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(DV) Billet: In Defense of Rock n' Roll







Why the National Review Got it Wrong

In Defense of Rock n’ Roll 
by Alexander Billet
June 6, 2006

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Sometimes the shamelessness of the right knows no limits. Many have gotten used to the lies coming from the mouths of Dubya and the Heritage Foundation. But when they start claiming rock n’ roll for themselves, they have truly crossed the line. The May 25th issue of National Review has released a list of “Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs.” Compiled by John J. Miller from submissions that readers sent in over the past year, it is a thinly veiled attempt at making the Republicans look cool, and a pretty feeble one at that. 


The list contains a few accuracies: Bob Dylan’s “Neighborhood Bully” is undoubtedly a pro-Israel song, and including Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” on this list is sort of like being surprised to find Rush Limbaugh filching grandma’s painkillers. But otherwise, the list is rife with fabrication and distortion. At best, Miller had to stretch the truth about what the artists’ motivations were. At worst, he simply imposed his own agenda by deliberately misinterpreting lyrics. After getting wind that The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was number one, guitarist Pete Townsend sent out an angry rebuttal saying that the song indeed represented “a refusal to be co-opted by activists,” but he equally refused to be drawn in by those who had passively gone along with the likes of Reagan and Thatcher (for example, people like Miller). 


It doesn’t stop there. Overall, the assertion that this list of songs represents anything conservative is laughable. While it would be exhaustive to go through every song, it does bear going through a few to debunk some of Miller’s outrageous claims, and to make it clear that rock n’ roll does not belong to the bigots and warmongers. 


When it comes to women and sexuality, Miller is no different from any other right-wing neanderthal. He touts Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun” as an example of “how the right to bear arms can protect women from sexual predators.” What he misses is that the song is about domestic violence, not the second amendment. In typical right-wing vulture fashion, he twists the song’s meaning for the sake of his own agenda. This also goes for any love song on the list, such as the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” which Miller immediately tags as “pro-abstinence and pro-marriage.”  Any rock n’ roll fan knows that just because a musician sings about love, that doesn’t mean that they never intend to have sex before the ring is on their finger, and I’d be guess this is true of Brian Wilson, too. 


It’s this kind of manipulation that’s forced upon some of the greatest songs of all time. David Bowie’s “Heroes” is, according to Miller, a scathing indictment of the Soviet Union as we hear the story of lovers separated by the Berlin Wall. But one would be hard-pressed to see where in the lyrics Bowie directly blames the USSR anymore than the US: 


“I can remember / Standing by the wall

And the guns / Shot above our heads 

And we kissed / As though nothing could fall 

And the shame / Was on the other side 

Oh we can beat them / For ever and ever.” 


Furthermore, the Berlin Wall isn’t the only barrier that has ruined people’s lives. One wonders whether Miller would say this song applies to two star-crossed Palestinians who are separated by their own Apartheid Wall. 


It’s not really surprising that the list includes some of the all time greats. After all, the universal appeal of these bands is precisely what makes them legends. The Rolling Stones, for example, appear twice with “Sympathy for the Devil” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” It is, however, interesting that while the Stones are on the whole ambiguous in their “apolitical” phases, you always know where they stand at their political times. This is true with their recent song “Sweet Neo Con,” and is doubly true about one of the great anthems of the height of the '60s: “Streetfighting Man.” As the legend goes, the song was written about Tariq Ali after Mick Jagger attended several demonstrations. As a matter of fact, Jagger mailed a copy of the lyrics to Ali, who had them printed in The Black Dwarf . . . or so the story goes in Ali’s memoir of the sixties, which is entitled . . . Streetfighting Years! 


The purveyors of punk also appear on the list, completely flying in the face of everything it has stood for since its inception. Miller has the gall to call the Sex Pistols’ “Bodies” a pro-life song. He completely ignores that the woman who has an abortion in the song does so on a factory floor. The abortion is obviously illegal and probably unsafe; a very real threat in a country where the right to choose is under daily attack. 


Fellow punk-forbearers The Clash also make an appearance. At this point in the list, I started to wonder what Miller had been smoking. For a band that was “always of the left,” according to late frontman Joe Strummer, and were “trying to grope in a socialist way toward a future where the world might be a less miserable place,” this is a real travesty. Yes, “Rock the Casbah” is about repression in Islamist states, but shall we forget the US’s complicity in such states in the first place? A quick viewing of the music video makes this connection very clear, as we watch two men in Wahhabi and Hassidic Jewish garb respectively carry around suitcases full of cash as the band plays against a background of Texas oil fields. It’s clear the band made a connection between the oil-hungry oppression of both Israel and Islamic dictatorships and their benefactor states in the West. 


And, of course, it wouldn’t be a real Republican list without some denunciation of Revolution. The Beatles’ song of the same name is seen as just that. But John Lennon’s words “don’t you know that you can count me out,” as well as his questioning of Maoist tactics, cannot be seen as a dig against the left or its causes. Let’s not forget that not long after the release of the song, Lennon was to become an ardent socialist and compose several songs of amazing social conscience such as “Working Class Hero,” “Power to the People,” and, of course, “Imagine.”  As for “Revolution”, Lennon made it clear in his now-famous interview with Tariq Ali and Robin Blackburn that it was written at a time of intense transition in his life, and the song reflects that: 


“There were two versions of that song but the underground left only picked up on the one that said ‘count me out.’ The original version which ends up on the LP says ‘count me in’ too; I put in both because I wasn’t sure…” 


Lennon was to remain dedicated to the left for the rest of his life. Miller, in classic neo-con fashion, has taken the words of The Beatles out of context and used them for his own means. 


These few oversights and inconsistencies in the National Review’s list (and I have barely scratched the surface), undermine the entire article. Despite their efforts, they can’t hide their real motives. With the right as strong as it is, and with record companies and media-conglomerates like Clearchannel continually commodifying all music, this list is unacceptable. Miller and his ilk are precisely the kind of people who forty years ago were picketing Beatles shows and calling rock n’ roll the music of the devil. Twenty years after that, they were uniting with Bob Dole and Tipper Gore in attacking hip-hop. In the end, the right-wing is threatened by rock music because its origins are poor working class kids trying to make sense of their world. It has always been the music of rebellion, from the first note Chuck Berry ever played to the last scream on Pearl Jam’s latest album. No matter how much they try to censor, co-opt, or sanitize it, that will always be true. And no matter how much they try to look otherwise, Republicans will never be cool. 
Alexander Billet is a writer and cultural critic living in Washington, DC. He has contributed to such publications as Socialist Worker, CounterPunchMR Zine, and is a former theatre reviewer for the Prince George’s Post. He is active on the Left, and is a member of the National Writers Union/UAW local 1981. He can be reached at: alexbillet@hotmail.com


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