absolutely re-set the template for the sound and the look of rock and pop music. The industry was reshaped by the Beatles; the profile and idea of rock and pop was reshaped by the Beatles; the whole idea of what it meant to be a band and what young people, as listeners and artists, aspired to was reshaped by the Beatles. They became the template for multiple generations’ concept of what pop music was and how a band and a career could be shaped. An entire industry and an entire gigantic army of consumers stepped into the model created by the Beatles.
But here’s the problem: The Beatles did not have any skin in the game. Through no fault of their own, using music to promote a political and socially activist agenda was not on their radar. Changing the cultural landscape (and, to some degree, the concept of class mobility in the United Kingdom) was one of their targets and achievements; but the social and political matters that were dramatically impacting America in the 1960s was not in any way their concern.
Because the Beatles did not have to contend with the draft, because they did not have to reckon with their (literal) brothers or best mates dying overseas in a morally specious war, they were able to retreat into the dilettantism of spiritualism, the narcissistic exploitation of psychedelia, and the utterly empty nostalgia of music hall. Every now and then they punctuated this highly accomplished and amusing fluffery with a completely meaningless statement about the furor of youth. Can you imagine being the most famous band of the century in the most socially contentious decade of the century, and not making one single relevant statement about the chaos, colonialism, and sexual and racial battlegrounds of the 1960s? (And the only possible meaning of “Revolution” is that revolution means nothing to the Beatles). Can you imagine? My God, even the Beach Boys played in Prague at the height of the revolution there, and had a member choose jail over conscription. The Beatles only fight was with culture and class; race and illegal overseas intervention was of only marginal interest to them (the U.K.’s crises in Algeria and Suez had passed into history when they were just children, and conscription had ended in the UK in 1960, thirteen long and bloody years before it ended in the United States). The Beatles only needed to fight prejudice against long hair, northern accents, and the idea that the English working classes needed to know their place. True, these were significant foes – and the Beatles role in combatting them cannot be underestimated – but it was a very, very different catalog of battles than those challenging young people in the United States. But because the Beatles reset the pop landscape so profoundly on both sides of the Atlantic, they virtually erased the idea that rock and pop could – or should – be used to actively combat political and social ills. America needed its own Beatles. America needed a War Beatles.
VIDEO: John and Yoko on Dick Cavett
The Beatles recast rock and pop as a tool of culture wars, and not as a tool that could inform, inspire, or enlighten the genuinely disenfranchised, or those fearing for their life or freedom. Under their tutelage, fighting for the right to vote became entirely secondary to the fight for the right to grow your hair. And rock and pop never really shook that template.
Even punk, for the most part, underlined this split. As socially important as punk was, as necessary as it was for music to go through a reduction of form and the adoption of a fashion and look that a new generation could call their own, it was largely defined by style, not action. There were exceptions, of course, but by and large punk’s revolution was the revolution of pissing off your parents and the grannies on the street, and that’s not a fucking revolution, that’s just being 16. As a person largely shaped by that era, it pains me to say this, but fighting for the right to dye your hair pink and hate Kansas is vastly different from fighting for a right that really matters. We were taught, from the first moments that the Pistols told us that “giving the wrong time” was actually a political act, that the middle finger was the same as the loaded gun or the picket line. It’s not, it’s not, it’s not.
From the 1964 on, rock and pop affirmed, again and again, it’s role as a flag-waver for stylistic rebellion and attitude, and nearly completely ignored any connection to actual activism. Certainly, some events contradicted this generality: the 1979 No Nukes concert and film was a rare, shining example of musicians aligning themselves with activism in a real and meaningful way; and the same can probably be said of Live Aid, and certainly the English Rock Against Racism movement. But for every RAR or No Nukes, there were ten dozen examples of musicians who shouted rebellion in order to sell t-shirts and records, and did next to nothing to effect change.
This is the house we built, where we have absolutely lost the ability to distinguish between slogan and action. We are fucking idiots, numbed by style. And now we expect nothing of rock and pop, aside from distraction and a flag underneath we can find our peers. We needed a War Beatles, but instead got Woodstock’s army of eunuchs.