Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Upper Class Twits With Guitars

Some readers may remember my piece on Vampire Weekend from about a year ago, where I put forth that the band's whole aesthetic smacks so much of ruling-class tourism that it's hard to take their world music influence seriously.

Now, just in time for the holidays, Tommy Hilfiger seems to have hammered my point home:

Watch that commercial again. Note how the whole thing plays like a knockoff of a Wes Anderson movie. There's not a single person of color in the commercial (Hilfiger's former popularity among the hip-hop community notwithstanding), and that smug air of self-satisfaction drips off it.

Now listen to the music. Can you think of any artist that would suit the ad better? I rest my case.

Monday, November 29, 2010

This Song Is Our Song

At first glance it might seem just another innocuous, sanitized link in this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. An gray-haired Wilford Brimley-looking character singing a pop-ified folk song on a massive float of cornucopias sponsored by Ocean Spray. Then comes the realization that the old fellow is none other than Arlo Guthrie singing his father’s most famous song:

“This land is your land, this land is my land
From California, to the New York Island
From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me”

And with that, another layer of insult has been added to a song whose radical legacy has been papered over almost past the point of recognition. This was no kernel of hidden subversion among the overload of patriotism and excess; this was corporate white-washing pure and simple.

It’s surprising enough on some level that Arlo--son of the late great Woody Guthrie--would be part of such a brazen display. Forty-five years ago, Arlo seemed poised to follow in his dad’s footsteps with his humorous Vietnam-era anti-draft song “Alice’s Restaurant.” More than a few of Woody’s contemporaries found themselves beaming with pride at Arlo’s apparent path.

During his father’s final years, the young Arlo was treated to numerous lessons in the backyard. Woody, deteriorating fast from the ravages of Huntington’s Disease, was at that time battling his own fear of obscurity, and went to special lengths to teach every verse of “This Land Is Your Land” to his son, including the now-famous “lost verses”:

“As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing.’
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me...

“In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?”

Arlo didn’t play those verses. Today’s Arlo Guthrie has veered a long way from the bedraggled hippie bucking the establishment. In 2008, the younger Guthrie endorsed Ron Paul for the Republican presidential nomination. Last year, he officially came out as a registered Republican. And though he reportedly "likes" Obama, he's also shown some love for the Tea Party movement.

True to form, it's all been justified in the language of the iconoclast, but in the end the message is rather clear that Arlo has made his peace with the system the way his father could never stomach.


The sterilizing of “This Land Is Your Land” runs much deeper than Arlo’s drift to the right over the past several decades. In fact, if McCarthyism would have had its way, then we may not have heard of Woody Guthrie or his work at all. Though the song was first recorded in 1944, it wasn’t released to the public at all until 1956, when the grip of anti-Communism was tight around America’s neck. Some, including Guthrie’s daughter Nora, have speculated that her father’s decision to not record the more radical verses back in ‘44 because of the sense that the Red Scare was just around the corner.

The notion is a bit of a stretch; at the time, Guthrie and the rest of the American Communist Party were firm cheerleaders of the US entry into World War II. But most folks, including Guthrie, were attracted to the Communist Party not for its support of the war, but because in the 1930s they had been the largest group putting up a fight in the face of the Great Depression--leading strikes, organizing the unemployed, and placing socialism squarely at the front of their struggle. Most of Guthrie’s best known songs were firmly in this vein: “Talkin’ Union,” “Do Re Mi,” “Pastures of Plenty.”

In all of these songs the message was clear: working people will only saved by taking matters into their own hands. Guthrie was annoyed to no end by artists who encouraged passivity among their audience. Chief among these was Irving Berlin, whose “God Bless America” was choking the airwaves by 1940. Says Joe Klein in his biography of Guthrie: “‘God Bless America’... was just another of those songs that told people not to worry, that God was in the driver’s seat. Some sort of response obviously was called for...”

That response came in the form of “This Land Is Your Land.” Taken in its entirety, the song is a rallying cry for America’s down-and-out, a reminder that past all of the machinations of the rich and powerful--the “private property” signs, the forced starvation of working people--the country was undeniably built by the toiling masses. It was these folks who Guthrie thought should run the whole shebang for themselves.

No wonder that Guthrie was fearful of the conservatism that swept the US in the ‘50. Many of his contemporaries--Josh White, Irwin Silber, Paul Robeson, Burl Ives and others--had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the first half of the decade. Some had named names; those who didn’t were summarily blacklisted and had their careers ruined. Guthrie was spared the wrath of HUAC, but most likely only because his illness had forced him out of the spotlight.

