Ingraham, Gaga and the Libertarians
Laura Ingraham was going nuts. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican candidate for President of the United States, had answered a question about Lady Gaga, the weirdo (in a conformist kind of way) pop star.
Pawlenty praised Gaga's talent, which sent Ingraham into berserker mode. She exploded, crying that Lady Gaga, with her pounding dance beats, self-righteous leftism, and bizarre outfits, represents everything that is wrong with modern popular culture. Ingraham then spun her preferred music: some down-home country hokum.
As I listened to the tirade, I realized that a hunch I've had for a while is probably right: Libertarians may be the only people in the world who truly understand and appreciate rock and roll. That, at least, is what can be gleaned from the new book The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America. Its authors are Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch, who both work for the libertarian Reason Foundation.
The Declaration of Independents is a compelling and well-written (and well-researched) book. I will be addressing some of its points in future columns. But upon first reading, something hit me more than anything else: when it comes to rock and roll, Gillespie and Welch nail it.
They do so by focusing their chapter, "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World," on one of the most overlooked chapters in the history of rock and roll -- how the music helped defeat Communism. This is a truly monumental chapter in the history of American popular music, but it is not widely known or discussed.
As Welch and Gillespie prove with wide example, Vaclav Havel and the leaders of the 1960s revolt against communism in Czechoslovakian were deeply influenced by American rock and roll -- particularly the band the Velvet Underground.
A group of young Czech hippies formed the group the Plastic People of the Universe -- named after a Frank Zappa lyric -- and were soon banned by the government. A fan of the Rolling Stones, in rock and roll Havel saw and heard "a temperament, a nonconformist state of the spirit, an anti-establishment orientation, an aversion to philistines, and an interest in the wretch and humiliated."
Partly as a result of their love of the Velvet Underground, Havel and his friends launched "Charter 77," which called for free artistic expression. The document spread widely through the underground, ultimately making its way to Poland and the Solidarity movement. It is no exaggeration to say that American rock and roll helped bring down Communism. (Remember that next time you hear Lou Reed.)
Lady Gaga is not a great talent, but she is a talent, and her best songs -- "Just Dance," "Poker Face," "Alejandro" -- provide a kind of transcendent charge and joyful energy that is in the soul of the best pop music. It's the dynamic sound of truth, beauty, the drama of a human life, the desire for ordered freedom, and reach for the spiritual -- all the things that Vaclav Havel and the Plastic People of the Universe fought to express.
It's a good thing that libertarians are writing about rock and roll, because both the right and the left don't seem to get it. In The Declaration of Independents, Gillespie and Welch cite some truly embarrassing things conservatives have said about pop music.
Here is William F. Buckley, writing in September 1964 (right around the day of my birth): "Let me say it, as evidence of my final measure of devotion to the truth. The Beatles are not merely awful, I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than they are so unbelievably horrible , so appallingly unmusical , so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as crowed heads of antimusic, even as impostor popes went down in history as 'anti-popes.'"
It's even worse on the left. The reasons are simple: rock critics and historians prefer to set themselves against bourgeois standards. They ignore the conservatism of most popular music -- and I mean not the politics of the artists but the simple structure of most of the songs, which are generally much less challenging than classical music, not to mention the most common theme of popular music, which is our response to love.
Yet rock and rollers and the critics who write about them like to think of themselves as rebels, as long as they are rebelling against Michele Bachmann's America. This can lead to the strange phenomenon of right-wing fans who sometimes grasp the message in the life-affirming energy of the music more than the artist himself. Witness Tom Petty threatening legal action against Bachmann's use of his song "American Girl."
In The Declaration of Independents, Welch and Gillespie note an incredible irony. In October 1989, a month before the Berlin Wall was torn down, rock and roll and hippie icon Neil Young released the album Freedom. Young meant the title ironically. The title track was about how the world was collapsing with Reagan-inspired greed and violence. But when the album was received in Central Europe, the newly free young masses took to it without irony.
This is the kind of thing that irritates left-wing rock writers, who enforce a humorless orthodoxy on the music. You are only allowed to enjoy it as a kind of clenched rebellious posture. The truth is, most rock critics, and not a few rock and rollers, could easily find themselves on the side of the Communists that the Plastic People of the Universe were revolting against.