January 29, 2008

Keep on Barackin’ the free world

Fourteen years ago, Axl Rose had a dream. Blending his rare talent for screeching incomprehensible nothings into a microphone and his titanic powers of self-promotion, the Guns ‘N’ Roses front man would introduce the music-loving masses to a new world order: Chinese Democracy. While Bono was busy tending to starving kids unlikely to ever make much of a dent in their home country’s GDP, Rose had an honest-to-goodness geostrategic initiative up his sleeve. He’d be Bono, if Bono were a neo-con with a lousy voice.

It’s now 2008 and Chinese Democracy is about as close to becoming a reality as actual Chinese democracy. After several false alarms, including a leaked track where Rose rhymes “Falun Gong” with “hold on now,” the estimated time of arrival is still to be determined. One can only hope that the fate of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t hang in the balance of Rose’s listless work ethic as well.

The Roses’ album, as ridiculous as it sounds, is not without precedent. All over the globe, music has served as a transformative force, channeling society’s discontent toward a brighter future full of basic rights and lots of reverb. In his hit play Rock ‘n’ Roll, Tom Stoppard credits an unassuming rock band, The Plastic People of the Universe, and a Rolling Stones concert in Prague with fostering democracy in Czechoslovakia. (It should be noted that Czechoslovakia, like most great rock bands, handled its success poorly, and eventually split up.) Members of the Tuareg group Tinariwen, exiled from Mali, navigate the western Sahara on camels, sowing the seeds of self-determination with Kalashnikovs draped over their shoulders and Stratocasters strapped around their backs.

But if music can bring about change in disaffected regions of God’s little green acre, it now has the opposite effect on American politics, swirling in a maelstrom somewhere between nostalgia and irrelevance. The soundtrack of the 2008 election reflects a backward-looking mentality, caught up in a desire to fight the culture wars of yesteryear rather than take on the problems of the present and future.

Among the choices for Hillary Clinton’s “pick the campaign song” contest were “I’m a Believer” by Smash Mouth, and selections from both Shania Twain and Celine Dion (apparently The Wallflowers were unavailable). How can we expect Hillary to change the dynamic of Washington when she hasn’t changed the cassette in her walkman since Kosovo?

Meanwhile, at an MLK Day event in Jacksonville last Monday, Mitt Romney responded the way any man would when placed in an unfamiliar situation: He dropped a Baha Men Reference. Crooning the chorus to “Who Let the Dogs Out” during an impromptu group photograph, he stumbled briefly—asking “who? who?” when a series of barks would have been more appropriate—but that’s precisely the point: Conventional wisdom goes the way of Bahamian folk music when politics and music share the same stage.

Even Barack Obama—young, hip, and too cool for the Law School—can’t seem to apply the same spirit to his campaign jukebox. According to Slate, the playlist for the Illinois senator’s events features U2; Earth, Wind, and Fire; and Stevie Wonder—all perfectly palatable, but not what you’d expect from the man most responsible for making “change” the political weapon of choice in 2008.

It’s not that the musical selections are bad, but rather that they have the feel of being focus-group approved, the product of a system designed not to offend sensitive demographics. Piping Motown through the loudspeakers of VFW halls and high school gymnasiums is not just a matter of taste—it’s a token of respect for Baby Boomers, a way of reassuring the older generation that its time is still now. Likewise, resolutely churning out bad music from NOW! Vol. 5 helps keep the hotly contested 1990s in the political consciousness. Deliberate or not, the song selection reflects the political dynamics of a country still bitterly disputing its recent history.

So is there any hope? Maybe. Obama, for all his teetering, does admit (on his Facebook page, no less) to liking The Fugees, and although The Score came out a full 12 years ago, it nonetheless makes him the first serious presidential candidate to listen to hip-hop. In Mike Huckabee, Republicans have a candidate who may share the Czechs’ fervor for the Stones. During his penultimate month in the Little Rock Governor’s mansion, he pardoned guitarist Keith Richards for a 1975 traffic violation.

Mick Jagger’s meeting with Vaclav Havel didn’t close the curtains on the Iron Curtain, but the concert in Prague brought a sense of finality to the movement that could not be achieved through other forms.

As long as our candidates continue to embrace washed-up musicians, the political landscape will be mired in a post-90s funk, and “Changes,” for all the stump speeches in the world, will never be more than a David Bowie song.