Talkin' 'Bout Regeneration

Politics, pop culture, and teen spirit


Dispatches From the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit, by Danny Goldberg, New York: Miramax, 336 pages, $23.95

When the Democrats narrowly lost the House and Senate in 2002, party activists launched a blame game. Presidential candidate Howard Dean claimed the party had lost its liberal raison d'etre; some of his rivals scoffed and blamed the losses on their lack of national security strategies. Liberal congressmen and left-leaning journalists blamed big money, voter apathy, and a corporate media that never called Bush on his nefarious lies.

But for record executive Danny Goldberg, the problem was simpler: Democrats didn't know jack about hip-hop. In the opening pages of Dispatches From the Culture Wars, Goldberg relates with astonishment that in 2000, when the rapper was becoming the biggest star in music, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), had never heard of Eminem. As shocking, "one of New York's most progressive congressmen" was unfamiliar with Russell Simmons, the wildly successful Def Jam mogul who recently spearheaded Musicians United to Win Without War. To Goldberg, such ignorance was a disgrace. "Political activists don't always respect or understand artists," he writes. "And the resulting failure to communicate has haunted progressive American politics since the sixties."

As "save the Democrats" messages go, Goldberg's thesis is more fun than a prescription drug plan. And it definitely comes from the gut. But in the end, Dispatches From the Culture Wars fundamentally misunderstands politics, pop culture, and the connections between them. By equating aesthetics with ideology, Goldberg makes a common but serious mistake: He thinks you can tell a person's politics from the music she listens to.

Dispatches From the Culture Wars is a memoir that see-saws into political theorizing. (Imagine Witness if Whitaker Chambers had palled around with Jackson Browne.) In the late 1960s, after dabbling in New York City politics and dropping out of Berkeley, Goldberg landed a job at Billboard picking prospective chart hits. He was already interested in progressive and anti-war politics, and new pop stars such as Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin fueled his passion. "The carefully detailed political position papers that radical groups labored over so strenuously," he writes, "paled in comparison to the visceral power of songs that made manifest shared political beliefs."

Goldberg credits pop music with influencing every part of '60s politics. Quoting Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), he claims that R&B music kickstarted the civil rights movement and that records such as "Give Peace a Chance" helped recruit kids to march against the Vietnam War. But by decade's end, Goldberg got his first look at "tone-deaf mavens"—left-wing politicians who thought pop culture should keep out of the serious stuff. It reminded him of the reaction when Dylan went electric and outraged folk fans: It "foreshadow[ed] schisms that would haunt the political left for decades to come."

The great schism took a while to happen. In 1976 the manager of the Allman Brothers raised money for Jimmy Carter, who quoted Bob Dylan on the campaign trail. Goldberg himself managed the star-studded No Nukes concert in 1979, which featured performances by Browne, Bruce Springsteen, and other rock luminaries. By his lights, the children of the '60s were forging ahead during the Me Decade. But then came 1980, and Ronald Reagan's entry into the White House. Suddenly, according to Goldberg, the right wing had learned how to use pop culture. "Media wizard Reagan [could] masquerade as an outsider," he writes, "even though his policies were aimed at protecting and reinforcing the wealth and power of the superrich."

For Goldberg, the divorce between Democrats and pop culture was finalized in 1985, when Tipper Gore and some other Senate wives formed the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Goldberg, a lifelong Democrat, was dumbfounded. Conservatives were the ones who tried to ban music, not Woodstock-generation liberals. How could people like Al and Tipper Gore, who'd smoked pot in college and grooved to the Grateful Dead, turn on Prince and Frank Zappa? It seemed like cold calculation to Goldberg, who writes, "Tipper legitimized to many liberal baby boomers the snobbish, indeed arrogant, notion that their children were being exposed to music far less moral than the songs they'd grown up with."

The PMRC saga gets thorough treatment in Dispatches From the Culture Wars (albeit with Goldberg figuring more prominently than most of us remember). Since then Goldberg has viewed the Democrats as "running against the sixties" to win votes. More important, he sees them losing. He uses the 1988 Dukakis campaign as a bellwether, ignoring the Democrats' takeover of the Senate in 1986. When a Democrat wins, Goldberg attributes it to pop culture savvy. In his telling, Bill Clinton won in 1992 by appearing on MTV and taking the youth vote by 12 percentage points. Al Gore lost because he allied with the schoolmarmish Joe Lieberman, then split the 18-to-24 vote with George W. Bush.

After dispensing with all of his party and power lunch anecdotes—and there are many—Goldberg offers two solutions to reverse the Dems' decline. First, embrace celebrities. During the 2000 presidential campaign and the 2002 midterm elections, he observes, Barbra Streisand lobbied the party to be more aggressive, but they didn't heed. In the end, he writes, "It was the 'professional' Democrats whose strategy for 2002 failed and the 'Hollywood' push for a clearer and more principled Democratic message that proved to have been right."

