PC Culture

Neil Young and Chrissie Hynde: Rock of the Aged Protesters

Singer Chrissie Hynde performs during ‘The Last Night of the Proms’ celebration in Hyde Park, London, Britain September 14, 2019. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
In politics, he’s a rock-and-roll bully; she’s an American pragmatist with a heart of gold.

Neil Young and Chrissie Hynde have confirmed the adage that girls mature faster than boys. Using the open-letter format of public address, Young, age 74, recently had a tantrum on his website, childishly berating President Trump, while, just days before, Hynde, age 68, appealed to President Trump on Twitter, asking for his leadership and help on a matter of political import.

Both artists stepped outside their usual medium of the rock-and-roll record that brought them fame; their passion and creativity won our attention and instilled our fondness. Politics is not what we want from them, though, except in compelling tunes that describe the human condition and sustain our moral beliefs. Who doesn’t like “Heart of Gold” and “Brass in Pocket”? Who can resist the former’s sensitivity or the latter’s scintillation?

Pop music no longer represents the counterculture. Rolling Stone magazine hasn’t caught on, but it’s time that rock-and-roll politics change and shift.

Only the recent antagonism in current affairs of state could cause crowd-pleasers Young and Hynde to draw such startling political contrasts and reveal their divergent, individual styles. Pop artists are not role models so much as bellwethers of human potential, and though it’s usually best to ignore their off-stage actions, the two musicians’ difference in behavior can reveal our moral and political options.

Some Neil background: Young came to prominence during the Sixties cultural revolution as a Canadian-born leftist attracted to the emotional energy of the United States. He famously wrote from that era’s countercultural perspective — specifically, he responded to the Vietnam War protests with “Ohio,” a song about the 1970 Kent State tragedy. Young’s liberalism took a turn after 9/11 when he showed a traditionalist face in the album Freedom (which featured the anthemic “Rockin’ in the Free World”). But he was even better standing against aberrant anti-Americanism in the album Are You Passionate? that honored patriotic sacrifice (the Flight 91 tribute “Let’s Roll”). If you couldn’t trust his capriciousness, you could previously respect his sincerity. Young applied for U.S. citizenship just three months ago, so his newfound, aggrieved sensitivity seems fickle.

Some Chrissie background: Hynde left Cleveland, Ohio, to pursue her rock-and-roll dreams in England. She started her group The Pretenders and became part of the ferment that was the great Punk revolution of the late Seventies. Her Yankee sass made Brit youth rebellion extraordinarily nervy and sensual, returning the favor that the Rolling Stones gave to us. Her daring, smart-girl genius was also rude (“Up the Neck,” “Porcelain”); she could be tough and resentful even when compassionate (“Back on the Chain Gang”). Hynde was also too sly and individual to be labeled “feminist,” like Bessie Smith or Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin or Joni Mitchell, her forerunners. (In terms of independent thinking, Kanye West is Hynde’s soul brother.)

Now, both artists, each past middle age, work within changed political environs, instructing their Boomer core audiences who are either liberal or conservative.

Hynde trumps Young because her middle-American brashness instills a blue-collar noblesse oblige greater than Young’s Canadian guilelessness. (After all, it was industrial Detroit and Ohio, not New York or Los Angeles, that first accepted David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Roxy Music’s avant-garde.)

Young and Hynde’s contrasting protocol when approaching the topic of President Trump suggests that the political attitude that has defined rock and roll has homogenized and trivialized the genre for too long. Young’s anger looks tired and predictable while Hynde’s principled prudence embodies the future of civility. (After all, Hynde changed the game in 1983, on The Pretenders’ rollicking “Middle of the Road,” when she growled “I’m not the cat I used to be / I got a kid / I’m 33”).

Fans don’t always think through artists’ messages; the adolescent need for group acceptance means they simply hero-worship. This assumes a form of self-righteousness such as we saw in the days when the now-defunct Village Voice led youths to The Nation, Mother Jones, NPR, and MSNBC, mainstream media outlets that perpetuate childish fealty to leftist liberalism as the only allowable human stance. It’s a Millennial version of Sixties countercultural sanctimony, and conservative youth (yes, they exist) have almost no rock-star principal who can inspire their independent thinking.

In Hynde’s open letter to Trump, she cites her respect for her conservative father (a faithful Rush Limbaugh listener) and for American political procedure. But Young’s snowflake attitude has advanced into late stages of Trump Derangement Syndrome.

I love how this Neil–Chrissie conflict reveals President Trump’s acute, clarifying effect on pop culture. It recalls Howard Hawks, when making To Have and Have Not, telling star Humphrey Bogart about his new co-star Lauren Bacall: “You’re the most insolent man in movies, so I’m going to pair you with the most insolent woman in movies.” Young’s vaunted liberalism, the product of Canadian outsider admiration, is no match for Hynde’s stout-hearted, bone-deep American pragmatism and honest sensitivity. Her letter to the president, pleading for Julian Assange, confessed her own insubordinate participation in a London protest in support of Assange, while Young merely ranted and raved like an abrasive cock-rock guitar chord.

Young is not mature enough to match the civilized appeal that Hynde wrote to the president:

The other day when you gave that award to Rush Limbaugh, my father would have been so delighted. My father and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye. We argued a lot but isn’t that the American way? The right to disagree without having your head chopped off?

Something is wrong when rock stars think they own the political conversation. This week, at India’s Sadar Patel Stadium, The Village People’s “Macho Man” was played when President Trump entered. Fans of disco — the most egalitarian music of the past 50 years — don’t need rock-and-roll arrogance. Grown-up Chrissie Hynde knows this; boyish Neil Young and his rock-establishment bullies don’t.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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