If not for the radicalism of the ‘60s, “This Land...” may very well have been irrevocably buried beneath the morass of history. Folk revival artists like the the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, the New Christy Minstrels and Peter, Paul and Mary were exposed to the song through the pages of Sing Out! magazine and performances of Pete Seeger and the Weavers. Inspired by the rising Civil Rights movement and growing anti-war sentiment, “This Land...” seemed the perfect soundtrack to these artists.

By the time of Guthrie’s death in 1967, he had become a legend to the new folk movement. Talk swirled among the New Left of turning “This Land...” in a national anthem for the people. It had, in fact become the rallying cry that Guthrie had intended it to be.


But as the struggles of the ‘60s receded, the prominence of this “new national anthem” made it vulnerable to being sucked up, watered down and repackaged by an establishment eager to regain its footing. In 1972, it was used by the presidential campaign of Democratic Senator George McGovern. By ‘75 it had also been used in ad campaigns for Ford Motors and United Airlines. Many of the radicals who had known and been shaped by Guthrie could only sit and watch as his song was twisted into another marketing tool by businesses cashing in on the songwriter’s rough-and-tumble popularity.

It was a process aided by an increasing number of ivory-tower academics, who, in the words of Klein, “theorized that Woody was merely a pure and simple country boy, seduced by the big-city radicals.” It was a cynical and condescending move aimed at inorganically separating Guthrie from the socialist vision that had inspired him to write such timeless songs in the first place.

Today, Guthrie’s songs find themselves redone by an endless array of artists who clearly recognize the near-unmatchable influence he’s had on popular music. Some of these artists get it; others don’t. What seems universal among them is the notion that his songs provide a kind of gutsy, working-class credibility that few other songwriters can aspire to--let alone forty years after his death! Wilco, Tracy Chapman, Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine, Steve Earle, Dropkick Murphys; that’s just a few of the artists who have recorded versions of Guthrie’s music and have been vocal about walking in his footsteps.

And yet, the mainstream school of Guthrie-denial, those who seek to put his brilliance in songwriting on a pedestal while wagging their finger at his Communist beliefs, is alive and well today. In a 2004 album review, New York Times writer William Hogeland goes out of his way to rag on artists like Earle, Billy Bragg and Tom Morello, who he accuses of attempting to construct some kind of mythical “St. Woody,” and “who sometimes seem nostalgic not for a poet but for a party hack.”

Hearing and respecting Guthrie’s work, though, means understanding him warts and all. It means accepting his Stalinism without defending it, and realizing that the world he envisioned was one run by working people. It means seeing that his incredible catalog didn’t somehow come despite his views, but because of them. It means listening to “This Land Is Your Land” knowing that the song was a call to action, not a vapid piece of consumerism.

Maybe today’s Republican Arlo Guthrie can’t see the forest for the trees, but at least one person on the right can--albeit to laughable ends. This past March, none other than Glenn Beck took time on his televised hate-fest to cite “This Land...” as “proof” of Barack Obama’s "hidden Marxist agenda." The song was, of course, famously performed by both Seeger and Springsteen in front of the Lincoln Memorial the day before Obama’s inauguration. That was clearly enough for Beck, who after reading the most radical verses went off on a surprisingly accurate screed:

“The song was originally written in 1940, by the way, by Woody Guthrie--communist! It's a song about a progressive utopia land with no ownership of property. Because some have it and some don't. And we all think of this as an American song.”

Damn right. It’s a song that comes from the other America--the one made up of the laboring majority when they dare to fight back. And just like the “progressive utopia land” that Beck fears with every fiber, “This Land Is Your Land” is a song well beyond the confines of profit and ownership. It doesn’t belong to American Airlines, Ford, Macy’s, Ocean Spray or even Arlo Guthrie. It belongs to those of us who take its words seriously.

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

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Damned Shame in Print

The following is a quote from Adam Mansbach, novelist and member of The Anthology of Rap advisory board, as quoted in a recent article by Paul Devlin on Slate.com. The Anthology of Rap, released earlier in the month by Yale University Press, has caused a firestorm for its numerous inaccuracies in lyrical transcription.

