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February 9, 2008

Who killed Barack n' Roll?

Responding (obviously) to my recent column on the transformative powers of popular music, Neil Young said yesterday that the days of rock n' roll as a political force are long past, and that we'd do well to hide in caves and feast on canned goods. Or something.

"I know that the time when music could change the world is past. I really doubt that a single song can make a difference. It is a reality," Young told reporters. "I don't think the tour had any impact on voters."
While I agree that, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's "Freedom of Speech Tour" had little to no impact on any voters, that has much more to do with the performers than with the rock n' roll form. In fact, I think you can say that in embarking on the "Freedom of Speech Tour," CSNY actually abandoned that original musical form and lost much of their clout in the process.The power of rock n' rock and roll has never come from specific words and finely articulated statements; if you wanted to hear an articulate, impassioned political argument, you probably wouldn't listen to the guy coked to the gills with opiates and barbiturates. No, the medium finds its utility in the inherent countercultural message of it all. It was precisely because they weren't singing "Kick the Soviet Union out of Eastern Europe" that the Rolling Stones attracted themselves to democratic movements in the Eastern Bloc. They represented a parallel, and much more free-flowing world view.So when Neil Young sings about impeaching the president of the United States (on the song "Let's Impeach the President"), he sacrifices the independent form in favor of a narrow, unilateral target. The problem is not that music can't change the world, it's that Young has changed his music so much that he has lost track of what makes it so effective.To continue on this point, it's what makes John "Cougar" Mellencamp's "Our Country" song so polarizing. Any musical value it may have is compromised because it's forever associated with the highly political Chevy Trucks ads. What would otherwise be a mediocre (in my opinion) patriotic ditty is instead associated with Texas ranchers constructing fences to keep out Mexicans, and a variety of depictions of an America entirely devoid of people of color.If rock n' roll is dead, Neil Young, it's because you killed it. But I find it hard to believe that the struggles of an aging former star in revving up an aging audience is at all indicitive of a larger trend.