Goldberg's second solution is marketing. Democrats, he holds, are too intellectual and too boring. "How did we get these fucking zombies as our candidates?" he asks. Progressive activists can be even worse, he thinks, because they don't hone in on one critical issue and put all their muscle into getting it "on the cover of Time magazine." In an interview with me, Goldberg cited the Fox News crew, Ronald Reagan, the late campaign strategist Lee Atwater, and George W. Bush as examples of demagogues who did it right. "There's more sarcasm on the right and less sophistication about issues," he said. "It's attractive. Democrats have policies, sure, but they present them in such a boring way!"

Convinced of the righteousness and appeal of Democratic policies, Goldberg skips over whether those policies might be the problem. Instead, for him, it's all about effective advertising. He believes that a majority, especially a majority of young people, will rally around, say, abortion rights, affirmative action, and soak-the-rich taxes as long as they're slickly packaged via pop culture. Thus, Goldberg's Big Idea is a progressive reconquista of pop culture. Embrace Bill Clinton's "boxers or briefs" MTV interview, and be irreverent. Join forces with the hip-hop stars whom Al Sharpton is taking for granted. Paint the other side as the heirs of crusty 1950s DJs who wouldn't play "black" music.

It's a bold concept, but would it work? In April 2003, Pearl Jam fans booed frontman Eddie Vedder when he impaled a mask of George W. Bush on a microphone stand. Vedder took time between songs to say why he opposed Bush and the war on Iraq. He was booed again, and a clutch of fans walked out of the stadium. If you follow Goldberg's reasoning, this never could have happened. After all, left-wing politics had long been part of Pearl Jam's shtick: In 2000 Vedder and guitarist Stone Gossard even toured with Ralph Nader to back his presidential campaign.

Rolling Stone reporter David Fricke asked Vedder if he was surprised that he had Republican fans "considering that historically the music represents non-Republican values—sex, drugs and mutiny." Vedder laughed, saying, "That myth got knocked down for me when I learned that Johnny Ramone was a hard-core Republican."

Which is to say that however much politics and pop culture may have gone together in the past (and that's debatable), they've never been joined at the hip. Musical preferences have never been a particularly strong predictor of politics. Goldberg reveals as much. He mentions that the Beatles' greatest hits album, One, released in 2000, sold big after two presidential candidates "ran against the sixties." But he writes that "the continuing popularity of the Beatles…does not mean that everyone who bought the One album bought John Lennon's egalitarian political ideals or George Harrison's meditative spirituality."

That's the truth. It's a crapshoot whether or not a fan is going to buy into a band's politics. Not every fan of Rage Against the Machine or the Dead Kennedys is against globalization and free trade. Marilyn Manson—yes—guardedly endorsed George W. Bush during the 2000 election, telling the defunct Talk magazine, "If I had to pick, I'd pick Bush and not necessarily by default. I know I don't support what the other team is about." In the end, very few Dixie Chicks fans, judging by ticket and album sales, care all that much about the band's stance on presidential IQ or geopolitics.

So why does Goldberg get it right in some chapters and fill other pages with wishful thinking? Most of his analysis comes from his personal experience, which is very much that of a left-wing New Yorker who lives in Greenwich Village and works with rock stars. He never explores the growing numbers of kids who listen to country or Christian contemporary music. Surprisingly, he doesn't dig into the annual UCLA polls of college students, which have shown more and more young people deserting the left since the early 1970s, the same time many adults did. Goldberg explains the 2000 youth vote split by saying that Bush-Cheney didn't advocate censorship and Gore-Lieberman did. It wasn't that simple.

Maybe Goldberg's equation of "teen spirit" with "pop culture" is at fault. He writes that "during most of American history, liberals and progressives understood how to communicate with average people through pop culture," which is arguably true. But are conservatives, and nonliberals generally, really dead set against popular culture? Nixon appeared on Laugh-In and inspired a James Brown song ("Funky President"). Reagan invited John Travolta and Michael Jackson to the White House. And it was Nancy Reagan, not Rosalyn Carter or Hillary Clinton, who famously once sat on Mr. T's lap during an anti-drug photo op. Libertarians and Barry Goldwater Republicans have always been against censorship. On the other hand, there were good liberals in the Catholic Legion of Decency—probably a lot of them.

It's simply impossible to assign people a political stripe based on whether they like pop culture, or what sort of pop culture they like. To bring it back to the Ramones—in discussions of pop culture, it always comes back to the Ramones—guitarist Johnny Ramone vehemently objected to the original title of the band's anti-Reagan song, "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," forcing them to release it in the U.S. as "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down." Said Johnny, "I thought Ronald Reagan was the best president of our lifetime."

Until Danny Goldberg can account for such statements, he'll add little to our understanding of politics or pop culture. Or to the Democrats' chances of pulling the youth vote in November 2004.