"The Anthology is disappointing to me on several levels. Most importantly, this is a book that seeks to establish the relevance and artistry of hip-hop lyricism, and instead it's made many of the world's best MCs look downright incoherent by misrepresenting their words. When Ice Cube says 'your plan against the ghetto backfired,' and it gets turned into 'you're playing against the ghetto black fly,' more has happened than just a simple error in transcription; you've made an important song perplexing and impenetrable—while staking a claim, backed by institutional power and market presence, that your version is canonical."

Mansbach goes on to say that he and other members of the anthology's advisory board (which also included Davey D and Joan Morgan) weren't consulted in the least by the editors. Most didn't even receive preliminary galleys. Neither, apparently, were the artists who wrote the afterwords for the book--Common and Chuck D. Hardly featherweights.

Devlin's article goes to great length in allowing Grandmaster Caz, one of rap's original legends, to go through the myriad misprints; in just one song, there are six. Caz apparently did receive a copy, but not until a mere two weeks before publication date, and never had the chance to sign off on his own lyrics.

There's a greater crime here than just a few mistakes. It reveals the often slipshod way in which the establishment views hip-hop. Yale University's press is, naturally, one of the most prestigious and respected publishers in academia and the publishing world in general. For them to not bother with their endless funding to verify basic accuracy is insulting enough. That they didn't even consult the authorities that they themselves had assembles merely highlights the whole debacle.

Needless to say, I won't be asking for this as a stocking stuffer this year. Neither should any serious head who respects hip-hop as an art-form.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanks For Nothing!

A little bit of Indigenous hip-hop from Chief Rock delivering the other side of Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Beatles on iTunes: It's About Damned Time

It looks like the Beatles are finally available on iTunes. Not that anyone could miss it. The past week has seen the simple, minimalist ads strewn across the TV screen with all due aplomb. And yes, it certainly is a milestone. Step back enough, though, and it becomes a landmark only from the utter absurdity of the situation.

After all, iTunes has been around in one form or another for almost a decade now, and is as much a part of the global cultural fabric as MTV and CDs. So why the hell did it take them so long to gain permission to sell music by the most iconic and influential artist in modern history?

In a rational world, the Beatles would have been the first available for download. But as it is, the music industry has become such a bloated, lumbering behemoth of a business that simple common sense is turned on its head. Negotiations between Beatles' estate and Apple Computers have been bogged in so much legalese and profit-sharing tug-o-wars that the process has been drawn out for years. In some ways, the bad blood goes back well before internet downloading was even a glint in the eye; back in the '80s Paul McCartney attempted to sue Apple for its similarity in title to his own Apple Corps record label.

Viewed in that light the ads have become more a cathartic "phew!" on the part of Apple than a celebration. I'm not one to bring a turd to a picnic--the fact that ordinary folks can now download the magnificent catalog of the Fab Four is something well worth savoring. But maybe we should be asking also, if it takes this long for the suits to get us the music we love, are they really necessary in the first place?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Update in DSO Strike

According to the Detroit Free Press, the city's symphony orchestra musicians, who has been on strike since early October, recently withdrew its unfair labor practice charge they filed against DSO management in September. Whether it's a setback for the striking musicians is debatable, but it definitely drives home the need for people to be in solidarity with them.

First, a quick recap: the musicians went on strike against management's demand that all players take a 30% pay-cut and broaden the definition of their jobs. Cellist and spokesperson Haden McKay told me back when the strike first began that it's about a lot more than wages, though:

"It's a very simple line to draw. We're competing in an international and national talent pool for top players. We can pay a little bit less than the other ones because once people come, they love the quality of the orchestra, they tend to put down roots, and they stay. To get them there in the first place, though, you have to offer at least a competitive package.

"If we go down the way that management wants us to go down, we're not going to be able to offer that. What we've seen these past couple years has been people leaving for other jobs. They've seen the writing on the wall and sensed that management was going to go after us."

The withdrawal of the charges with the National Labor Relations Board came as the musicians' lawyer recognized that the NLRB was likely to side with management. But then, any other outcome would have been a stretch, and the musicians recognized this from the get-go. “It might have been a blow to the cause if we had expected something different, but we didn’t,” says Leonard Leibowitz, an attorney representing the strikers.

Nonetheless, the dismissal of the case and the musicians' withdrawal of it means that their best option for victory has to come from the bottom-up. There's no sign of the strike ending anytime soon, but if they're going to hold and line and preserve the integrity of the DSO, it's going to come from the support shown them by the public.

