But with We All Want, author Tom Waldman wades into this pool as though it were a great lake, and for 300 pages he dawdles like a man with a month to kill. His goal is strikingly timid. The book, he announces in the prologue, “holds that the shape, direction and the history of rock and roll, soul and rap has been affected by the Vietnam War, women’s lib/feminism, gay liberation, black nationalism and self-reliance, the environmental movement, affirmative action, President Reagan and President Clinton.”
Well, no doubt he’s right. It would be bizarre if an art form as popular and as porous as rock were totally impervious to current events, wouldn’t it? The question isn’t whether politics has had an impact on rock, and vice versa, but how large that impact has been. And the answer is: not very.
This couldn’t be news to Waldman, a former congressional assistant and author of a book on Chicano music. He quotes rockers throughout We All Want who seem to be urging him to give back his advance and write about something else. “I’ve always said, and I don’t think I’m being revisionary here,” says Michael Stipe of R.E.M., “I don’t think music and politics mix.” (And R.E.M. is actually one of the more civic-minded bands out there.) “I think the only vehicle for political change is going to vote,”says Ray Manzarak, former keyboardist for the Doors. “I don’t see how rock can affect the propositions on the ballot, or the list of candidates in the national election.”
Waldman doesn’t heed these warnings. Instead, he tells the familiar tale of rock’s origins in the ’50s, its maturity through the ’60s, its nihilistic turn when the Sex Pistols showed up in the ’70s, and its assorted subplots over the last three decades, all the while casting an eye toward the political realm for any evidence that Planet Rock and Planet Politics have altered each other’s courses. He finds some, particularly during the Vietnam-War era, a period when socially conscious music actually sold.
If an author wants to revisit this well-worn turf, he’d better plant the flag somewhere original and then defend his position entertainingly. With a couple of exceptions, Waldman doesn’t. At one point he claims the Byrds were the third most influential band ever, behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, an assertion that readers will be thrilled to encounter, no matter their opinion of the group, since it’s at least promising fodder for a good argument. He also notes that Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” includes a reference to a “2-3 count” in a baseball game. Well, there is no such thing, of course, but as the author rightly points out, Berry was so brilliantly attuned to the cadence of his verses that he was willing to sacrifice sense in the interest of lyrical rhythm.
The number of good details and smart provocations are dwarfed by a welter of facts that are both well known and beyond debate. “For decades, [Dick] Clark’s face remained almost inhumanly free of wrinkles,” he states in a section about the American Bandstand host and entrepreneur. That’s true.” Elvis and his crafty manager, Colonel Tom Parker, were on to something, and that’s putting it mildly.” Also true, to put it mildly. “Today a familiar rock hit from the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s can enliven a rally in California, Maine, and Alabama–Democrat or Republican.” Right again.” Cool people attend parties, where rock and roll is played all night long, to paraphrase the lyrics of numerous hit singles from the 1950s,” according to Waldman. Yes, they do.
Part of the trouble here is that politics can’t really explain all that much about pop. Or rather, as an influence it pales next to forces that don’t involve the vote, like access to the radio, records, and instruments. To understand David Bowie, for instance, you need to realize that the guy heard lots of Edith Piaf courtesy of Radio Luxembourg, and spent a lot of time browsing the bins at a local record shop that stocked American artists like Little Richard. He would combine those two influences, plus an interest in Jacques Brel’s musical theater, to create glam. Politics might have played some role in the birth of Ziggy Stardust, but it was tangential at best.
Waldman surmises that the British produced so many great singers and bands in the 1960s because the country was “experiencing a sense of relief or even liberation at relinquishing its empire.” The theory is that instead of going abroad to oversee the colonies, youngsters stayed home and learned the 12-bar blues. That could be part of it, but the origins of the Beatles, for one, can’t be explained from that sort of altitude, at least not the parts that are remotely interesting. There’s a harmonica solo on “Love Me Do” for a very non-political reason: Lennon had stolen the instrument from a store. His thievery no doubt had less to do with the Suez Canal crisis than with his love for Howlin’ Wolf.
When Waldman finally addresses his core questions, he hits them glancingly. Why do most rock stars lean toward the Democrats? A couple of halfhearted guesses are ventured: These artists might be rebelling against their Republican parents, or they might feel guilty about their wealth. Could be, but before he develops either notion, he’s soon scrambling to get both hands around something obvious. “Whatever the explanation, Democratic politicians and party operatives are just happy to have their support, especially if it includes endorsements, contributions and benefit concerts.” Right again!
The reality is that most artists keep at least three bodyguards between themselves and any agenda more complicated than hanging on to fame. Why? Economically speaking, ignoring politics makes sense. The vast majority of rockers–more than 90 percent–are lucky if their careers last three albums, which means they’d be foolish to spend any of their goodwill trying to convince fans to buy something other than their new CD. Even the longtimers tread with care. Bruce Springsteen’s last album, The Rising, was inspired by the attacks of September 11, but there’s hardly a political thought on the album and not much hint of what the Boss would do about the specific problem of terrorism. Springsteen understands that rock, like most art, doesn’t endure when its point is persuasion or propaganda. The vaguer you keep it, the longer it lasts. One of the best- selling Vietnam-related songs was Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” a patriotic chest thumper that could have been written by the Pentagon. When was the last time you heard that one on the radio? How about Little Steven’s anti-apartheid rant, “Sun City,” which assembled a bunch of stars and asked them to sing lines like this: “We’re rockers and rappers united strong/We’re here to talk about South Africa, we don’t like what’s going on.” Little Steven had his heart in the right place, but this track is now as moribund as the Botha regime.
The few acts that mix the Molotov of politics and rock without the cocktail exploding in their faces are those that are ideological to the core. Rage Against the Machine, a now-defunct California band, pushed an anti-corporate agenda of hard-left issues. (They were apparently Zapatistas, for starters.) Sure, the group was signed to Sony Records–the very sort of machine that these boys raged against–but they never pretended to be anything other than polemicists. If you bought their album, or attended their shows, you asked for an earful.
Which helps explain the ruckus surrounding the Dixie Chicks a few months back. Lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience in March that she was embarrassed that President Bush is from her home state of Texas. The ladies weren’t known at the time as rabble-rousers, and the country music world isn’t known for its tolerance of dissenting opinions. Many radio stations threatened to drop the Chicks from rotation, which led to a drop in sales. Though Maines declined to up the ante in a subsequent barrage of interviews, she didn’t apologize either.
The dip was temporary, and the trio launched one of the most successful concert tours of the summer. There will be performers who assume the lesson of the brief Chicks backlash is to keep your mouth shut, unless you’re singing. The real lesson, though, is that if you’re sufficiently well-loved, you can get away with anything, even speaking your mind. U2 ranted against the gun lobby right before encores during its last U.S. tour, a sideshow that highlighted the band’s worst vice, a tendency to get distractingly self-righteous. But Bono and Co. have accumulated enough hits and goodwill that the interruption didn’t matter. To his credit, Bono wisely left his case for Third-World debt relief–which is too nuanced for show-time slogans–out of the arenas.
But there aren’t a lot of Bonos out there. A few years ago, there was a concert on the National Mall to support resistance against the government of Tibet, and it was clear from interviews with The Washington Post that some of the performers that day couldn’t find the country on a map. That’s not exactly shocking. You want a speech about international affairs from a Beastie Boy about as much as you want your senator to sing “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.” Yes, we all want to change the world, but, trust me, nobody wants a rock star to do it.