Putting The Politic Back Into Pop
"The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get
itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only
ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out"-
Oliver Holmes, Jr.
Even before the regnant commercialization
of music began in the 1950s, politics had always maintained an intrinsic nexus
with music. Whether it be in the sublime "Masters
of War" where Bob Dylan iterated his desire for "your death'll (sic) come
soon" which would later go on to inspire the dissident anti-Vietnam war student
protestors of Berkeley or Kurt Cobain's acerbic call to arms against the
deadpan conservative administrations of the years past in 1991's "Smells Like Teen Spirit", a disaffected
adolescence always seemed to embrace it despite the piqued sniffs of
disapproval from the establishment.
Yet in the early days of the post 911 era,
when United States President George W. Bush still enjoyed the sky high ratings
of a commander-in-chief yet untainted by the opprobrium that arose from the
scandals of Gitmo Bay and Abu Gharib, Dixie Chicks' lead singer Natalie Maine's
admission of shame, on foreign soil of all places, that Bush hailed from her
home state of Texas led to widespread condemnation from almost all quarters of
American media. In retrospect it seems
almost asinine to blast one for the utilization of her first amendment aside
from the belief which prevailed in those days not too long ago, that she lacked
what many assumed to be an inalienable unrelenting allegiance to the man, just
because she hailed off a group whose music was once considered too country to
appeal to even the most ardent of rednecks.
And what a full circle pop music has turned
since those heydays for the Republican executive in the White House. In late
May, the Chicks were propelled to the top of the Billboard 200 pop music charts
on the success of the lead single of their new album, the aptly titled "Not Ready To Make Nice" which refuted
Bush when she proclaimed herself "mad as hell". Despite the Associated Press
reporting that certain country radio stations refusing to give the single
airtime, on the strength of an audience annoyed by Dubya's antics, the Chicks
managed to ship a commendable 550,000 copies on their debut week. In fact, so
assured were they of popular acceptance of their new record that on May 21,
just before "Taking The Long Way" hit
appeared to retract her mea culpa to Dubya with her (now) no-longer incendiary
animadversions that Bush deserved "no respect whatsoever".
The Texan group isn't even the first band to
have a big payday just because of the blunderings of that particular man in
power. According to Rolling Stone's
latest rich list, Californian menagerie Green Day had a $31 million cheque
issued in their name following the gravy train that superseded from the success
of 2004's pyromanical "American Idiot"
whose eponym single vexed lyrical of W. by tainting him as a homophobe as well
as a hick puppet, and that's not even counting chart-topper "Holiday" which front man Billie Joe
Armstrong introduced to a rambunctious reception at Milton Keynes National Bowl
as a "big "f-ck you" to all the politicians." Armstrong even went as far as to
to not let these "bastards dictate your life and tell you what to do". His punk
rock opera was duly guerdoned by a Grammy award as well as more than five million
copies flying off shelves.
Rapper Kanye West provoked excessive
controversy, though hardly anything on the
caring "about black people" in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. That week,
his sophomore album "Late Registration"
sold 906,000 copies and debuted on #1. Even veteran warhorses Neil Young and
Mick Jagger got back into the act. Young, with his no-holds barred protest
record "Living With War" by renewing
his animosity with his old nemesis the Bush family (a feud encapsulated in his
1989 song "Rockin' In The Free World").
"Living With War" went to sale riding
on great critical acclaim and on the back of a provocative call for Dubya to
step down. Jagger swaggered and avoided falling off a tree (no offence intended)
with the mellifluous "Sweet Neo Con"
("You say you are a patriot/ I think you are a crock of shit") off an album
hailed by many as the finest off the Stones in more than a decade.
To be fair to the Republican administration,
it is hardly representative to just look at the musical scene and thus condemn.
Chart toppers are, with the exception of perhaps Toby Keith, associated with
being tree hugging, bleeding heart liberals. Take for example, Eddie Vedder of
alternative rock act Pearl Jam, who has seen his group's recent self-titled
album rise to #2 on charts, told Rolling
Stone journalist Brian Hiatt of a recent heckling by a Republican supporter
in its latest cover story, thanks to his endorsement and work for defeated
Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry in the 2004 elections.
Yet, what exactly was the stimulant of this
sudden outpour of pique upon the establishment? It is essential to keep in mind
of course, Dubya's trifling opinion ratings (which this week rose to 40% on the
back of the death of Al-Qaeda's Al-Zarqawi) since music is after all, merely a
microcosm of the issues that pervade society. Despite the fact that West has a
penchant for Gucci suites no doubt unavailable to those in the ghetto, the
likes of Armstrong, who still struts his humble beginnings from a working class
Californian family, are still among the most accurate manifestations of those
deemed unworthy of having their concerns voiced on the covers of national
magazines. As for the uncanny marketing men over in New York or Burbank pouring
over listener trends off Top 40 radio, the unexpected sales of the flood of
recent political record provided a welcome reprieve from payola and spy-ware
scandals as well the re-emergence of a market that for the years following the
likes of Baez and Dylan was dominated by underground punk rock singles flogged
in dinghy night clubs.
Regardless of whatever concerns about the
lack of patriotism from the leftist crowd, this can only bode well for those
who unequivocally believe in democracy. The unique ability to utilize the first
amendment to criticize even your commander in chief remains tantamount in a
society whose civil liberties have been curtailed in a bid to maximize national
security by a man whom the late Hunter S. Thompson termed in his biography mere
months before his death as a "whore-beast". Despite whatever laments of the
brutality of capitalism, it is portraying its more democratic and unabashed
face these days when it comes to pop music at the very least.
But more importantly what are the trends that
such best-selling records impregnate? It shows that society is beginning to
comprehend and accept the counter-culture revolution in the ‘60s in
in the late 1970s. With baby boomers no longer craving for LSD nor Johnny
Rotten sailing past Parliament House and punk now showing a more commercialized
face that is littered with eye-liner and huge emo glasses, it has become
socially tolerable to protest or show an affinity for records which call for
the impeachment of the President. Last September, The Economist Newspaper ran an article asking where have all the
flowers gone? The conclusion from its respected
tolerated the civil rights revolution, a majority still thought that counter
culture went too far. Suburban
may forgive, yet it still does not condone the Texan Trio yet.
What's next? One can barely envisage Britney
Spears leading a protest against W. with Sean Preston on her lap and hopefully
Kanye West won't have to appear on television anymore. Oon August 29th,
the man who was accredited with starting it all releaseed his forty-fourth
album "Modern Times". With the times
a-changin' led to Robert Zimmerman has put out something with aplomb again.
Kristiano Ang writes for Vainquer
Magazine (www.vainquer.net) on music and
culture and has interviewed the likes of Slipknot and the Black Eyed Peas.