Friday, July 30, 2010

Shut the [expletive] Up: An Open Letter to Elton John


Dear Elton,

First of all, I hope you don’t mind that I refuse to call you “Sir.” Knights swing swords and ride horses. You play a piano.

And nobody can really deny that you play that piano well. You are about as close as one can get to being a living musical legend. “Benny and the Jets.” “Crocodile Rock.” “Levon.” “Rocket Man”. Great stuff.

But I have to say: I only admit that begrudgingly. Over the past few months you have managed to severely piss me off. And I’m not alone. In fact, it’s safe to say that you’ve pissed off thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who are engaged in a whole spectrum of movements for justice and equality.

First, there was early June, when you played at the wedding of the legendary right-wing turd Rush Limbaugh. For you to insist that gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans folks deserve the right to marry, then play at the (fourth!) wedding of a man who has made a lucrative career scapegoating the very same people is beyond hypocrisy! They say that “money talks,” and the $1 million check from Limbaugh reduced your own personal advocacy to lip-service.

One must wonder what some of your collaborators think of this move. For example Lady Gaga, who has spoken eloquently time and again against hate and fearmongering. Or even Eminem, who recently came out in favor of same-sex marriage himself. Indeed, you most likely would not have the career you have today if not for the militant LGBT movement of thirty-five years ago. It’s a movement that continues today, made up of people who, as your contemporary Tom Robinson said, “don’t take no for an answer.” Have your peers criticized you for this move, Elton? If not, then you must live in a greater vacuum than I assumed.

Something must have rubbed off at the wedding, though. Not only did you rebuff the myriad LGBT activists who understandably asked “why?” but a mere eleven days later, you played a show in Tel Aviv. This was a little over two weeks after Israel brutally attacked the Freedom Flotilla, whose only crime was seeking to deliver goods to a region devastated by war and sanctions. The show flew in the face of the growing number of artists (Elvis Costello, Gorillaz, the Pixies and more) who have cancelled shows in Israel out of protest.

You know this quite well, and you made it clear when you took a swipe at those same artists. “Musicians spread love and peace, and bring people together,” you said. "We don't cherry-pick our conscience."

No. The musicians who have been cancelling are the ones spreading love and peace. You have brought legitimacy to a nation built on occupation, displacement and racism. These artists aren’t playing politics, but rightfully refuse to let their music be the soundtrack for an ongoing crime against the Palestinian people.

And last but not least, there was your show in Tuscon on July 22nd, where you called artists boycotting Arizona “[expletive]wits.” Despite the censoring of most newspapers, we can all guess rather accurately what you really called them. “So what’s the [same expletive] with these people,” you asked.

The fuck with these people is that they are outraged that the state of Arizona is attempting to criminalize not just anyone undocumented, but anyone with brown skin. At your Tucson show you made the case that despite California’s ban on same-sex marriage, you play in California. Nobody is calling for a boycott of California, however. Activists in Arizona are the ones who initiated the call for a boycott, and thousands of people have responded. Most notably in this category is the Sound Strike--the collection of artists who have refused to play concerts in the state’s limits until the virulent SB 1070 is rescinded, including Rage Against the Machine, Kanye West, the Coup, Gogol Bordello and many others.

Elton, I can think of only one celebrity who has angered more communities than you in recent weeks, and his name rhymes with Mel Gibson.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by your indifference. After all, you enthusiastically wrote the music for Billy Elliot the Musical, which plays fast and loose with one of the most dramatic fights in British labor history: the ‘84 miners’ strike. This is a piece of theatre that portrays working folks in an insulting, one-dimensional way; the protagonist’s miner father is horrified by his son’s dreams of becoming a ballet dancer because it’s not “manly.” It hammers home what we can only assume to be your own personal view of ordinary people: worthy of pity when they’re suffering, and of disdain when they rise for themselves.

I have met some of these miners, Elton, and they weren’t simple, closed-minded pawns. In fact, they were damned pleased that the British LGBT movement supported their struggle against Thatcher’s cuts. One miner told me he was “moved to tears” by such a display of solidarity.

And I, Elton, was moved to delete you from my iPod a few days ago. I also took every album I own by you to the buy-sell-trade record store in my neighborhood. I didn’t get a lot for them: $15. But I couldn’t stand to have your songs on my shelves anymore. I am dividing that small sum equally three ways and donating it to Join the Impact Chicago (an LGBT rights group), the Electronic Intifada, and Puente Arizona, a group who Rage Against the Machine recently played a fundraiser for.

