R.I.P. Gregory Isaacs

Gregory Isaacs died yesterday at the age of 59. This Lee Perry production was recorded in 1976, the year when virtually every singer in Jamaica was bemoaning the crashing economy and widespread political violence. Isaacs’ most celebrated contribution was this good-natured plea to be left alone to smoke weed because “it’s better than in the streets busting gun.” It’s a fine example of reggae’s mellifluous protest: pressing messages transmitted in soothing tones.


I believe Anita Hill

If there’s one name Clarence Thomas, the surliest conservative on the Supreme Court, never wants to hear again it’s Anita Hill. Back in 1991 his already-bitter confirmation hearing was almost derailed by allegations of verbal sexual harassment made by Hill, an attorney who had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education. Thomas denied the charges and was confirmed by 52-48 votes in the Senate, the narrowest margin for over a hundred years, but the mud never entirely went away.

Now his loose-cannon wife Ginny, who this year founded a Tea Party-linked lobbying group called Liberty Central, has given the story new life by leaving a bizarre voicemail message for Hill (now a professor at Brandeis University) suggesting that she apologise to the justice. If, as Ginny Thomas claims, it’s an “olive branch” it’s one she’s using to poke Hill in the eye. The story then provoked Justice Thomas’s ex-girlfriend Lillian McEwen to go public about his love of porn and dirty talk in the office. If she had done so 19 years earlier (when she didn’t have a memoir to sell) it would have done Hill’s credibility a world of good and possibly sunk Thomas’s confirmation.

The confirmation hearings coincided with the birth of Riot Grrrl (Thomas opposes abortion rights) and Hill became an icon-cum-martyr to a new generation of feminists. As soon as I heard about the new controversy, I thought of these lines from Sonic Youth: “I believe Anita Hill/Judge will rot in hell.” It’s a great example of the power of a quick topical lyric to preserve a news story and lead listeners two decades later to follow up on the reference.

Moe and the Tea Party redux

Well this is interesting. St Louis’s Riverfront Times has tracked down Moe Tucker to ask her about her appearance in the Tea Party video that ruffled so many feathers. Unsurprisingly, she takes the don’t-tell-me-what-to-do line in relation to various government interventions, although the list gets pretty incoherent as it progresses from car industry bailouts to the dangers of low-energy lightbulbs and rattles off the kind of random talking points you find on conservative blogs. Woah there with the exclamation marks!

But anyway, she sticks to her guns and she makes a fair point about the initial reaction online: “I’m stunned that so many people who call themselves liberal yet are completely intolerant.… You disagree and you’re immediately called a fool, a Nazi, a racist.” I think it took a few days for liberal VU fans (myself included) to work through why they were so disappointed and whether it really matters (see my earlier post) and in the post-now-think-later blog cycle some overreacted. I wonder, too, about her claim that there’s a silent minority of conserative rock musicians who just haven’t spoken out yet. Laura Snapes’ Quietus interview with Micah P. Hinson shows that sometimes you only have to ask the right questions. I would be frankly stunned if Brandon Flowers voted for Obama.

Going back to Friday’s post, it’s interesting that Moe explains her long-term position as “all politicians are liars, bums and cheats” and lists only what she doesn’t like, because this is the strand of Tea Party thinking which makes me wonder what they actually want. Throw the bums out? OK, but then what? Let the country govern itself and hope for the best? She describes her politics in suitably punk-rock terms (interesting 1983 Johnny Ramone quote I found after my last post: “If anything, punks should have no politics or be right-wing. Otherwise they’re just hippies dressed as punks. Punks should stand on the corner and do nothing, like Marlon Brando in the Wild One”) but there’s a reason why you don’t elect punk-rock stars to public office. People who overstate the racism of the Obama-haters are missing the real danger – that mad-as-hell “independents” like Tucker seem quicker to tear government down then to offer a constructive alternative. It’s turning the Republicans into the party of fuck-you.

They say sing while you slave and I just get bored

This isn’t by any means the most famous Solomon Burke single but it was the one I played when I heard that he had died a week ago because it’s one of the highlights of an excellent new compilation called How Many Roads: Black America Sings Bob Dylan. I thought of Dylan’s song again on Wednesday, when Margaret Thatcher’s 85th birthday was, rather wonderfully, overshadowed in the news by rejoicing miners, because the Specials and U2 both covered it, with fresh intent, in the early 80s (the Specials changed “National Guard” to “National Front”). Dylan wrote it in 1965 while he was in the process of disowning protest songs and the scene that came with them — buzzing with electricity, this was the song which outraged folk’s old guard at Newport that year — but it sounds like one nonetheless.

