Friday, May 29, 2009

Conservatives and Music, Part One: Not Actually About Music Yet

The combination of an ongoing and growing obsession with The Kinks and recently reacquainting myself with The Modern Lovers has prompted me to think about (what I am choosing to call) the conservative impulse in music. I first started thinking about this a few years ago when this breathtakingly dumb list of conservative rock songs was being pilloried by lefty bloggers. The level of cognitive dissonance required to create that list really does boggle the mind. It also concisely lays bare the contradictory, confused mess of ideals, kneejerk reactions (taxes are tantamount to slavery and driving 55mph is oppressive, but it’s a good thing when the law “wins”), manipulative overemphasis on the cultural signifiers of class rather than economic reality, skewed perspective on and nostalgia for the Cold War—a war which we all know liberals were unanimously opposed to—and pasty Tolkien fanboyism that makes up the contemporary American conservative. Really, just skip to numbers 24 and 25, weep, and then just forget about it because it’s not even worth dismantling. Or read Jon Swift’s list, especially the comments section wherein anonymous outraged liberals repeatedly demand to know if he is joking (A: yes).

But what’s ultimately so pathetic about that list is that if movement conservatives weren’t so eager to co-opt music made by outspoken liberals like The Clash (for fuck’s sake!) in order to rebrand themselves as sexy rebels—who favor abstinence of course—they could very easily illuminate a much more stimulating tradition of conservative thought in popular music. Of course in order to do that, they’d have to come to grips with the basic incoherence of their worldview.

I have no desire to start writing about day-to-day politics on this thingy—in fact I’m trying to withdraw a bit from obsessing over politics in general—but there are certain conservative impulses that appeal to me. To take one example: if the way American empire has pursued its interests and expanded its power across the globe since World War II (at least; the Cherokee might want to extend that a bit further back) doesn’t make you angry, ashamed, and deeply dubious of the motives of anyone seeking to wield that power, then, frankly, I think you’re disturbingly, possibly willfully, naïve.

So, a conservative perspective that perceives that using the highly trained killers of the United States military for “humanitarian” purposes is a non-starter makes sense to me. The conservative who sees the project of American empire as largely spreading death and misery to other countries, rather than democracy and hope, is more convincing to me than the liberal who thinks the U.S. can still act with some kind of moral authority in the world, that as long as it’s Obama and not Bush dropping the bombs on Afghanistan, things are automatically better. Fictional Liberal interjects, “but Rob, conservatives don’t actually think any of those things. In fact many of them actively advocate spreading death and misery to the Muslim-y and/or oil-having parts of the world.” Okay, that’s true, and I’m hard pressed to think of a prominent conservative who has expressed these views who hasn’t also signed on to some other repellent, racist, or just crazy ass ideas (cf. Ron Paul). Even more damning: many, many conservatives are hell bent on destroying the natural world as swiftly as possible—you’d think it would be easy to convince conservatives to show a modicum of interest in conservation, but that’s because you’re a limp-wristed hippie.

I could chalk the relative nonexistence of a compelling, cohesive conservative viewpoint up to the intellectual impoverishment of our relentlessly binary political system, but it also speaks to the way the word “conservative” has become essentially meaningless today. I’m certainly no expert—I’ve never read any Burke—and many more learned people than I have explained how the right wing ended up in the ideological Chinese finger trap it is currently stuck in—a self-destructive cycle of bilious resentment that currently has them comparing Nancy Pelosi to Pussy Galore and alienating even more women (plus Hispanics! this is the Brewster’s Millions approach to electoral politics) with their lashing out at Sonia Sotomayor.

Ok, this ran a lot longer than I anticipated, so I'm making it a two-parter. In the next post: I get to the point!


  1. I'm sure this has been said before, but "Taxman" is probably the best song for that list, or at least for the modern conservative movement. The Beatles (mostly George) wrote it when they found out how much they owed in taxes since becoming wealthy.

    So a song complaining about progressive income tax that gets misinterpreted as a general anti-tax rally... get some poor people to sing it, and you've got the musical version of a Tea Party!

  2. Add in the fact that the upper-income tax rate in 1960s Britain (I'm guessing) was probably astronomical compared to anything in the States since Reagan.

    Surprised The Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon" didn't make the list: "The taxman's taken all my dough and left me in my stately home...And I can't sail my yacht, he's taken everything I've got."

  3. Ooohh save me, save me, save me,
    From this squeeeeeeze!