This Song Ain't the Same
One of the disgusting side effects of the corporatization of American culture, especially as it affects the music industry, is how authentic voices of protest in the artistic community have been marginalized and silenced.
Everyone remembers how the Dixie Chicks were ostracized by the country music industry at the peak of their fame after lead singer Natalie Maines' comment from the stage in a concert in London: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." In a flash, the right-wing media Wurlitzer sprung into action, instantly conflating criticism of the president with criticizing the troops, and after that, the nation and the flag itself. Über-conservative and Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich said, in the space of three paragraphs, "The Dixie Chicks may be entitled to their opinion, but for them to give aid and comfort to the enemy when we are on the edge of war is just outrageous . . . I guess there is no loyalty to this country any more."
Come the end of the following year, right before the November 2004 elections, there was still a lot of sentiment that any artists critical of the administration just need to "shut up and sing," as the Chicks' put it in a recent documentary film. Standing in the parking lot outside of the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia before the Vote For Change concert featuring REM and Bruce Springsteen, I heard one loud Springsteen fan opining to his bemused (and apparently liberal) friends about how he didn't support the message of the tour, he just wanted to see Springsteen. His friends pointed out the irony that the whole point of the tour was to raise money to get out the vote to get George W. Bush out of office, and their friend's money was going to support that effort.
Bruce Springsteen has never been a stranger to seeing the effects of pop music on the political culture. In 1984, he had to send a message to Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign that he didn't appreciate their attempts to appropriate his anthemic "Born in the USA" for its purposes, and oh, by the way, did any staffers ever actually listen to the song? It wasn't exactly the romping paean to American greatness that they thought it was, for one thing.
I recall reading in a newspaper during the heart of the Iran-Contra scandal about how Oliver North's secretary Fawn Hall attempted to use her newfound infamy to garner an audience backstage with the Boss, only to have a curt message returned with a rebuff: Springsteen didn't vote for her boss, was a Democrat, and didn't have any time for anyone who tried to subvert the Constitution with extralegal foreign policy operations.
Fast forward to today, and if you listen to the radio, it's hard to tell that America is in year four of a gigantic losing quagmire our leaders sank us into on the basis of lies. Turn on the television, and you'll only see a debate between those who were in favor of war and are in favor of staying, and those who were in favor of war and now are thinking we might want to be withdrawing. All those who were never in favor of the war in the first place are still sitting on the sidelines, wondering how those who were right all along still never get a chance to say their piece into the microphone.
Even some of the most powerful artistic statements in pop music about the war still tiptoed around the subject--Green Day's American Idiot and its elegy to the war's futility, "Wake Me Up When September Ends," didn't take on the issue of the war or our leadership directly but hinted at it in the lyrics or in the somber accompanying video depicting a young man leaving his girlfriend to go to war.
Which is why it will be interesting to see the reaction of the commercial music industry to Bruce Springsteen's new album Magic. Broadcast radio, owned by a bunch of corporate behemoths, nowadays likes to stay far away from just about any music with non-jingoisticpolitical sentiments, so it is hard to see pop stations playing anything as blatantly political as "Last to Die," where Springsteen sings, "We don't measure the blood/ we've drawn anymore/ We just stack the bodies outside the door."
The Springsteen that came out all the way in support of John Kerry in 2004 while other more prominent recording artists of the day were hiding behind their record companies is now fully on the record in his protest, as he mentioned this past Sunday night on CBS' 60 Minutes:
Well, I think that we've seen things happen over the past six years that I don't think anybody ever thought they'd ever see in the United States. When people think of the American identity, they don't think of torture. They don't think of illegal wiretapping. They don't think of voter suppression. They don't think of no habeas corpus. No right to a lawyer . . . you know. Those are things that are anti-American.
I find it encouraging to finally hear this coming from a musician of Springsteen's stature--but also depressing to think of how few others, even with a president approaching 30 percent approval ratings, who won't step up to agree. And heaven forbid we should ever hear it on the radio.
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