It’s not much. But I would rather donate what little I have to real, vibrant movements for liberation than give millions to the voices of hate... as you have done, Elton. And I am encouraging my friends, family and associates to do the same.

There is a twisted symmetry to your chosen insults over the past two months. Namely that, in all three instances, you delivered a slap in the face to vibrant movements seeking to gain dignity for ordinary people whose daily existence is under the boot of very real inequality. It’s the kind of timing that can only come of such a grossly unequal society. Oppression is like that.

But then, so is solidarity. Protests against SB 1070 have included activists from the LGBT and Palestinian communities. During the bombardment of Gaza in late 2008, activists witnessed rainbow flags and members of immigrant communities among the crowd. Activists from each movement have realized their common struggle.

These activists and artists aren’t a passive audience waiting for you to spoon-feed them your songs. They are not people who are going to allow for their own stories to be maligned like you have that of the miners. They are not “cherry-picking.” They aren’t “fuckwits.” They are people who believe that the things we hold dear in our lives--our labor, our art--shouldn’t be used to buttress inequality.

There’s an old saying from the ‘60s: you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. We’re part of the solution, Elton. Guess which side you’re on.

Sincerely,
Alexander Billet

First appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

President Wyclef?

The media is abuzz over the possibility of Wyclef Jean running in the upcoming Haitian presidential elections. The former Fugee and self-appointed face of Haiti has said he is considering a run in the November elections, and is willing to put his music career on hold in order to support "his people."

There's a couple things wrong here. First, the prospect of Wyclef putting his music career on hold hasn't provoked more than a shrug from anyone for almost a decade (the return of fellow Fugee Lauryn Hill to the recording studio... now that's a different matter). Second, the election of Wyclef would change little.

It's not just me that's saying this. Here are a few quotes from ordinary Haitians regarding his possible candidacy:

“It’s difficult for Haitians to have any faith in the election, we are so used to politicians taking advantage of us,” Anise Ulysse tells the Christian Science Monitor. “The people living on the streets have other things to think about.” She also said she most likely will not vote. “I don’t really think he knows the country,” she said. “He’s like an American.”

Indeed, Wyclef hasn't lived regularly in Haiti for almost three decades.

Marie Lecrete said “I don’t have a problem with Wyclef, but he’s not the right person to be president. He’s a musician, not a politician."

If working Haitians, still recovering from the devastated earthquake, are ready to lump Wyclef in with the rest of the country's privileged cabal of politicians, it's for good reason.

As I've written before, Wyclef is a member of one of the most corrupt families in all of Haiti. His uncle, ambassador to the US Raymond Joseph, also runs a newspaper out of Port-au-Prince that was the main cheerleader for the death squads that toppled then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Wyclef himself was vocal in demanding that the democratically elected leader step down, despite his continuing popularity among the Haitian working class.

Still, if he does run in the coming fall, he will most likely have a green light from the present authorities in Haiti. After all, Wyclef was front-and-center in calling for the US to send troops in after the earthquake. These were, of course, the troops that have spent much more time pointing guns in the faces of Haitians than actually distributing aid.

He also has been a supporter of current President Rene Preval, who few see as little more than a puppet of the US. Lavalas, the movement that brought Aristide to power, is legally prohibited from running in any election. If Wyclef were to stand as a candidate, it would be against the backdrop of severe corruption and occupation--both of which he has spent the past several years running interception for.

If any real change is to come in Haiti, it will have to come not from wolves in sheep's clothing like Wyclef, but from the bottom-up.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Back in Action...

As anyone who's frequented the site lately will know, the posts simply haven't been flowing in as often as they used to. Not to mention the fact that the e-bulletin hasn't been sent out for somewhere around a month! I've been busy with a lot of projects... including tweaking some elements on the layout, a Rebel Frequencies 'zine that will be dropping in late September (stay tuned for details), and a book proposal (ditto on that).

None of this is to say that anything has been slowing down in the world of music. On the contrary, recent weeks and months have seen artists and musicians stepping up and taking a the stand the way we haven't seen in a while. All of this is to say that far from things slowing down at RF, coming months will see them picking up like never before.

