Let's Not Rush to Conclusions About Rock Music
Tunes for the traditionalist.

New York City Tribune, Wednesday, September 5, 1990

"This writer cannot think of a single song that even calls the welfare state into question." So lamented K.L. Billingsley on this page yesterday in an attack on rock 'n' roll music.

Billingsley paints with too broad a brush. Consider this:

Give a man a free house and he'll bust out the windows
Put his family on food stamps, now he's a big spender
No food on the table and the bills ain't paid
'Cause he spent it on cigarettes and P.G.A.
They'll turn us all into beggars, 'cause they're easier to please
They're feeding our people that government cheese
These are the opening lines from "Government Cheese," a song by The Rainmakers, four guys out of Kansas City who understand the perverse incentives created by Great Society-style social programs--and play a mean guitar, to boot.

Or how about "The Trees," a savage attack on socialism by the Canadian band Rush. This song tells an allegorical tale of a forest shaken by political unrest. It seems the oak trees are too tall, so they prevent the maples from getting any sunlight. Both sides prove intransigent, "as the maples scream 'Oppression!' and the oaks just shake their heads":

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
"The oaks are just too greedy,
We will make them give us light"
Now there's no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe, and saw . . .
"Big Brother and his omnipresent bureaucrats . . . are sacred cows to popular musicians," writes Billingsley. But another Rush song, the 18-minute rock opera "2112," presents a nightmarish vision of a totalitarian society. The protagonist finds a guitar and is told he can't play it because "it doesn't fit the plan."

While the song is about the perhaps overdone theme of censorship, lyricist Neil Peart's skepticism of government runs far deeper. Thus, speaking in the voice of the Priests of the Temples of Syrnix, who run the government, singer Geddy Lee declares:

We've taken care of everything
The words you read, the songs you sing
The pictures that bring pleasure to your eyes
It's one for all, and all for one
We work together, common sons
Never need to wonder how or why
We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
Our great computers fill these hallowed halls
We are the Priests of the Temples of Syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls

"A musician who wanted to be truly rebellious might try taking on hedonism and nihilism," Billingsley continues. But "waiting for a tune called 'Down with Nihilism' may be like leaving the porch light on for Jimmy Hoffa."

A musician who wrote a song with such an unmusical title would surely deserve to be buried in the end zone of Giants Stadium. But not all rock 'n' roll is a celebration of nihilism. The Don Henley song "Johnny Can't Read," for example, is about a young man leading a meaningless existence ("Football, baseball, basketball games / Drinking beer, kicking ass, taking down names") who has no interest in bettering himself. Henley rejects those who blame Johnny's situation on forces beyond his control:

Is it teacher's fault? (Oh, no)
Is it Mommy's fault (Oh, no)
Is it society's fault (Oh, no)
Well, is it Johnny's fault?
Henley answers his own question with a bitterly sarcastic, "Oh, nooooooooooooo!"

The refrain from Rush's "Something for Nothing" invokes the same theme of personal responsibility:

You don't get something for nothing
You can't have freedom for free
You won't get wise with the sleep still in your eyes
No matter what your dream might be
Of course, most rock music isn't nearly this thoughtful, and Billingsley is on target when he says it's laughable to present rockers as foes of the establishment. But rock is a diverse genre that has room for Rush and the Rainmakers as well as Madonna and Motley Crue.

Still, there's something unjust about a no-talent like Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew raking in millions for an album celebrating the mutilation of young women. And a recent Rolling Stone symposium of rock industry professionals turned up not a single dissenting voice on the 2 Live Crew controversy--though even an MTV employee told me he and his colleagues view the Crew's music as bereft of quality.

It's unfair to blast contemporary music because it fails by the standards of the great music of the past. The latter is remembered precisely because it was good enough to outlast the mediocre music of its time. The problem with the commercialization of rock is that it makes some no-talents into very rich men and women. In the music business, Rush's "Something for Nothing" may be farther from the mark than Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing":

That ain't working, that's the way you do it
Play your guitar for the MTV
That ain't working, that's the way you do it
Get your money for nothing and your chicks for free

Next article: The Prurience and Prejudice of Holly Hughes (New York City Tribune, 10/8/90)

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