The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

4 August 2006

Bushrock

An intriguing question from Steve G:

[S]ince artists always seem to lean to the left — or to be at the very least completely anti-war — does having a "right-wing" [scare quotes because hes center-right at best on most things] or pro-war President make for better music? Or to put it a different way, do bands that are angry with the state of the country or world make better music?

Need examples? Pearl Jam fans are thrilled with their latest, which is pretty heavily political and anti-Bush. Same with Green Day. Within my range of music, Machine Head, Disturbed, Avenged Sevenfold, and now Stone Sour are all making good music while angry on some level with the President. And in the 80s, Metallica, Slayer, and countless pop musicians put together some great music while they were angry at ... well, the world, but particularly policies of the west embodied by Reagan and Thatcher.

And he has some ideas about how this particular dynamic might work:

  1. It's the sense of purpose — legitimate or not — generated by being anti-war in a time of war.

  2. It's a focus thing: instead of rambling on about various feelings in a vaguely angsty way (see: lots of 1990s music), there's a clear "enemy" to write about.

  3. It's easier to write lyrics about external problems rather than internal ones, leaving the musicians time and bandwidth to work on the music itself.

  4. You have to be a little nuts to write good music, and BDS is driving musicians just far enough in that direction to generate some good music.

I'm inclined to give the premise as a whole a qualified thumbs up, at least in the rock realm, for the simple reason that rather a lot of rock is predicated on the notion of rebellion — against authority, against conformity, against [fill in name of unbearable cultural imperative] — and GWB seems to arouse levels of outrage more than sufficient to support this sort of thing. And some of us, I think, simply produce more interesting work when we're pissed off. (Note that this specification says nothing about whether we're justified in being pissed off; ultimately, this requires a longer historical perspective than the immediacy of popular music can reasonably allow.)

The only fly in this particular ointment is the fact that the same qualities that can inspire superior tunage can also give rise to spectacularly horrid crap. I'm not paying a whole lot of attention to contemporary antiwar songs, but then I'm not paying a whole lot of attention to much of anything that gets released today; as current as I get is an occasional pass through Jack FM, which has been known to throw in an occasional 1990s track. But Vietnam was still going on when it became obvious that for every forthrightly-angry "Ohio" there was a passive-aggressive "Military Madness," and I would be surprised to hear that the divine-to-dreck ratio has changed much over the years.

The best anti-Vietnam song, for my money, wasn't a hit at all: Bob Seger's "2 + 2 = ?" was way too corrosive to get any airplay. (The worst, by coincidence, was also a Michigan product: Grand Funk's "People Let's Stop the War." It got played to death.)

The trick, of course, is to avoid thinking that something's good simply because you agree with it. I'm as much of a flag-waving jingoist as the next guy, but that damn Lee Greenwood song makes me want to hurl.

Posted at 10:51 PM to Tongue and Groove


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It's an interesting hypothesis. But if having an enemy makes their art better, why couldn't the pro-war singers excel equally in a time of war? Only, their enemy wouldn't be their own country, but rather the aggressors attacking their country. Would that lack the necessary irony to be true art? Just wondering.

Posted by: Sean Gleeson at 11:01 PM on 4 August 2006

Or maybe pro-war singers might do better in peacetime, if we have any.

Posted by: CGHill at 11:09 PM on 4 August 2006

Rock 'n' roll just hasn't been the same since Buddy Holly died.

Posted by: Chase at 7:31 AM on 5 August 2006

Heh-all the traveling minstrel shows hated Lincoln, too.

Everything was okay until the ACTORS started hating him.

Uh-oh...

Posted by: John Salmon at 3:19 PM on 5 August 2006

I'm as much of a flag-waving jingoist as the next guy, but that damn Lee Greenwood song makes me want to hurl.

What do you think of Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue"?

Posted by: McGehee at 5:43 PM on 5 August 2006

I get along fine with that one for some reason.

Posted by: CGHill at 6:42 PM on 5 August 2006

Funny. I was just thinking the other day that rock today had become a humorless load of dreck, with untalented and ugly young men (bristle-headed, tattoed, and wearing those awful baggy pants that look as if they were built to carry the results of several sudden Taco Bell-causes dumps) grunting out "lyrics" with all the subtlety of a concrete hammer accompanied by "chords" the tunelessness of which make Sid Vicious sound like Rachmaninoff. And I concluded that unlike the Eighties, during which musicians were similarly inspired by antipathy to an American president, today's authority-hatred is characterized by a sour disappointment in life, a view of the future devoid of hope, and evidence of severe depressive psychosis. Or in other words, rock sucks these days, I'd rather listen to Big Band.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at 12:56 AM on 6 August 2006