The DSO has canceled all of its performances through mid-December. Meanwhile, the players themselves have been busy putting on performances of their own in nearby communities to drum up solidarity and benefit the strike-fund. They've really displayed not just how resolute the musicians are in the face of this dispute, but that good art doesn't need the say-so of capital to exist.

Right now, they're lining up a series of holiday performances. Anyone who's able to attend should buy tickets. Those who aren't should think about donating.

Monday, November 22, 2010

It's Happening in London, and We Need it Here

It's something I've said many times before, but to be honest, it can't be said too much. The right feels incredibly emboldened right now, and they will be bringing this into every realm they possibly can--from redoubling their bigoted fight against the Islamic community center in NYC to spreading Arizona's anti-immigrant law to other states. Texas is pushing an educational agenda that speaks of the "good aspects" of slavery. But at the same time, we've seen artists and musicians--mainstream and underground, of all genres--taking a stand to a degree we haven't seen before.

Love Music Hate Racism is showing the way to do this in the UK. They've recently announced the date of their joint conference with Unite Against Fascism this coming February. No word on speakers or artists, but they've managed to forge relationships with some of the best musicians in Britain, from rapper Lowkey to Babyshambles' Drew McConnell to the punk-reggae of the King Blues.

And yes, it most certainly can be done here. Readers would do well to remember what LMHR's Martin Smith said at this very site back in September:

"I'd say do it yourself. The whole punk ethic was called "DIY," or "do it yourself." And what was great about punk was that it was a grassroots movement that developed without any support from the music labels, or any support from the mainstream. We created our own fanzines, our own bands, our own clothes, our own culture, our own clubs, and we took spaces and we made them our own...

"I think we can create a grassroots movement with the support of these young bands. And what you'll find is that as these bands become more popular, then we can draw bigger crowds in. We can't rely on the record labels to do anything, because I don't believe they do. They don't like LMHR. They let their bands play, but they get no profits out of it. All our bands play for nothing--it's a great ethos because they're not doing it for wealth, they're doing it for the message...

"Every band, every poet, every rapper, every dancehall kid can do this. And it would make a massive difference if we had this in hundreds of cities across America. That's what we're trying to do here in Britain. We just don't wait for the next Libertines to come along; we want to start with our bands when they're still very young."

Damn straight.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Music is a Right, Not a Privilege

Readers familiar with this site will know that I'm certainly no fan of Elton John, but the announcement that the EU is now demanding that Italy pay them back money that was used to pay for one of John's performances is rather troubling. As Europe forces all its member nations into greater and greater measures of austerity, it won't be the last we hear of it either.

It may seem odd to American readers that the central European economy pay for a musical performance, but then, it needs to be remembered that this is a region of the world with a much more robust welfare state than the US. Likewise, most countries' arts programs are at least somewhat funded by the government.

That may not be the case for much longer. In its search to balance the European budget by any means necessary, the research group Open Europe deemed the $983,000 of EU money that Italy paid for the Piedigrotta Festival (featuring John) back in September "wasteful." The New York Times article featuring the revelation mentions the fest alongside truly wacky programs like "Hungarian dog fitness."

But there are other programs--such as the Slovakian soccer program meant for impoverished Roma youth--that Open Europe is also suggesting for the chopping block. In fact, pretty much everything is fair game for elimination: public transport, health care, civil service jobs, housing, education. The protests in France that came in the wake of Sarkozy's rise in the retirement age are no doubt still fresh in readers' minds.

This is how Europe is dealing with the crisis--bail out banks and businesses, and shift the weight of the cuts onto working people's backs. The notion of public funded art came into existence around the same time that social safety nets came into being in the aftermath of the Depression and World War II. Over the past sixty years, it's gone well beyond just big performances like Elton John's in Italy. Public funding for the arts has allowed avant-garde theater groups to flourish, community painting programs that have nurtured young budding artists, and (until recently) even gave money for new instruments and studio time to musicians in order to hone their craft.