Friday, July 23, 2010

It's Nothing New...


It was 1980. The ‘60s were definitely over. Then-president Jimmy Carter had spent the past few years deregulating everything but the kitchen sink. With Ronald Reagan about to win the White House, the sink was now on notice. An era of unchecked corporate power was on the rise.

Around the same time, a band of artistic misfits from Akron, Ohio who had spent the past seven years kicking around the underground made it big with their song “Whip It.” This was no t-shirt and blue jeans rock band. They wore neon Hazmat suits and weird futuristic dome hats. They gyrated onstage like feral robots. And the single sounded like a pepped-up supercomputer that had somehow run off the rails and gained an acerbic sense of humor. They were also among a handful of acts that set the bar for the rising New Wave movement.

Now, Devo is back with a new album, their first in 20 years. And far from sounding dated or passe, Something for Everybody sees their inimitable brand of neo-dystopian synth-pop more relevant than ever.

Take, for example, exhibit A: the video for lead single “What We Do.” It starts out, appropriately enough, with a quote from FOX News’ Shepard Smith regarding the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, then launches into a hard, driving industrialized orgy of noise. Just about the only thing that sounds even vaguely organic is the heavily distorted guitar work! The massive volume of images might be hard to dissect--the band performing in their jumpsuits, footage of BP CEO Tony Hayward, Obama wearing the iconic “energy dome” hat--but any mistake of their significance is largely dispelled by Mark Mothersbaugh’s snarky automaton lyrics:

“What we do is what we do
Just different names, it’s nothing new
What we do is what we do
‘Cuz what we do is what we do

“Gaming, praying, believing, maintaining,
Texting, electing, rejecting, infecting”


No doubt about it, this is some subversive stuff. And it’s precisely why Something For Everybody gets the unexpected honor of being quintessential Devo.

For the group, this kind of biting spoof on everyday consumer culture is--as the lyrics declare--nothing new. In fact, it’s practically in their artistic DNA. Casual listeners who may be quick to lump them in with the vast amount of empty-headed ‘80s pop acts might be shocked to know that founding members Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale were student activists at Kent State on that fateful day in 1970 when the National Guard showed up to gun down four protesters.

Casale was friends with two of the victims--Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller. The experience would have the affect of driving both he and Mothersbaugh away from activism forever--at least in the conventional sense. Devo was conceived of as a “postmodern protest band,” born as much out of demoralization as lingering hatred for capital’s continued cultural stranglehold. In their view, the hacks that ran society were “devolved,” and the music was written with them in mind. Though they rarely hid their ability to write a great pop hook, their overly slick, synth-laden sound emulated the kind of music that might emerge if corporate America had finally succeeded in conquering our hearts and minds.

In this light, it’s not hard to see what made them such a hit in the early ‘80s. Wedged between the sneer of punk and Reagan’s vapid smile, Devo’s wickedly sardonic brand of social commentary found a niche. Songs like “Whip It” and “That’s Good” seemed to be the kind of consumer-addled reply that corporate boardrooms secretly wished for. If Reagan and Thatcher proclaimed “the future is now,” Devo answered back with a straight face “yes it is; let’s all admire it in the afterglow of the coming nuclear holocaust.”

While Devo’s original formation may have been a symptom of deep pessimism in the face of right-wing reaction, their return to the studio can just as easily be seen as a consequence of the pendulum swinging back. Though the group were more or less buried beneath countless soundalike pop acts cranked out by the music industry during the ‘80s, they have retained a reverence among swathes of underground indie experimentalists. Their influence can be heard from the fervent electronicism of Royksopp to the avant-noise of Ladytron.

“We were real ahead of our time,” says Casale, “and our music seems contemporary now.” In fact, several critics have lauded Something for Everybody as not just a great comeback album, but Devo’s greatest work ever! It’s little wonder why in this era where nothing the rich have to say can possibly be taken seriously.

Opening track “Fresh” plays like a commercial jingle on steroids. Tinny guitar riffs slice through herky-jerky keyboard parts as Mothersbaugh revels the fake glory of consumerism. To hammer the point home, the members of Devo actually held focus groups on the album’s content, and were able to arrive at typically laughable conclusions such as “‘Fresh’ relieves aches and pains,” or “3 out of 5 people would hold ‘Fresh’ with their feet for more than 3 minutes.”

