In a scene at the end of the movie Austin Powers, Dr. Evil remarks: “There is nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster.” Though Dr. Evil is not a real medical doctor, his diagnosis was correct, and it can even be extended to real life. Dr. Evil could just as easily have been talking to the Rolling Stones.
With this month’s release of their first studio album in eight years, the Rolling Stones are struggling to remain hip at a time when their hips need replacing. For the most part, they have succeeded thanks to some political controversy resulting from their new song, “Sweet Neo Con,” which takes an apparent swipe at the Bush administration (“You call yourself a Christian, I call you a hypocrite / You call yourself a patriot, well I think you’re full of sh**”). The song may target neoconservatives, but it never names any names–a shrewd move for a band wanting attention but not outraged fans.
The Stones have put themselves on the front pages without putting themselves under fire because denouncing neocons allows them to be edgy without going over the edge. As recent history has shown, this is the surest and safest way to rescue one’s fading career from permanent decline. Nowadays, Bush bashing is the last refuge of the has-been scoundrel, the panacea for pop stars of the past.
Over the last three years, one band after another, each presumably aware of its decline, has jumped on the anti-Bush bandwagon. To prove that they are healed, aging hipsters must first prove that they are sick–sick, anyway, of the war and President Bush. As long as they are still singing, they figure, the fat lady won’t be. As the president’s popularity has declined, along with public support for the war, Bush bashing has become more common, acceptable, and fashionable. And as demand has increased, so has supply.
Three years ago, we saw the first signs of the “aging hipster” syndrome when Steve Earle released a song called “John Walker’s Blues,” in which he laments the fate of the American Taliban. This song was followed by “The Revolution Starts… Now”, an entire album dedicated to–or more precisely, against–George W. Bush.
The antiwar gimmick is not a gimme, however, as the Dixie Chicks and Madonna taught us in early 2003. In the days leading up to the U.S. intervention in Iraq, Madonna decided at the last minute to pull a controversial music video depicting a George W. Bush look-alike getting blown up by a grenade. Having seen the backlash created by Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines’s comment that her band was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,” Madonna evidently feared similar recriminations of being called anti-American at a time when a majority of Americans strongly supported the war. Ultimately, though, she didn’t need to air the video; the mere possibility of airing it stirred up enough controversy and chatter so as to shoot her album, American Life, to the top of the billboard charts in countries all across the globe. Even so, American Life has sold fewer copies than any of her previous albums (with only 657,000 copies sold in the U.S., as opposed to the three million copies sold of her previous album, Music, according to Wikipedia).
It was not long after this flop that Madonna reverted to her old playbook for her next publicity stunt when, during a performance at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, she and the younger Britney Spears kissed onstage. This time her message was, like her, an old one: Make love not war. (At least she practices what she preaches.)
Given her penchant for reinventing herself, Madonna, who celebrated her 47th birthday last month, is probably in better shape, physically and professionally, than are most of her contemporaries. Fortunately for her, sex sells. And selling sex rather than politics is something she can always fall back on whenever she is falling off the charts–or out of bed. Madonna’s image, like a virgin, always seems to be doing something for the first time.
For other musicians resisting a fate of obscurity, the lesson of the Madonna episode was not simply that she had chickened out to pro-war chicken hawks or to depraved public opinion. Nor was it that she was the victim of government censorship. On the contrary, the lesson was that the fate of the Dixie Chicks was not the inevitable result of antiwar or anti-Bush criticism.
As a result, bands increasingly sought a middle ground by which they could criticize Bush and the war in their songs without being so offensive as to invite a hostile response. When trying to resuscitate a dying career, the last thing a band wants is to be killed in the process. Thus, it is not surprising that more and more musicians have begun to shy away from previous in-your-face attacks on the commander- (and consumers-) in-chief. After all, Bush supporters buy records, too.
