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.

4 Comments

  1. Good points. A good lesson about kneejerk reactions. There are quite pure grassroots sentiments behind the Tea Party movement; libertarian sentiments is a good way to describe them. Blue collar America – that world Springsteen celebrates – wants their individual freedom back and Beck, Palin et al are trying to hijack that energy for their own (sick) aims. There’s been a recent rise in blue collar rock and roots music, and that’s no co-incidence.
    Wish I could say it better, but that’s why I’m typing down here lol

  2. Hi, Tin. Hello, Dorian – long time no speak.

    I won’t claim to know anything about the specifics of Tea Party machinations, but I do really want to say that, from an outsider’s point of view, the wide-eyed vehemence with which TV-soundbite TPers rant about Obama “dragging the US into Socialism with Marxism leanings” frightens the bejesus out of me.

    I think we need to ask GU-reading, but US-based bloggers (are you there, steenbeck?) how scary it is at grassroots level, but tincanman tried that, and got the proverbial flaming poop bag flung at his doorstep.

    The music side intrigues me though, hence my desire to comment – is it just my grabbing-at-fog grasp of politics that allows me to see a nobility in only the left-of-libertarian songs, with the right-wing stuff too often sounding sociopathic?

    Why can I like stuff like The Redskins’ Bring It Down, without wanting to start the revolution, but be put wholly off someone like, say, Skrewdriver precisely because of the lyrics?

    I hope you’re right, Dorian, and that the momentum I see gathering from afar is only as you described in your last paragraph. This particular devil definitely AIN’T got the best tunes, but worryingly does seem to have a damned fine handle on how to best transmit it through the airwaves.

    Yours, worried,

    DsD

    • Hi folks. Long time no speak either. I’ve noted elsewhere my queasiness at Dylan’s ‘Neighbourhood Bully’. It’s a punchy lyric on a good album (Infidels) but I don’t particularly like the way it’s been appropriated by some dodgy people. I don’t think that’s a ‘Born in the USA’ misinterpretation of the lyric either.
      I haven’t heard Skynyrd’s post 9/11 stuff but it sounds like it won’t be on my ipod even if the riffs are as sublime as ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.
      Reading through 33revs made me think how powerful the music is when you are ignorant of the issues. LKJ’s ‘Sonny’s Lettah’ SLF’s ‘Alternative Ulster’ , ‘Shipbuilding’ and ‘Biko’ and stuff by the Raincoats affected me because I really liked the music, but at 14-16 years old, was only just starting to think about the politics.
      I don’t think a great song would change a strong opinion I hold about a political issue now, but if it was something I was ambivalent or ignorant about (and there is still much of that) then I guess there’s still a chance it might lead me astray! 33revs really made me think how much music has informed my politics. Occasionally I’ve let the politics inform my music (I bought Terry Hall & Mushtaq because I admired what they were trying to do) but it always works better the other way round.
      I never liked the Redskins much, although I did feel I ought to, whereas Skrewdriver, well….

  3. Murdoch Dynasty’s Fox News media conglomerate in the usa seemed to be effectively channelling a segment of the white working-class and white middle-class voters ( whose economic insecurity has intensified during the post-2008 endless great recession) into the billionaire Koch Brothers’ GOP-oriented Tea Party movement last year. But last fall’s entrance of large numbers of youth into the U.S. streets in support of the occupy wall street movement seems to have blocked, somewhat, more populist support for the Tea Party movement among U.S. white workers.

    As Elvis’ early 1970s meeting with Nixon seemed to indicate, in the usa, at least, being a rock musician in certain regions of the country won’t necessarily mean that the rock musician is likely to identify himself or herself as left-wing politically.


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