The rest of the album brilliantly follows this same line of lambast. Songs like “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)” and “Cameo” are aimed squarely at the cult of celebrity and media. “Mind Games” and “Please Baby Please” shamelessly commodify everything from the modern sex act to the human brain itself.

Perhaps the most ominous (albeit joyously so) track on Something is “Human Rocket,” which could just as easily be seen as a denunciation of groupthink as an anti-war statement:

“I am a human rocket on a mission of deployment
I’ve been cocked and loaded, ready for the culmination
I am a human missile, guided by a secret agenda
That commands my every thought and deed and wills me on my way”


If any criticism can be leveled against the album, it’s that Casale and Mothersbaugh’s unshakable cynicism remains intact. Devo have created such an airtight world of corporate greed and mindless proles that Orwell himself might cringe. For his part, Casale seems as convinced as ever that humanity itself is inexorably headed down the drain.

In an otherwise excellent interview on the recent Gulf oil spill, he told CauseCast.org that “there’s not enough smart people left. De-evolution is real. What’s happened is proportionate to the increase in population, you didn’t have the same proportionate increase in intelligent people.” And while placing the blame for the spill squarely on the shoulders of BP, Halliburton and the rest, he sees no real way to hold them accountable.

And yet, the resurgence of Devo themselves appears to disprove Casale’s own assertions. Thirty years ago, the window for acts like them was closing. Now, a new generation of fans seem ready to nod their heads and laugh along.

Mothersbaugh and Casale’s own hopes for radical change may be relatively grim. That there is at the same time such a wide opening for their unique and hilariously poignant critique of capitalism is reason to be hopeful. After all, if there really is no hope, then what’s the point of making music in the first place?

First appeared at the website of the Society of Cinema and Arts.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Modern Media Assassin


It’s created a buzz well before its release date. For the past several months, every pop music outlet has speculated on its content. It’s provoked fervent anticipation among fans, censorship from the World Wide Web, and derision from elitist establishment journalists (I’m looking at you Lynn Hirschberg).

Now, it’s finally here. M.I.A.’s Maya has arrived, and it’s predictably polarized the critics. Some find it difficult and near-unlistenable. Others are likewise confounded with the album’s sheer weightiness, but nonetheless herald it as a glimpse at music’s dark, demented future. Neither seem willing to parse through the dense content to see what the artist is actually getting at.

Even looking at the album’s artwork, it’s clear that Maya Arulpgragasam--like anyone living in today’s tech-heavy world--is suffering from a case of information overload. First listen most certainly confirms this. For one thing, M.I.A. is heard singing much more. And where 2007’s Kala pulled on the wide diversity of sounds emanating from India, Liberia, Jamaica, Maya is positively Orwellian in its mish-mash of computerized, post-industrial noise. Often, it sounds like a the musical communique of some dangerous clandestine resistance movement that’s somehow found its way onto the airwaves through a mole DJ.

Introduced by the sounds of clicking computer keyboards, our ears are soon gripped by a dissonant, sparse drill-and-bang, over which M.I.A. seems to warn us in nursery-rhyme fashion:

“Head bone connects to the headphones
Headphones connect to the iPhone
iPhone connects to the Internet, connects to Google
Connects to the government”


This is “The Message.” The trope of Big Brother-on-the-Internet isn’t a new one. Neither is the attempt to link up Google with C.I.A. spies. But at less than a minute long, it serves as more a snippit than a song, setting the dystopianism of Maya quite well.

“Steppin’ Up,” the album’s first full song, insists “you know who I am,” but initially we’re not so sure we do. The song, deft though it might be in piecing together a discernible beat from the flotsam, sounds like Arulpragasam snuck into an abandoned machine shop and recorded the noise produced by the old, rusted-out power tools.

Lyrically, “Steppin’ Up” mixes the cliched, empty-headed imagery of the sweaty club floor with bomb blasts and fire-chucking mobs. It’s jarring for sure, by the end of the track, we’re putty in M.I.A.’s hands: “I can make a sound, and the shriek will make you jump.” Whether that sound will come from the synth or the molotov isn’t really clear, but hey, that’s part of the excitement.

