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Rockin' in the Free World | The Nation

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Rockin' in the Free World

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In a weapons producing nation under Jesus
In the fabled crucible of the free world
Camera crews search for clues amid the detritus
And entertainment shapes the land
The way the hammer shapes the hand
(From "Casino Nation," on Jackson Browne's
The Naked Ride Home)

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

Also by the Author

Why is the political coverage in The New York Times so lame?

Revisiting Eric Alterman's writings on The New Republic during the Marty Peretz years.

Not long ago, the New York Times noticed that Hollywood was making less noise about the forthcoming war than usual. What's more, the noises coming from the "community" were hardly of a piece. Barbra Streisand was peddling a bogus Bill Shakespeare soundbite to buck up Dick Gephardt, who, it turns out, is playing for the prowar team this time. Warren Beatty was unusually demure. The Times reporter was so curious about Rob "Meathead" Reiner's views on Iraq, he found himself reduced to quoting an assistant because Meathead would not deign to be quoted himself. A better question is, Why in the world do we care?

Nobody has quite figured out the relationship between art and politics. Do artists matter politically simply because of celebrity? Do they matter because of the cultural power they enjoy? Do they speak, to some degree, as secular priests, able to see farther and higher than the rest of us, owing to their talents and special callings? Or do we indulge them because they move magazines and raise cash simply by showing up, and, basically, that's really all there is to (media) life?

Danny Goldberg, the record company executive and progressive activist, explains the equation this way: "You can't look to artists to be on the cutting edge of political ideas. Artists can become important megaphones and adjuncts, but their proper role is to create art, not propaganda." True, but too simple. Nothing prevents good art from being good propaganda, too. Isn't The West Wing great propaganda for the liberal side of things, even though it's also great television? Wasn't Traffic a marvelously eloquent brief to end the destructiveness of the drug war? Can't I win this argument simply by saying the words Guernica or Grand Illusion?

Well, maybe, but knowing that war is ugly and the drug war is a failure is not the same as knowing what to do about either of them. I loved Bulworth and likely agree with Warren Beatty on most political issues, but I'm not sure I want him to be President. Ditto Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and Steve Earle, much less Pablo Picasso.

Not long ago, I sat around a New York hotel suite with Jackson Browne trying to make sense of these questions. Browne is often singled out as an artist whose audience abandoned him once he became explicitly political in the mid-1980s and started writing about the murderous effects of US foreign policy in Central America and elsewhere. The Washington Post's Richard Harrington described one album as being composed of "sharply etched political songs [that] question cultural imperialism, foreign policy and the current state of the American Dream." Not your usual pop-song topics. Browne is no longer playing arenas, as in the early 1980s; he is warming up for Tom Petty, who is playing arenas.

Browne vehemently rejects this interpretation, insisting that it's impossible to determine why someone's music goes in or out of fashion, as there are too many variables. "I don't want to be a 'bad example' or a 'cautionary tale,'" he notes. But even if it were true, he would say, "All right. I remember coming back from Nicaragua, having seen people show the highest kind of idealism and sacrifice to a situation that was getting worse and worse. I thought it was more important than any considerations of one's own personal success."

Browne points to any number of works by artists that raise the kinds of questions his music does, while still redounding to the artist's personal and commercial success. Examples include Peter Gabriel singing "Biko," Bruce Springsteen singing "War," U2 and the Troubles; even Neil Young singing "Let's Roll," about which Browne says, "When I hear Neil sing, 'Let's roll for justice,' I hear that differently than someone who wants to bomb Afghanistan."

But the very fact that music--or any remotely complex work of art--can operate so ambiguously, offering different people different messages, has to cut against its effectiveness for any one purpose. The totemic example of this problem was Springsteen's "Born in the USA," which Ronald Reagan and George Will were partially successful in hijacking for the very cause it opposed in 1984-85. Perhaps for this reason, Bono, maybe the most sophisticated of political rock stars, said not long ago that he had given up on the power of music to actually change the world and had decided to go about trying to change it the old-fashioned way: by lobbying and pressuring people in power.

As Browne sees it, at least a part of the problem is media self-censorship. When he and a group of artists organized by Steven Van Zandt played an enormous concert in Wembley Stadium to call attention to the plight of Nelson Mandela, Fox--which broadcast the concert worldwide--excised from its broadcast any specific mention of South Africa or apartheid. The concert, which was supposed to be a protest, became, as he puts it, "a celebration of our own most precious product. The American commodity known as 'freedom.'"

Events like Fox's "Freedomfest," Brown admits, "changed the way I would bring these issues up. A song like 'Casino Nation' is less specific, more Cubist and Impressionist. I want to be joined in viewing the world in these terms. I no longer try to present conclusions."

Even without a conclusion--like this column--it's a mistake to ignore the power music offers, be it political, cultural or psychological. "Music really does change the world every time you listen to it. Put on your headphones and you are transported," Browne notes. "But whether it can be a tool in changing the world to a particular goal, well... there is just no way to wag the dog for good."

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