A Dozen Rock Songs for Conservatives

John J Miller published an article a few days ago at National Review listing the top 50 "conservative" rock songs. It's been quite the talk of the net, getting responses from, among others, Pete Townshend himself- author of the #1 song on this list, "Won't Get Fooled Again."  Lots of folks on the 'net have been talking it up, down, and sideways.  This includes particularly brother Blogritic Pete Blackwell.  Indeed, it's been so popular that Miller himself took another bite of the apple.

I've avoided jumping on this because I'm real skeptical of the general idea of sticking ideological tags on art.  For one thing, it's an invitation to hijack the artist's intentions.  For example, I was most sympathetic to Bruce Springsteen's displeasure with the Reagan re-election team glomming onto "Born in the USA."  Lots of Miller's choices are REALLY reaching, such as "Wouldn't It Be Nice" by the Beach Boys as if marriage and family are only of interest to right-wingers.  Likewise, labeling religious themes as inherently "conservative" definitely seems like cheating.

Most of all though, even when they're not misappropriation, attaching ideological labels to songs tends to reduce the meaning, grinding down the complexities of a work of art 'til they lose the beauty of the melody.  I can see how Miller got "conservative" out of "Won't Get Fooled Again," but Townshend's response is pretty much making my point. Miller was dumbing it down till there was not much left of the larger spiritual thrust of the Who song.

So I don't believe in this whole type of thing very much- but I'm going to get in on some of it anyway.  I can't help myself.  I love music lists.  Rand knows I've written enough of them.  They're fun.  Plus, they might reasonably be good at provoking some consideration of the actual meaning of an abstract word like "conservative."

To minimize the damage to propriety though, I'm going to slightly re-frame this humble addition to the Miller list.  I certainly will not claim that any of these artists are "conservatives."  Rather than distort the artist's intent, I'll bring this in from the consumer side.  I won't even say that these songs are conservative.  Rather, here are a dozen rock songs that might likely have special appeal to "conservatives" as I understand the term, regardless of the intent of the creators.

"The Yeah, Yeah, Yeah Song" by the Flaming Lips
Let's start with the most recent song that comes to mind, from the Flaming Lips.  The central "yeah, yeah, yeah" chorus of this song strongly puts me in mind of the Kelly brothers singing informative songs on the SNL Weekend Update which is cool, cause they're actually fairly musical.

Anyway, there's a broader point, but the lyrics express not a skepticism of the particular people in power, but in ANYBODY having power.  "It's a very dangerous thing to do exactly what you want/Because you cannot know yourself or what you'd really do/
With all your power"

"Money and Corruption/I'm Your Man" by the Kinks
I could well enough make a whole list of "conservative" songs by Ray Davies. He was famously swimming against the hip tide even during the sixties, with the whole Village Green Preservation Society album, for starters. Per his titles, it might be better to call him a conservationist or preservationist.  Plus, you could reasonably argue that his opposition to land developers and such is really left-wing environmentalism though it's a lot more than that as it comes from Davies.

But calling Ray Davies a "conservative" would be just the kind of dumbing down that I'm objecting to, reducing the kinks of his thinking to an ideological label that doesn't represent his thinking. For one thing, Ray Davies' work has often been informed by a distinctly Marxist class consciousness.

The conflict becomes most clear in this centerpiece cut from the criminally underappreciated Preservation, Act I. This is one of the greatest songs and recordings of their distinguished career, in which he lays out the kinks in the form of an extended composition. It's like Ray's saying that he WANTS to be a good Marxist revolutionary but he knows the bad places that will lead.

The "money and corruption" part is a rousing rock song, the rabble crying out in the streets while "crooked politicians betray the working man, pocketing the profits and treating us like sheep." But then it becomes an entirely different tune halfway through in a different voice, as a man of the people rises up to lead them with a swelling vocal chorus of the proletariat backing his campaign plan. "I'm your man. I'll work out a five year plan." Thank God. But soon enough he's talking about nationalizing the wealthy companies "and all the directors will be answerable to me." This isn't an argument for free markets over socialism, but again an underlying distrust of giving ANYONE power. But to my thinking, that's the more important principle.

"Brown Sugar" by the Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones were never anybody's idea of good liberals.  They have famously been described as the guys who show up at the protest rally to pick up chicks. Still, one might understandably be puzzled that I would pick this tale of decadent S&M in the slavehouse as a "conservative" sentiment.

I can't speak for Mick Jagger, but to me the truly transgressive element of this is not anything to do with sex. I take this as an extremely aggressive rejection of white guilt, and the liberal guilt-driven racial politics emerging that way about the time they were recording the song.  Reinforcing that general idea, consider Jagger's famously non-conciliatory response when Jesse Jackson bitched about the supposed racism of the song "Some Girls."   "F**k him if he can't take a joke."