The willingness to simply let one’s self become immersed is definitely a prerequisite for hearing Maya’s content, there’s also a kind of post-modern Brechtianism to it. Try though we might to get comfortable in the album’s dense soundscape, the sheer jaggedness simply won’t allow it. It's fun, and certainly engaging; oftentimes it's also a hard pill to swallow.

Arulpragasam has said that she intends the album to be “so uncomfortably weird and wrong that people begin to exercise their critical-thinking muscles.” In May, she told Complex magazine that such thought is necessary for ordinary people to navigate through the world:

“So many corporations are merging, I don’t even know who’s telling the truth anymore. If Time is bought by CNN, am I gonna get a different opinion in Time than from CNN? I don’t think so. Corporations mold politics, and if the agenda of a corporation is to make money, then surely the information that we’re going to get is edited so it makes you think a certain thing at the end of the day... You can Google the words ‘Sri Lanka’ and it doesn’t come up that all these people have been murdered or bombed, it’s pages of: ‘Come to Sri Lanka on vacation, there are beautiful beaches.’ You’re not gonna get the truth ‘til you hit like page 56, you know what I mean?”

For this last comment, Arulpragasam reportedly received death threats against her and her son.

The past few years have seen a wide array of roles foisted on M.I.A.; indie fans may have rejoiced when Kala carried her to the greatest heights of pop stardom. That this success loosely coincided with the civil war in Sri Lanka and the exposure of its murderous policy against the ethnic Tamil population necessarily turned the militantly outspoken Arulpragasam into something of a spokesperson. Her country’s government denounced her. Commentators thumbed their nose at her for encouraging violence.

Given all this, observers might be forgiven for blurring the line between M.I.A.’s public and private personae. M.I.A. herself has often had fun fudging the distinction. What she hasn’t been able to abide by, however, have been the deliberate attacks, the misquotes, the cavalier way in which her art and message have been manipulated and taken out of context.

Maya, then, is peppered with lyrical middle fingers to the hack nay-sayers and yellow journalists. “XXXO,” the first single leaked a few months back, is ostensibly a love song, and the thoroughly danceable beats initially suggest little more. But when she insists “you want me to be somebody who I’m really not,” and as the sounds evolve into an increasingly foreboding cacophony, we get the feeling she’s not just talking to a potential beau.

It’s not infrequent that M.I.A. spins this somewhat personal vitriol into a wider scope. “Lovealot” sees her confrontationally mocking her opponents like a pumped-up amateur boxer: “They told me this was a free country... I fight the ones that fight me!” And while one can picture Arulpragasam saying this in any song, she notably places it in the context of even more controversy; the song’s inspiration was the true story of an Islamic militant killed in 2009 by Russian police and his young wife who attempted to avenge his death in the Moscow subway suicide bombing this past March.

While M.I.A. is singing from the young woman’s point of view, any attempt to paint the artist a “terrorist” (and they’re coming, believe me) won’t have any real argument. One gets the sense that Arulpragasam’s lyrics are meant to raise more questions than answers. They provoke, yes, but they also dare to imagine what kicks around the head of those mowed over by the empires that dare not speak their own name. If M.I.A. can somehow identify with these faceless denizens, it undoubtedly springs from her own personal understanding of blowback.

And then, of course, there’s “Born Free.” So many cluttered, confused comments on this video have clogged the Internet in recent months that it the song’s actual content has been lost in the shuffle. And M.I.A. has by no means made it easy. “Born Free” drips with effects--the centerpiece synth-keys are fuzzed and distorted to an insane degree, the percussion sounds more like a meth-addled drummer banging on a trash-can after reaching “the zone.” And M.I.A.’s own deadpan lyrical delivery is highly reverbed:

“Yeah man-made powers, stood like a tower
Higher and higher... hello
And the higher you go, you feel lower
Oh!
I was close to the end, staying undercover
Staying undercover
With my nose to the ground I found my sound”


Lines like these give the later declarations of artistic independence (“I don’t wanna talk about money, ‘cuz I got it / And I don’t wanna talk about hoochies, ‘cuz I been it...”) an actual context. Same for the refrain of “I was born free,” almost as if M.I.A. has lined up her enemies one by one--from America itself to every last condescending journalist--before stating it loud and clear.