It comes from a basic concept that used to be accepted as common sense in Europe: a decent living was a human right. That includes art. With the EU forcing austerity across the board, one wonders what the future of public arts will be. Ultimately there's a lot more at stake than the opportunity to see Elton John live.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Porgy and Bess vs. Apartheid

When Cape Town Opera in South Africa announced that they would be performing Porgy and Bess in Tel Aviv, it was over objections from high-profile supporters of the artistic boycott of Israel, including Desmond Tutu. The video below is of supporters of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign performing their own rendition on opening night.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bad Dancing, Bad Politics

I don't know how to dance (at least well), and I can't say I've ever watched an episode of "Dancing With the Stars," so apparently I've got two strikes against me with this post. But I've been hearing enough about it to throw my hat in with the folks who are now screaming to the hills "why is Bristol Palin still on that show?"

The chorus on this topic has been growing the past few weeks really. Most commentators all agree that the younger Palin can't dance to save her life, and have complained that better dancers have been sent home well before her. This past Monday, one viewer's outrage got to the point where he actually shot his television!

It speaks volumes about the society we live in that someone can be so alienated that they put so much stock in a TV show. But there's an added layer to all of this because of Palin's obvious family connections. Sarah Palin is of course, nowadays, a main figurehead of the Tea Party, and despite the media spin that has the baggers as a new majority in the "center-right nation," it's a safe bet that there is a frustrated core of folks out there who want her and the rest of her privileged, snot-nosed progeny to drop off the face of the earth.

It also speaks volumes that Bristol Palin can be considered a "star." It comes as no surprise to point out that she has done absolutely nothing to earn her fame. But then, that's par for the course in the era of Hiltons and Kardashians. "Dancing With the Stars" had done for dancing what "American Idol" has done for music--it has diluted it down to the mere notion of celebrity.

And nobody should underestimate the way in which Palin's mother is willing to use celebrity to push the agenda of her movement. She does have, after all, her own reality show. It would be easy to chalk it all up to some Republican conspiracy, but that would be laying it on a bit thick. It is worth remembering, however, that "DWTS" has had conservative political figures as contestants before. We are, after all, talking about ABC... a subsidiary of the Disney corporation.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

More Proof That Pop Doesn't Equal Popular

Apparently it's Taylor Swift's world; we just live and listen in it. Though the country songbird didn't take home the trophy at last week's Country Music Awards, she's clearly on top of the pop mainstream. Her new album sold over a million copies in the first week, making it the fastest seller not just of this year, but the past five too.

Impressive numbers, and given where things are at right now--the ongoing crisis in the mainstream music industry, the stagnant economy, etc--it's even more of a feat. Conventional wisdom has it that Swift's triumph comes on her own merit, that she has somehow reached millions of listeners based on the quality of her songs and message.

Taking a step back, that's rather depressing. Swift is an accomplished songwriter and has certainly made giant leaps for someone her age, but her work is ultimately nothing new or unique. No artistic daring is involved in making her music. So the prospect of millions of ordinary people rushing to buy her records may at first glance paint an image of a passive mass of consumers waiting to be spoon-fed the lowest common denominator.

But there's another facet to Swift's popularity--one that cannot be ignored but 99.9% of the time is. That's the role of the music industry itself. It's the same industry that has found itself floundering over the past decade, but more or less operates off the same basic model: the model that lives by the mantra "stars are made, not born."

And in this case, as in almost every other, it's the dollars behind her that make the difference in Swift's sales. Ultimately, whatever talent she may or may not have is irrelevant when the massive edifice of the big labels jumps into action. And in fact, that's precisely what can explain Swift's incredible sales; the past few weeks have seen her go on a whirlwind media blitz that can only be financed by the kinds of bucks that massive corporations have at their disposal.

Scott Borchetta, head of Swift's Nashville-based Big Machine Records, said as much in a recent piece in the LA Times:

"I think this shows that when we do it right, we can still get hundreds of thousands of people to line up and buy [an album] the first week... There are so many factors behind why certain things are happening and why certain things are not happening in our industry: what the real unemployment level is, the fact we don't have record stores anymore. We attacked all of that. You can't do that with every release, but you can do it with superstars."

The key part of that quote is the last sentence. Loosely translated, it means that labels aren't willing to take risks on anything that pushes the envelope. Safe profit margins are the result of going with what's safe. Woe to any artist who wants to break the mold; at best they'll find themselves underfunded to the point of being shunted away, at worst the door will be slammed in their face.

For the record, it's not that Big Machine Records is some small upstart taking the industry by storm. Borchetta himself--the founder of the label--is a former executive for DreamWorks Records, and Big Machine falls under the umbrella of the Universal Music Group. How else could they have the connections to put Swift up on the major TV networks? And if that's the key to the young starlet's success, then it has to be admitted that what makes the difference isn't the quality of her songs, but the approval of big business.