"America, F**k Yeah" from Team America
Yes, there is irony in the aggressive nationalism of the Team America theme song. It's parody and satire, and specifically includes such bad things such as slavery. But the real irony of it - and the key to understanding the whole movie - is that this song is essentially sincere. The Americans might to some extent be arrogant "dicks," but they are in fact the good guys on whom the world depends. Again with similar caveats, understand that the country song "Freedom Isn't Free" is likewise basically sincere, however many loop-de-loops they jump through getting there.

"America" by Prince
Prince has never particularly expressed any clear political philosophy, but he's one cat in particular that I would especially never, ever want in a position of power. He's got a strong authoritarian streak that should not be trusted with power. He may be the greatest one musician in the rock era, but when he sings "If you want to play with me, you better learn the rules," well never mind. No, I'm not that interested in playing.

His religious and spiritual mystical stuff often comes across to me as proclaiming a divine kingly mandate to rule. For example, the perfectly good song "Still Would Stand All Time" has stuck in my craw since it came out many years ago. "No one man will be ruler, therefore love must rule us all." Hmm. Exactly WHO is going to get the divine mandate to define "love"?  Who better to trust with such a duty than the one who loves so much that he'd sing "I Would Die 4U" - which sounds to me like a straight up guilt-trip power play.  Emotional fascism, as per the famous discarded Elvis Costello album title.

But "America" from Around the World in a Day has an odd and uniquely right-wing patriotic flavor. "Communism is just a word/But if the government turns over, it'll be the only word that's heard." But most distinctly right-wing is the curious accusatory attack on the patriotism of public school teachers in the extro. "Teacher, why won't Jimmy pledge allegiance?"

"I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, and I'll Get It Myself)" by James Brown
I'd be particularly loathe to presume to say that James Brown is "conservative," but at least this particular song undeniably flies in the face of the demanding "welfare rights" rhetoric of the era when it was recorded, or the scattershot crazed rhetoric more common today proclaiming that anyone who doesn't believe in appropriate annual increases in welfare spending is a Nazi.  Then again, I could imagine a liberal trying to argue that "opening up the door" would mean affirmative action programs and such.

It's not exactly my idea of "conservative," but if you wanted a less clearly positive JB sentiment that might be described as rightwing you could throw in the highly enthusiastic 13 minute celebration of brutal corporal punishment "Papa Don't Take No Mess." Some days it almost sounds like demonic possession.  "When we did wrong, Papa beat the HELL out of us. HIT ME!"

"Long Haired Country Boy" by Charlie Daniels
The whole tone of the song is distinctly opposed to believing in government, preachers, or anybody else solving problems for the narrator or society.  It particularly came to mind coupled with the JB "I don't want nobody to give me nothing" theme.  In this case, the key line of chorus is "I ain't asking nobody for nothing if I can't get it on my own."

"Get Over It" by OK Go
It's not any kind of statement on public policy, but the cutting power chords of my favorite song of 2002 are an absolutely brutal rebuke to the whole culture of helpless victimhood that is a large part of the justification for modern leftists.

"(Nothing But) Flowers" by the Talking Heads
This beautiful and gentle funk from the underappreciated Naked album is the dis-ease of a good, conscientious liberal. David Byrne has been thankfully discreet about his voting habits and such, but this fantasy of returning to nature is a liberal's despairing lament. He WANTS to believe in unpaving Joni Mitchell's parking lots from the "Big Yellow Taxi" and returning to paradise. But the whole song is built on his angst of knowing how utterly untenable that perfect idealistic liberal environmentalist paradise is. "I can't get used to this lifestyle."  He WANTS to believe in all that stuff, but he knows better.

"The Hold Up" by David Bromberg
This old fave was co-written by George Harrison, though I don't know of him ever recording it. It's a groovy little Mexican fiesta of an anti-tax song where tax collectors and bandits are pretty much the same thing. As the banditos express it, "Tax time is coming, give alms to the poor, or I'll put a bullet right through your best liver."

"If 6 Was 9" by Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix wouldn't have made much of a Republican (HA!), but the whole thrust of this classic blast is a denial of liberal social responsibilities, or any idea of being his brother's keeper.  It's the anti-"He Ain't Heavy."  "Fall mountains, just don't fall on me." Not his problem. You could argue that this is a bad, antisocial sentiment "selfishness." But it sure ain't some liberal goody two-shoes crap.

"Look at All Those Idiots" by Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers
Let us conclude this list with the ruling evil arch-conservative of television land, J. Montgomery Burns from The Simpsons. This is from The Simpsons Sing the Blues, which had the massive hit single "Do the Bartman." But as a right wingnut, I was of course immediately and forevermore taken with Burns totally appropriate and effective factory produced funk, particularly Smithers kickass guitar solo.

Obviously one would have to take any sentiments coming out of Burns' mouth with some idea of ironic artistic distance to get at what exactly the creators might have meant. Burns is the root of all evil. But the true beauty of the Burns character is that as evil as he is, he's very often got an undeniable point. Homer Simpson and the general lot of American workers that he represents DESERVE Burns in spades.  Poor downtrodden workers my butt.

Burns is an effective devil's advocate, and there's a strong ring of truth to his complaints against lazy, thieving workers who "never give a thought to honest work for honest pay."

 

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