The weird, seemingly never-ending pattern that’s generated from M.I.A.’s relationship with the media--one where she makes a public statement and is denounced personally which then ends up woven into her musical fabric--has sent even sharp music critics on the wrong scent. Jessica Hopper, writing in the Chicago Reader, ends her rather disparaging review of Maya by pointing out Aruglpragasam’s engagement to Ben Brewer, son of Universal Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman. It forces Hopper to reach the conclusion that Arulpragasam is simply “making art of her contradictions.”

Never mind the vaguely sexist undertone that exists in the assumption that M.I.A.’s art is somehow compromised by her “marrying into money.” What is really staggering about Hopper’s conclusion is that making art from contradictions used to assumed of any decent artist! Consumerism, the music industry, the whole capitalist shebang--these are systems that force self-aware artists to straddle between the lure of individual success and communal longing, between the personal and political, between the millions dangled before them and the promise of a better tomorrow. If Hopper finds this in itself worth noting, then it speaks to the depths of the historical nightmare from which music journalism needs to awake.

In this light, the controversy that surrounded the de facto YouTube ban on the video for “Born Free” can be seen as part of the game. Whether M.I.A. intended for the vid to get buried is less to the quick than was the opportunity it provided her to point out the contradiction that lies at the heart of the Internet: on one hand, unprecedented access to information, and on the other, the cutthroat interests of Google and the rest. It’s a move that makes Arulpragasam less a mere contradictory artist and more of a modern media assassin.

Shaking the modern world into consciousness isn’t an easy task to take on by yourself. But M.I.A. seems more hellbent than ever to hold the fractured mirror up to society and point out the wide gaps that exist. Rather than be knocked on the defensive by the shit she’s had shovelled at her, she’s taken the opportunity to grab hold of it and add it to her bag of ammo. It’s one of the many things that makes her possibly the most original artist in pop music today. And like most of the best artists, she forces the audience to ask if maybe we’d be better off in charge.

This article first appeared on the Society of Cinema and Arts website.

Monday, July 5, 2010

There is Power In a Boycott


It's not infrequent in our highly depoliticized society for an outspoken artist to be attacked for daring to take a stand. As long as profit comes before integrity, then "shut up and sing" will be the rule of the day in the music industry; musicians will be in the position of defending their views and actions. There's a difference, however, when the denunciation comes from an ally.

So it was in late June when Charlie Levy, an Arizona-based concert promoter and self-described activist criticized the ever-widening effort known as the Sound Strike. As I've written before, the Sound Strike represents the most significant collection of artists and musicians refusing to play in Arizona since the passage of the vicious, racist anti-immigrant bill SB 1070. Initiated by Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha, it was quick in garnering support from Sonic Youth, Cypress Hill and a bevy of other artists.

At the time of writing this piece, the ranks of the Sound Strike have swelled to include Steve Earle, Anti-Flag, Nine Inch Nails, Ry Cooder, Gogol Bordello, My Morning Jacket, DJ Spooky and countless others. The day this most recent crop of performers officially signed on, a statement was posted on the collective's website reiterating their reasoning: "For musicians and artists, the choice to boycott is not a simple one. But the reality has become clear that to perform in Arizona, with this divisive and unjust law on the books, is no longer a neutral act."

Charlie Levy, however, doesn't see it that way. Like the artists who have joined the Sound Strike, Levy is disgusted by and opposed to SB 1070. But in an open letter published June 24th in the Arizona Republic, Levy--owner of the Phoenix-based independent concert promotion company Stateside Presents--insisted that the boycott will do more harm than good.

"By not performing in Arizona," says Levy, "artists are harming the very people and places that foster free speech and the open exchange of ideas that serve to counter the closed-mindedness recently displayed by the new law."

"The people who will feel the negative effects of the boycott the deepest are local concert venues, including non-profit art-house theatres, independent promoters, fans and the people employed in the local music business. If the boycott continues, it is all but guaranteed that some of these venues will be forced to close their doors.

"Think of it this way: What if otherwise outspoken and inspirational activists like Martin Luther King Jr. had turned their backs on the state of Alabama and its citizens because they didn't agree with the discriminatory practices of its government during the critical years of the civil-rights movement? What would have happened if they had chosen to boycott Alabama rather than speak out, organize and effect change?"