It can be frustrating for lovers of art--those of us who hunger for real, daring material that is unlike anything done before--to watch the rise of mediocrity and banality. Often it leads to a kind of cynicism, blaming the "mindless consumers" for being so sheepish. The problem isn't them, though, it's the fact that we live in a system that puts profit before art, progress, and in the end, people themselves.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Posts

Just what it says above. I'm back in town, business taken care of, and--as always--have lots of news, articles and features coming your way. Just a quick rundown of the coming months:

--A retrospective to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Clash's Sandinista!

--A piece on the upcoming new trials for the West Memphis Three.

--A look at the real, radical, even revolutionary legacy of John Lennon thirty years after his death.

--A discussion of race and the criminal injustice system in the wake of Lil Wayne's release.

--And, of course, the "Best of 2010."

All here. Just so you know to come back.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Memo to Kanye: No Olive Branch For Dubya

Kanye West has spent the better part of the last year attempting to rehabilitate his image. Ever since the interruption heard round the world at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards, the once-seemingly-untouchable rapper has faced an uphill battle in restoring his cred. Nowadays it’s impossible to even mention the man without Taylor Swift on the other side of your tongue, and with a new album dropping soon, the stale paparazzi-talk seems to have completely obscured what it was that made Ye such an icon of hip-hop.

Enter George W. Bush, another man clearly searching for an image reboot. He’s got a book on the way: Decision Points, in which he’s bound to justify each and every “decider moment” that came across his Oval Office desk. Irony is palpable here; the man who coined such little gems as “is our children learning” and claimed he knows “how hard it is to put food on your family” has written a book. I don’t envy his proofreaders.

Maybe Bush sensed blood in the water around Kanye, because in a recent interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer, the president who stole an election and fabricated Iraqi weapons of mass destruction called West’s famed lambaste against him “the worst moment” of his presidency.

Bush is referring, of course, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when Kanye infamously broke script on live TV to tell the world what many already knew: “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

“He called me a racist,” Bush told Lauer, “and I didn’t appreciate it then. I don’t appreciate it now. It’s one thing to say, ‘I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘This man’s a racist.’ I resent it, it’s not true.”

Except for one thing. It is true. Bush’s administration took every opportunity to side against affirmative action, and even chose Martin Luther King’s birthday to officially renounce it. As governor of Texas he oversaw the execution of over 150 prisoners--a disproportionate number of whom were African American. As president he delivered nothing but lip service to the problem of racial profiling, and as he pushed through the Patriot Act backhandedly defended it.

Kanye received endless flak for his live comments. But as the world watched the footage of Black faces stranded on roof-tops while FEMA sat idly by, as the press denounced the “looting” of African Americans struggling to stay alive, it was hard to disagree with Ye’s straightforwardness. His words went viral in the days and weeks afterwards. I remember attending a quarter-million strong anti-war protest in Washington, DC a month after Katrina, where I saw his quote emblazoned on countless signs and placards.

Five years later, Katrina has become one of the many unsavory and criminal moments that define the Bush years. Dubya himself is surprisingly aware of this (insofar as he can be “aware” of anything), as a leaked quote from his book reveals:

“I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn’t like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low.”

For his part, Ye has responded with a statement uncharacteristically conciliatory in tone, saying he can “understand how he feels.” It’s just one more layer to the evolving public conundrum that is Kanye West, who eight years ago helped reinvigorate a hip-hop scene that was confused and flagging, but today is announcing his intent to perform at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

It stands to reason that Ye himself may still feel greatly cowed by the shit-storm that was slung at him in the wake of the Taylor Swift incident. Let’s face it: if he were a white rock musician then his stunt would have been just another one for the books. But pundits had been calling Kanye a loudmouth for years. They did it when he took Bush to task on TV and when he publicly pledged to take on homophobia in the hip-hop industry. His meaningless and ultimately harmless prank at last year’s VMAs provided all the fodder that was needed to label him an egotistical reverse-racist, and he’s spent the past year as an embattled semi-pariah.

But Kanye owes no olive branch to George W. Bush. At best, the rapper is guilty of rudeness, and he’s been hoisted on the public petard. Bush sat on his hands in Texas while in the next state thousands were abandoned to the fierce elements of a natural disaster, and he has yet to pay for it.