A fake revolt

A new comment piece for the Guardian on Keith Richards and why the Stones were always reactionaries at heart. Ironically, it was Keith’s guitar playing more than Mick’s lyrics that made them sound revolutionary. As Tariq Ali said: “The rhythm of the Stones’ music captured the spirit of ’68 much more than did that of the Beatles.”

What music can tell us about the Tea Party

You’ve probably already seen the widely circulated clip of former Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker throwing in her lot with the Tea Party and complaining about the USA “being led towards socialism”.

Filmed in April, it only became a big story when Pitchfork picked up the clip six months later and was predictably disheartening for many Velvets fans. Early responses made solid points — you don’t dismiss art just because you don’t like the artist’s politics, and the VU were always hippie-hating misanthropes anyway — but I’d like to examine what makes the Tea Party distinct and how the Tucker tape questions assumptions about rock music, politics and the vocabulary of protest.

Much though a certain class of professional cynic delights in the fiction that all celebrities are conservatives under the surface, the truth is still that an overwhelming majority of musicians (and painters, novelists, film-makers, etc) lean to the left. (Famous exceptions: Ted Nugent, Kid Rock, Johnny Ramone.) That’s why  John J Miller’s much-discussed 2006 list of the 50 greatest conservative rock songs had to make some pretty desperate stretches to fill the list. (Only a Stasi loyalist would concur with Miller’s inclusion of Bowie’s “Heroes” solely on the grounds that it takes a dim view of the Berlin Wall.)

But it’s easy to make the false assumption that because most rock musicians are left-wing that rock is intrinsically a left-wing form. If it can be generalized as anything then it’s libertarian — don’t tell me what to do. The government is usually the problem, whether (as in Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues) it’s just an extension of parental authority or (as in Public Enemy’s sleeve-art mantra, “The government is responsible”) an actively sinister conspiracy.

Because the government is usually identified as conservative, we’ve become used to identifying such instinctive resistance as left-wing, but Moe’s outburst shows how swiftly the Tea Party has moved the goalposts by seizing the energy and the language of protest from the left. Never mind that Tea Party candidates have the support of a major news channel, several billionaires, and, it seems, a Republican hierarchy too craven to put the moderate case. Set aside the fact that the Obama they’re so enraged with is a Kenyan-born muslim socialist who bears no resemblance to the real thing. (Tell the president’s left-wing critics he’s a socialist and they’ll laugh in your face.) In the minds of its supporters it is an insurrection by the average man against the elite — “throw the bums out” — and that’s always a potent idea.

To a political pundit or historian a lot of the Tea Party’s rhetoric is through-the-looking-glass stuff but protest songs teach us that dramatic and unreasonable opinions can be fantastically entertaining. Glenn Beck’s insistence on conspiracies and the hidden history that they don’t want you to know about has a similar flavour to the more fantastical theories of Public Enemy or the Wu-Tang Clan. Muse were taken aback to find that the same sci-fi paranoia that was interpreted as anti-Bush on 2006’s Black Holes and Revelations was suddenly embraced by the foes of “Obamunism”, but the lyrics commit to nothing except a vague fear of government so no wonder Glenn Beck is a fan of 2009’s The Resistance and there’s a Tea Party video set to their song Uprising. “Red tape to keep the truth confined?” “Rise up and take the power back”? Perfect Tea Party fodder.

I’m only surprised that more custom-made Tea Party songs haven’t made their presence felt, although Wonkette thoughtfully compiled some of the very worst back in April. The US has a long history of songs about the country and what it means, a history which has at times become an ideological tug-of-war. When Woody Guthrie found God Bless America too jingoistic he wrote This Land Is Your Land. Fifty years later, Tim Robbins, as folksinging conservative politician Bob Roberts, recorded his own satirical Republican riposte to Guthrie called My Land. Similarly, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded Sweet Home Alabama in retalitation for Neil Young’s Southern Man and Alabama. Three decades on, Green Day wrote American Idiot after hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s shitkicking post-9/11 songs That’s How I Like It and Red White & Blue (Love It or Leave It). Back and forth it goes.

This kind of songwriting reminds us that America’s message is fluid and it means at any given moment what the people with the strongest storyline want it to mean. The worrying thing for US liberals right now is that the Tea Party may not have logic or history on its side, but it has by far the catchiest narrative.