For one long week this October Bruce Springsteen will be something more than a musician, songwriter, singer, and rock god. He’ll be a political operative. That’s fine. There will be a lot of operating going on that month. His vehicle for this career switch is a new “group” called Vote for Change. Under this umbrella there are several seasoned acts, like R.E.M. and Pearl Jam and John Mellencamp. These political operatives will stump separately or together and with many other acts at more than 30 rallies in seven days. Their intent is plain.
Should you attend any of these “concerts”–all strategically placed in battleground states where a few hundred kids could quite literally change the election outcome–be quite certain of where you are, of why you’re there. The venue will be a political arena; you will be there as a political partisan. Each stop on the Vote for Change tour will be a politically charged event aimed at helping remove George W. Bush from office. If that’s your thing, join the rally. If not, voice your opposition.
Politics requires such decisiveness. So does rock. Since its inception rock has demanded that its listeners say yea or nay, and often. You choose your bands. You pledge your allegiance at rock concerts, record stores, and across the radio dial. If your band starts to fade you move on to other acts. Rock pulls no punches. Rock is about choice–your choice.
These days, however, that choice may not seem so apparent for about half the fans of Bruce Springsteen–or Michael Stipe or Eddie Vedder or Dave Matthews. What do you do if you like a band’s music but not their overtly stated politics? Worse, what if you like a band’s music but have no politics? Do you then vote with the band?
All of this is unnecessary haze. Politics is about choice. Rock is about choice. So political rock must also be about choice. If you’re voting for Bush and have long liked Bruce, you must now decide between the two. It’s that clear-cut. Bruce, for the time being, no longer plays in a band–he fronts a political machine. He is no longer a rocker–he’s a political rocker.
But hasn’t rock been political before? Isn’t rock always out to change the world? Hasn’t the Boss, himself, always been political? Of course, on all counts. Political rock has been around for at least as long as Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” the chicken-hawk protest song that hit in 1963. But you could have hummed its generalized bars (“You that never done nothin’ / But build to destroy / You play with my world / Like it’s your little toy”) and still pulled the arm for Goldwater. In the Reagan 1980s you could have loved the Clash and not sided with the Sandinistas. You can be pro-Bono today and anti-third-world debt relief. Up until now, an Eddie Vedder tirade against Bush was just another Eddie Vedder tirade against Bush. You could have cheered and pumped your fist, or yelled, “Shut up and play ‘Jeremy.’”
While it’s true that politics and rock have long been drawn to each other, they’ve historically been more like kissing cousins. If you went to Woodstock in 1969 you went for the counterculture and all its trappings–which included mind-enhancing herbs and low-entry-barrier sex and the electric atmosphere of social change. But you wouldn’t have gone if it weren’t for some of the best rock and roll ever.
Admit it. If you bought the No Nukes album or went to the movie in 1980 it was for the music, not the message. In 1985, if you watched Live Aid all day in front of your television, you saw several dozen bands play thousands of miles apart and you made 48 trips to your refrigerator. You ate and drank and partied and loved the music. If you went to Woodstock II in 1994 or Woodstock III in 1999 you borrowed your neighbor’s tent and got drunk and mugged for MTV.
If at any of these events your thoughts were locked–truly locked–on Vietnam or nuclear proliferation or the starving in Africa or world peace you were among the minority–or you’re lying. To be involved with any of these events was in large part to be appropriately involved with yourself–and pleasure.
But in 2004, political rock is something new altogether. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder agrees: “Right now, it’s a different situation. It’s hard to talk about remodeling the house when the basement is on fire.” Political rock is an entity now, a true genre. Rock sperm has successfully fertilized political egg, turning out a hybrid spawn. This spawn has more than policy suggestions–which rock is filled with, from the inane to the plausible–it has a candidate. It is a partisan political machine. Don’t think otherwise.
This newborn plays a familiar beat–mammalian and driving like its rock-and-roll parent. But after it slings a guitar over its neck it tells you how to vote. Its lyrics are still general in nature and most are sung with trademark passion. But other lyrics are preached between songs or polished for interviews and op-ed columns. Its images, gracing big-screen backdrops, are crafted to persuade: Down with Bush, the Evil One. Political rock in 2004 is purely political. Vote for Change wants Bush out of office.
Writing last week in the New York Times, political rocker Bruce Springsteen delivered familiar left-wing phrases. The war in Iraq was “unnecessary,” he wrote. The circumstances of the war “are now discredited.” We have run “record deficits, while simultaneously cutting and squeezing services like afterschool programs.” Tax cuts have gone “to the richest 1 percent.”
This is the new stage on which Springsteen is to be judged. Like his bandmates in Vote for Change, he has exited rock-and-roll proper. He is a political rocker now; the songs he plays at his rallies are political tools. Springsteen’s words “no retreat, no surrender,” once part of a passionate song of rebellion, hope, and fraternity, are now weighted with a specific message: No retreat from the fight against George W. Bush; no surrender until Bush is back in Texas.
Politics and rock make decision-makers of us all. That’s America, and what makes it great. Sad that so many of us now have no choice but to vote against Bruce and Eddie and Dave and all the rest. Should they return to good ol’ rock we’ll be there waiting, and with somewhat open arms. In the meantime we’ll listen to the bands we like that still play rock and (for the most part) shut-up about politics. We already know how we’re going to vote.
–Chris McEvoy is managing editor of National Review Online and executive editor of National Review.