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.