"A good song should make you wanna tap your feet and get with your girl. A great song should destroy cops and set fire to the suburbs. I’m only interested in writing great songs."
So says Tom Morello, guitarist for the Los Angeles—based band Rage Against the Machine. He and his bandmates are not simply against cops and the suburbs, of course. They also stand for the Zapatistas and the Shining Path, for freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, for giving California back to Mexico, and for destroying stores where rich people like themselves shop.
That’s pretty strong stuff coming from work-for-hire employees of one of the great cogs in the global capitalist machine, the megaconglomerate Sony, which wholly owns and distributes Rage’s music and even is a co-owner of the group’s publishing. Since 1992, Rage has sold nearly 7 million records, and it’s safe to say that nobody has benefitted more from that commerce than the band’s unabashedly capitalist paymaster.
In the world of high-profile popular music, Rage Against the Machine is far from alone in advocating a radical leftism, even one that shades into old-style, let’s-nationalize-everything-but-the-music- industry communism. Indeed, Rage has plenty of fellow travelers, most of whom are equally unironic about being fabulously wealthy rock stars.
Comrades in the struggle to overthrow "late capitalism" include Chumbawamba, a collective of British anarchists who hit major pop stardom with their rousing 1997 sing-along drinking anthem "Tubthumping." Chumba (as their fans call the group) declares on its Web site that it wants "to destroy the moral code that says you can only have what you can afford to pay for." And it wants a social order where nothing happens without everyone–everyone!–agreeing to it. Folk-rocker Ani DiFranco is best known for refusing to be part of a "corporate" machine, saying that the record business is "dehumanizing and exploitative, not much different from any other big business." Thus, refusing to work on Maggie’s Farm no more, she operates her own corporate machine, Righteous Babe Records (and pockets far more per record as a result).
Then there’s Patti Smith, the over-the-hill punk poetess who once wowed Madison Square Garden audiences with songs about adolescent alienation and all-night sex. Smith includes a 10-minute-plus tribute to Ho Chi Minh and a snappy pop tune against the World Trade Organization on her latest album, Gung Ho. The members of the British band Primal Scream, who originally gained fame as drug-addled hedonists, have taken a page from Rage Against the Machine’s little red playbook, lately recasting themselves as born-again followers of Noam Chomsky, the tenured MIT professor and favorite "dissident" intellectual of politicized rock bands everywhere.
If pop stars’ politics aren’t hard left, they can at least be counted on to be firmly liberal, as evidenced by the anti-nuke, pro-green activism of the likes of Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Sting, and Bono (who has also met with the pope and Bill Clinton to help forge policy on debt forgiveness for the Third World). Oddly, this even holds true for ostensibly redneck bands. When George magazine, that self-styled arbiter of what’s important in politics and popular culture, devoted a 14-page spread to rock and politics in March, it found notable such glorious rockin’ moments as the Allman Brothers’ endorsement of Jimmy Carter. The Georgeists suffered no mental strain reconciling support for Jimmy Carter with their declaration that "rock is the music of rebellion and freedom of expression. [It] pushes limits and challenges the established order." Jimmy Carter, the ultimate Ramblin’ Man.
To be sure, fighting The Man has its rewards: Rage Against the Machine has landed on the covers of both Rolling Stone and Spin to promote its capitalist products. There’s no social capital to be lost, and much to be gained, by being a socialist.
Despite such occasional freakish and unrespected outliers as that pro-gun and anti-immigrant Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent (whose music is mostly a distant memory as his stage pronouncements against non—English speakers still get negative press attention), and the Ayn Rand—grokking band Rush (which produced a screed about trees who end up getting hacked with axes when they try to enforce equality among themselves–"that song about the trees who join a labor union," as Village Voice music editor Chuck Eddy once put it), leftism in one form or another is the backbeat of much modern pop. If a political message is an integral part of any pop band’s image or music, it’s bound to be leftist. If otherwise nonpolitical bands make public comments, those comments are almost inevitably left-leaning.
This nearly ubiquitous connection is, to put it mildly, rather strange. Pop music–especially that expansive, vague subcategory known as rock–is universally recognized as the soundtrack of rebellion, whether the authority in question is Daddy taking the T-bird away or the Soviet Union. (The former Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution was so named in part because its participants drew inspiration from those poster children of bourgeois decadence, the Velvet Underground.) While rock hugely, hilariously upset right-wing record burners in the ’50s and ’60s, it was also officially outlawed in all the great Worker’s Republics of the same era–indeed, it was seen as the very apotheosis of capitalist hedonism. (But then if only Richard Nixon, that notable Elvis fan, could go to China, then perhaps only Rage Against the Machine, those millionaire communists, could bring Mao back across the Pacific.)
As important, rock and the larger pop music scene are so clearly a function of the wealth, innovation, and leisure time thrown off by capitalism that it should be nothing less than mind-boggling that pop stars themselves mutter incessantly about toppling the very system that pays them so well. But to most rock stars and rock critics, the link between the music and left-wing politics is so natural and so expected that it is simply assumed.
The connection, however, is a matter of attitude and style, not logic. In truth there isn’t even any necessary connection among the varied elements of most "progressive" causes: Rage Against the Machine tries to jerry-rig such a link, but it doesn’t really argue it so much as assert it. Of course, the band’s members assume, someone who doesn’t want women raped also hates the rich, wants to return California to the Mexicans, and craves the utter abolition of private property–but there is no logical link between those attitudes.
As impossible as such givens may be to justify intellectually, they are of great importance culturally. By insisting on a connection between a set of logically unconnected propositions, people can forge powerful coalitions that make these fake categories real. For examples of this sort of group building, look no further than the Democratic and Republican parties, neither of which is particularly philosophically consistent–try to find the logical link between socializing medicine and expressing support for free speech, say, or between prayer in school and lowering the capital gains tax.
Or consider the inchoate American gang identified as "Bohemian" in New York Times rock critic Ann Powers’ new book, Weird Like Me: My Bohemian America. Powers casually links rock music with her version of bohemia, that world of young and not-so-young hipsters living and behaving in nontraditional ways. Rock, she writes, "inspires fans to dye their hair green and wear thigh-high leather boots; to defy their parents, skip school, and tell off the boss; or even, sometimes, to take a new turn and change their lives completely." Her bohemia is inexorably linked with progressive politics, not holding down a decent job, being kind to gays and minorities, and all else that’s "cool."