“Sweet Neo Con,” like other politically driven songs in recent years, is intended to create just enough controversy to attract much-needed publicity, but without creating too much. That is why in an interview on the syndicated TV show Extra last month, Mick Jagger insisted that the song “is not really aimed at anyone. It’s not aimed, personally aimed, at President Bush.” Later, in an interview with the Boston Globe, Jagger refused “to elaborate further on ‘Neo Con.’ I think I’ve said enough,” he demurred. To demonstrate his pro-American credentials, Jagger avowed, “I’m not at all anti-American. I love America and I love all the American culture and history, and I spend a lot of time here, and four of my children have American passports. God bless them.” Speaking from the same talking points, Keith Richards said the song was “about a certain mind-set. I’ll leave it at that.” Having already received the attention they wanted, the Stones subsequently backed off from the chance to create any further controversy. They didn’t need it.
Interestingly, Green Day employed the very same approach in 2004 upon the release of their controversial song, “American Idiot.” This song gave Green Day, whose heyday was ten years earlier, what it had previously lacked–a political message “that definitely declares ourselves the opposition,” as Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt explained. Yet, just as Mick Jagger recently insisted that “Sweet Neo Con” is “not really aimed at anyone,” Dirnt was similarly quick in pointing out that Green Day was not “out to topple President Bush.” He and his fellow band members repeatedly emphasized that nowhere on the album do they ever mention President Bush specifically by name. Instead, the song opts for snarky generalizations: “Don’t wanna be an American idiot / Don’t want a nation under the new media / … I’m not part of a redneck agenda.” Like “Sweet Neo Con,” Green Day’s “American Idiot” only vaguely and indirectly aims at its targets.
“American Idiot,” according to Dirnt, is “actually more of a personal perspective of feeling disenfranchised and losing your individuality, about being pissed off and scared and all of that.” Whatever that is supposed to mean, at least it means something. Though Green Day’s political message is unclear, at least they have one (which is something one cannot say about the Democratic party). All in all, Dirnt concluded, “Whatever we’re saying, we’re saying it more directly than most people, and I think that’s what’s shocking people” (i.e., getting us attention). Hence, aging hipsters have found a cure for their disease.
Also resurfacing on the music scene last year were the Beastie Boys, a hip-hop trio consisting of “boys” in their forties. After having not been heard from in six years, the group released To the 5 Boroughs, an album laced with high political ambitions (“Maybe it’s time we impeach the Tex”). Like Green Day, the Beastie Boys found it easy to make political statements without necessarily saying anything beyond what their tired rhyming schemes would allow (“Who got the chance to make things right? / Why the politicians always want to fight? / The Christian coalition and the right wing ooooh!”). The only thing that is clear from their lyrics is that whereas two decades ago the Beastie Boys were busy fighting for their right to party, these days they are fighting against the religious Right and the Republican party.
From Steve Earle’s John Walker’s Blues to the Beastie Boys’ Boroughs, from Madonna’s American Life to Green Day’s American Idiot, and from the Stone Age to the Rolling Stones (or is it the other way around?), Americans have been treated to a barrage of anti-Bush ballads all bordering on the quasi-controversial. Each new anti-establishment song is so like the one before that the anti-establishment has become the new (or old) establishment.
To “rock against Bush” is to scream for attention, and screaming for attention is, in many ways, shouting for help. That is, after all, what sickly people do when existing remedies fail them. And like many old people in poor health, hipsters get grumpier with age (which explains why the Beastie Boys are licensed to ill).
Though modern-day antiwar music spans many different genres, one common thread unites the musicians: They are all aging, fading, and facing imminent decline. This is not to say, however, that the Rolling Stones do not still command a massive following or that the Material Girl is eternally devoid of material to sing about. Nevertheless, it is probably safe to assume that those who today are “rocking against Bush” are not too far off from the day when the only rocking they’ll be doing is in rocking chairs.
As aging hipsters transition from their glory days to their final days, dropping no longer acid but instead Centrum Silver, they should consider whether taking Parthian shots at neocons is really the cure they need. Because, as Francis Bacon once said, sometimes the remedy is worse than the disease. Therefore, rather than spending the remainder of their musical careers searching for hipness, maybe they should start looking for what they really need: hip replacements.
– Windsor Mann is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.