There’s something charming about the notion that music can change the world. There’s also a touch of the narcotic about it. Certainly music has something to say about the political times. But change the world? More people change clothes listening to a favorite tune.
From Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to Woodstock to Ani DiFranco, people hold out hope that some song or artistic event will finally and permanently carry over into reality itself. What they really believe in is the power of music itself. That’s fine. Holding onto naÃ¯ve hopes is not.
Take the latest installment in this charade; the AFL-CIO backed “Tell Us the Truth” tour, with ex-Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello as its foremost spokesman. The tour, which never made its way to Salt Lake City but still found time for a stop in Ashville, N.C., was hitched together to flag everyone’s attention to all those tools “The Man” uses to keep us down: media conglomerates, corporate globalization and all the law enforcement officials who hurl tear gas at the behest of both.
In an interview with Newsweek’s Web edition, Morello waxed rebellious and conspiratorial about “three chords and the truth,” and that it’s people who “work for a living” who listen to his music. In a hilarious attempt to bond with the press, Morello commended the corporate publication for “having the courage” to publish a story on the left-leaning music tour. Then it was on to more talk about how “proud” he felt dodging tear-gas canisters with students and anarchists in the street.
“I must rock for the workers and the people,” Morello said, ending his interview. All this, and more, came from a Harvard-educated person who once fronted a band offering this lyric: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell!” Puerile political insight never came cheaper.
For those of us who wait and hope for a resurgence of the American left, Morello’s words ring depressingly hollow. Three years ago, I attended, as a reporter, a Democracy in Motion Caravan workshop on protest management techniques, only to have the Caravan crew explain that their version of democracy included certain limitations on what the press could reveal about their “workshop.” The left can be every bit as dangerous as the right.
Do the best political ethics make better music? Does the best in songwriting give us better politics and social conditions? Composer Richard Wagner was a raving egomaniac and bigoted anti-Semite, but turned out awe-inspiring music. Bob Dylan wrote the greatest songs of a generation. That generation turned around to vote Republican.
The power of music rests in the fact that it’s one of the few art forms where the line between form and content is actually nonexistent. The song you hear is the song you hear, nothing more but still so much more. It would be nice to hear someone today produce something on par with “Like a Rolling Stone.”