Post-Political Pop Music

By Rob Patterson

For much of my tenure as an entertainment columnist for The Progressive Populist, I have done an annual roundup of political and progressive music of note at this time of year. And with each successive year it became more difficult to actually find such music.

Let me stress as I say above “of note.” There are certainly musical acts on the fringe that are decidedly political. Kind readers have even sent me some well-intentioned samples of their work. But for political music to truly be successful, it has to have impact beyond preaching to the choir.

Instead, it must raise at least a measurable public chorus, if you will, of people who hear what it says and at least proverbially sing along in spirit. That’s what it did in the 1960s as I was growing up. Pop music reflected and expressed the spirit and tenor of the times.

But sorry, Toto: We are not in that America anymore.

Sure, there are successful artists who address political themes directly. Recent examples I have cited are Steve Earle’s “The Revolution Starts Now” and Neil Young’s anti-Bush tune “Let’s Impeach the President.” Both were the kind of viable songs and statements that can stick in your consciousness. The latter was even nominated for a Grammy. But as we all know, neither was a call that evoked significant action.

Then there are acts whose themes and topics are less directly political and activist, yet where they stand should be more than obvious. Bruce Springsteen is the most prominent example. It’s as obvious as the nose on one’s face if not the whole visage that he is a devoted populist to anyone who has listened to his songs. Yet that didn’t stop the Ronald Reagan campaign in 1974 from trying to sell the absurdity that the Gipper was a fan of Springsteen and that his favorite song by the artist was “Born in the USA.”

Yeah, that tune’s chorus sure is catchy. But anyone who bothered to actually listen to what the song says would know that’s it was an expression of despair at the nation’s economic decline, not some patriotic rallying cry.

Which seems to me to be at the heart of the issue here. But the sheer stupidity of how Republicans and conservatives try to co-opt popular music hardly ends there. In 2008 the John McCain campaign tried to use the decidedly non-political 1976 hit song “Still the One.” No one around McCain even copped to the fact that it was written by John Hall, who was currently serving as a Democratic congressman from New York State. Or that four years earlier there was a flap when the Bush II reelection campaign tried to use the song.

The same head-scratching lack of comprehension could be said about how Fox News used the decidedly leftist band R.E.M.’s song “Losing My Religion” during its coverage of the Democratic Convention. The group immediately sent a cease and desist letter.

But the astounding whopper has to be when Republican vice presidential candidate declared this fall that Rage Against the Machine was his favorite band. Obviously the fact that Ryan is a devotee of Ayn Rand speaks to his lack of intellectual depth. But this was one of those “truly doesn’t get it” moments for the history books. “Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades,” wrote guitarist Tom Morello in Rolling Stone magazine.

Observant readers of this column might recall that Morello’s solo album of last year under the title and his alter-ego The Nightwatchman was the one significant CD of political music I cited here a year ago. AND anyone with half a brain who ever heard a Rage album would know that they are Leftist anti-capitalists through and through.

But alas, this is all indicative of the sad state of political music today. I can’t decide if it’s because few people even listen to the lyrics anymore or that the country has become perilously dumbed down or that music has become just another shallow lifestyle accessory or all of that and more.

I won’t yet go so far as to declare political music dead as an element in popular music. But it has fallen so far down the rabbit hole that I am wondering if it will ever mean anything even close to what it once did.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2012

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