The irony of mentioning the civil rights movement and Dr. King in particular is two-fold. For one thing, while there wasn't a large and concerted boycott launched against Alabama, there was no small number of artists who refused to play in front of segregated audiences. This, of course, did include most (if not all) venues in the Heart of Dixie.

The second irony hits embarrassingly close to Levy's home state. It wasn't too long ago (a little less than 20 years in fact) that the state of Arizona refused to acknowledge Martin Luther King Day. The response of countless entities was to pull all financial support from the state--most notably the National Football League, who were pressured to do so. The move of the Super Bowl from Tempe to California, along with myriad other divestments, was enough to force Arizona's law-makers to back down and finally recognize the holiday.

Levy's rather spotty notion of history aside, there is a bigger weakness in his argument: it views the anti-immigrant bill as the result of bad ideas rather than two opposing sides vying for power. The legislators currently in office don't care if outspoken artists boycott the state," he continues. "The people responsible for SB 1070 don't want you here. They don't want your voices heard."

Fair enough, but what then makes Levy believe that these same legislators will care if these same artists do play in the state? The answer comes next:

"In this important midterm election year, it is imperative that voters are organized and prepared to express their views about the recent law at the voting booths in November... Every concert venue and promoter in the state would be happy to help coordinate voter-registration drives and set up information booths in connection with concerts. Many of us are already planning specific events, including rallies and concerts, designed to educate and encourage local music lovers to get involved at this crucial time."

There are currently attempts to get a referendum against SB 1070 added to the ballot, but its chances of making it in time for this November's elections are increasingly grim. State electoral offices are notorious sticklers for manipulating the rules to buck grassroots attempts at ballot access. Anyone who has helped in an attempt to run an independent candidate can attest to this.

In the days following Levy's open letter, Conor Oberst (a.k.a. Bright Eyes), one of the signatories to the Sound Strike, penned a blunt-yet-fair reply to the promoter. While insisting that he isn't unsympathetic to the financial hit that local venues may take as a result of the boycott, he is quick to point out that his and other artists' refusal to play in Arizona is only one part of a much broader effort:

"If I return to Arizona to pay lip service to a roomful of kids at the Marquee it will do absolutely no good for anyone. What I can do is to help organize, and play my small part in, what I hope is the largest and most effective boycott this country has seen in a long time. To work it will have to involve members from all sectors of society. The Sports Industry, the Entertainment Industry, the Tourism and Convention Industry, other State and City governments, private businesses and individuals from around the country and the world--all of whom, by the way, are already participating in the boycott. Much of the Artist end of the boycott is symbolic, I acknowledge, and no real threat to the economics of the State. But it is an important part none-the-less for awareness and messaging. The Boycott has to be so widespread and devastating that the Arizona State Legislature and Governor have no choice but to repeal their unconstitutional, immoral and hateful law. It has to hurt them in the only place they feel any pain, their pocketbooks."

While Oberst may be at this point a bit cavalier in not stating exactly how much of each sector is already participating in the boycott, he certainly hits the nail on the head when he describes the dynamic of the movement. Those who peruse the Sound Strike's website will note that anyone can sign the online petition, including non-artists.

This isn't just an empty gesture. The call for boycott and divestment came from activists within Arizona itself. In the months since SB 1070's passage, thousands of outraged people have been prompted into the streets. Many no doubt first heard of these protests through the grapevine of the nascent boycott movement. It's these actions that have spurred companies, local and city governments alike to pledge support and withdraw all business.

The Sound Strike is only one vestige of a wide and broad upsurge that has the potential to, as Oberst says, put pain on the state's pocketbook. It's an act of solidarity, not neglect, and it's where real power comes from in struggles like these. In this spirit, Oberst's letter urged Levy to join him rather than wag his finger at musicians taking a stand:

"What I would encourage you to do, if you haven't already started, is to organize with all the local businesses you can to put as much pressure as possible on your State Government until the Law is repealed. An economic death rattle is the only cry of outrage they will hear."

With the clock ticking down until 1070 goes into affect, Oberst's call is more urgent than ever. It's worth remembering that this racist law wasn't implemented by the ballot. Ultimately it won't be struck down unless folks realize the explosive influence they have outside the voting booth. That's where the Sound Strike has the potential to illustrate its real importance: in reviving among an increasingly outraged and restless generation the notion that power concedes nothing without a demand.

This article first appeared at the website of the Society of Cinema and Arts.