In the swelling of anger that followed Katrina, Ye rightfully felt emboldened to give a brief but needed platform to that same outrage. It shows what he’s capable of when enough folks have got his back. Even more recently, as activists spilled onto the streets to protest Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070 law, he was one of the first artists to join the Sound Strike. Give him a bold anti-racist movement, and we’ll see what he can do.

That’s the one good thing to come out of Dubya’s smug return to the public spotlight: it’s reminded us how necessary voices like Kanye are--and that we need more of them. Bush’s continued resentment shows that while West may be a bit of a loose cannon, he frequently takes the time to point that cannon in the right direction.

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

No Posts For the Next Week

Rebel Frequencies will be out of commission for the next week (other than the above article on Kanye West) while I take care of some personal and business matters. It will be back in action on Monday, November 15th.

Friday, November 5, 2010

California Uber Alles Redux

Despite the sizable defeat that the Democrats received this past Tuesday, there was one victory for them in California: the election of Jerry Brown as Governor. It's not the first time he's been elected; he served from '75 to '83 as the youngest in the state's history. Now he's the oldest.

Is it a victory for working people, though? Despite his liberal reputation, no. Here's a man who's promised to go along part-and-parcel with Obama's Race To The Top and the privatization of schools and the busting of teachers unions that goes along with it. He's one of the main architects of California's bloated, repressive prison-industrial complex. He's refused to rule out furloughs and cuts for public employees, but has said nothing of consistently raising taxes on the rich.

Meet the new boss... same as the... well, you know the rest.

To be clear, it's not that Brown has become more conservative with age. His first stint as California's Gov was chock-full of betrayals. There was at least one band that got this, and the song that resulted from it is fairly legendary. The Golden State's movements to protect public services and education would do well to make sure it's plugged into their headphones.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Man in Black and the Ass-Hat

John Boehner's feeling pretty full of himself nowadays. Little wonder why, with the Republicans back in control of the House, Boehner is speculated to be the next Speaker. And like any pompous career politician who fancies himself cock-of-the-walk, he seldom lets facts get in the way.

Lately, Boehner has taken to using the name of Johnny Cash, the greatest rebel in the history of country music, in the same breath as Ronald Reagan:

"Remember when Ronald Reagan was president? We had Bob Hope. We had Johnny Cash. Think about where we are today. We have got President Obama. But we have no hope and we have no cash."

Honestly, I care not a shred about the legacy of Bob Hope; he was certainly a conservative, and a mediocre comedian at best. Lameness of the joke aside, the attempt to appropriate the Man in Black as a Republican icon is stomach-turning. Conservatives have been trying to do it for years, but it flies in the face of everything that the man stood for. As it's been pointed out on Socialist Worker's "Couldn't Make It Up" blog:

"Republicans like to forget that Johnny Cash was a defender of social programs like welfare, and an opponent of the prison system, the death penalty and the war in Iraq. He was also a supporter of Democrat Jimmy Carter (a distant cousin of his wife June Carter).

"In fact, after growing up in Dyess, Ark.--a 16,000-acre New Deal project run by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration--Cash would joke that 'I grew up under socialism--kind of. Maybe a better word would be communalism.'"

But really, the best response to this blatant hypocrisy came from none other than Cash's own daughter, country artists Rosanne: "John Boehner: Stop using my dad's name as a punchline, you asshat."

Preach it, sister.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Rebel Music's Mission: To Punch Ted Nugent in the Face

A humorous and timely piece on SocialistWorker.org today. Now that the conservatives have taken back the House, we're bound to be hearing all sorts of references to the Constitution and what the Tea Party thinks is in it. Says Danny Lucia:

"Some of the new members of Congress talk about truly understanding the Constitution with an intensity that I can only compare to my feelings about the Smiths when I was 15 years old. Like today's conservatives, I was frightened and angry, and I thought the world sucked. I knew things would be better if everyone would just sit on my bed and just...like...listen."

In other words, motivated almost solely by some abstract standard rather than a real understanding of the world. Add in a frightening agenda and that's the "new right" in a nutshell.

