In the Wall Street Journal, David Feith and Bari Weiss use the death of Lou Reed, and the story (familiar to Reason readers) of how his music inspired anti-communists in Czechoslovakia, to make the broader point that "Free societies like the United States—where one can write songs such as 'The Establishment Blues' or even 'F*** tha Police' without fear of hearing a knock on the door in the dead of night—create an endless stream of material that can wield outsize power in rigid, unfree countries."
That same point about N.W.A.'s signature song was made to me nine years ago by the manager of Romania's premier gangsta rap crew, Parazitii ("The Parasites"), who told me "You really need freedom to do this kind of music, you know?" At that time, Parazitii was getting around pre-election campaign speech restrictions by broadcasting on the local music video channels an anti-regime/anti-censorship track called "Jos Cenzura!" ("Against Censorship!"), featuring a one-minute guest monologue from Larry Flynt. You had to be there!
My favorite example of an unfree person building his own message from an American song was a furiously anti-Castro teenager I roomed with for a month in 1998, who wanted help transcribing the exact lyrics to Rage Against the Machine's classic "Killing in the Name of." We got stuck on some of the indecipherable words, and didn't have access to the Internet, so he concluded, "They just hate the cops, right?" and I said yes. I tried to tell him that the Rage guys might be the most prominent Marxists working in the record business, but this kid, who'd been arrested and hassled multiple times by communist police, could not care less. And he was right.
Feith and Weiss describe another case I'd never heard of:
Consider apartheid South Africa and the unlikely story of Rodriguez, an early-1970s folk singer in Detroit who achieved no fame in the U.S. but immense popularity among white, anti-apartheid activists thousands of miles away. His blunt lyrics about sex won him young South African listeners, as did his claim that "This system's gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune/And that's a concrete cold fact." The system that fell was South Africa's, where the government tried to keep Rodriguez's music off the radio and out of stores, with official censors sometimes scratching his LPs by hand.
Here's that Rodriguez song:
Some classic related pieces from the Reason archive:
* "Bollywood vs. Jihad," by Shikha Dalmia
* "Rap and Metal on Planet Islam," by James M. Dorsey
* "In Praise of Vulgarity," by Charles Paul Freund
Speaking of politics and the Velvet Underground, VU drummer Moe Tucker, in her Reed-remembrance interview with The Daily Beast's Harry Siegel, has some choice (and apt) words for people—like Slate's Jacob Weisberg—who were anguished to discover that a member of one of their favorite bands once had the bad taste to attend a Tea Party rally:
After a day or two, I thought, "What the fuck is the matter with you people? You're a progressive, but no one is allowed to have a different opinion? You're going to hate me because I don't agree with you? What the hell is that? It's a shame. It's a damn shame that people are that close-minded." I can say, "Fine, you don't agree with me? That's fine. I don't agree with you." But to be so outraged that a Velvet would not be a—oh my God.