Only difference is that, Morrissey's more recent behavior notwithstanding, the Smiths actually seemed to represent something of an alternative for working kids during their height--albeit one that lead to the dead-end of shoegazing. Maybe it's an easy analogy to make, but the Tea Party is a bit more akin to Ted Nugent than anyone else: loud, privileged, arrogant, disconnected, and totally deserving--not of a nice polite chat at the end of the bed--but of a good sock in the jaw.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

We Know a Place Where No Bands Go

People in Europe don't need another reason to hate NATO. But it looks like they got one in Portugal, where the military alliance has forced the Arcade Fire to cancel a gig there for "security concerns." More specifically, NATO is hogging all of Lisbon's security during its summit on November 19th and 20th.

Hearing that the Arcade Fire were planning to perform on the 18th at the city's Atlantica Pavillion, the summit's security coordinators stepped in and demanded the group cancel its show. Apparently, Arcade Fire even tried to negotiate by offering to play a day earlier on the 17th, but officials wouldn't even allow that. The group have been forced to postpone the show indefinitely.

This is odd to say the least. Protests have been called by a collection of left-wing and anti-war groups across Europe, but there is little to indicate that it is going to be larger than any other recent left demo on the continent (the G20 for example). The Arcade Fire aren't an especially political band, though they have--like many other acts--condemned the Iraq war. It would be, of course, sheer conjecture to say this has anything to do with NATO's forceful cornering of the band, but I wouldn't put it past them.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rock the Streets, Not the Vote

In the space of two years, young folks have gone from being one of the most likely to vote to the least likely. So says a recent study of America's "Millennials" released by Harvard's Institute of Politics. John Della Volpe, the institute's director, says that he is "surprised by... the drop in the activity level and engagement levels of this generation."

The situation couldn't be more starkly different. Two years into the Obama administration, the lauding of young people and talk of the "first hip-hop" president seem like something more from a TV show than reality. The hope that energized the legions of young folks to get out the vote has pretty much disappeared and been replaced by a whole lot of business as usual.

To be clear, 18-to-35-year-olds are the first to lose in a time of recession and the last to benefit from a recovery (which, despite the rabid arm-waving from so many mainstream economists, is not upon us). That the hopes of this same generation have been roundly ignored by Obama--the institution of real universal health care, an end to the occupations abroad, real jobs and union protections--is the biggest reason that the Republicans are going to win so big tomorrow.

The lesson here, though, isn't how little difference the kids make, but how much of a difference. The same energy that pushed countless students and young workers to volunteer hundreds of thousands of hours for the Obama campaign were a waste of time. Neither were the countless anthems and songs--from Will.I.Am's cloying "Yes We Can" to Nas' fiery "Black President"--all for naught. In fact, in the grand scheme, it's not even a beginning.

True, the problems that forced these heads and indie kids to cast ballots in droves the way that hadn't been seen in several generations haven't gone away. And it's no secret that many of these folks feel more than a little kicked around two years later. But just as the unemployment and student loans have stubbornly stuck around, so has the anger widened. And in a few instances, it's managed to provide a glimpse of what might be possible if the anger can really take grassroots form.

Take the struggle for LGBT equality that exploded the day after Obama's election. Here is a movement that seemingly came out of nowhere to capture the imaginations of thousands of young folks, that gained the support of a few notable artistic names (one can't picture Lady Gaga nowadays apart from her fervent advocacy on behalf of the National Equality March), and put hundreds of thousands on the streets. A little less than two years later, Prop 8 has been struck down, and Don't Ask Don't Tell may be next, despite rather persistent foot-dragging from the supposedly "gay-friendly" Democrats.

Or take immigrant rights, the sleeping giant that so many pundits have been aching to go away for the past five years. After SB 1070 was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, another firestorm of protest emerged from the recesses of the national imagination. Local demonstrations numbering often in the thousands took to the streets of major cities yet again, and the first organized expression of artistic boycott in years began to take shape: the Sound Strike. Here are Rage Against the Machine, Conor Oberst, Gogol Bordello, Cypress Hill, Massive Attack, Pitbull and a slew of others refusing to play in the Grand Canyon State until 1070 is struck down.

In the run-up to May Day, the Justice Department placed an injunction on the bulk of the law. Once again, the courts are doing their best to pan everything out on the narrowest of terms, but like the fight for LGBT rights, it's worth wondering whether any action would have been taken at all without the wave of struggle this virulent law unleashed.

While it's true that both movements seem to have calmed and faded back into the background yet again, the experience of each shows that the most unexpected incident can bring them out again. And when they are, then we start to see where the real power of people--students, workers, community members, artists and musicians alike--actually is. Ultimately, it ain't in the voting booth.