Quantcast

'Rules for Changing the World' | The Nation

  •  

Column > Stop the Presses

'Rules for Changing the World'

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

This was intended to be a sweet little prewar column about an artist I admire, Rosanne Cash. Still sexy after all these years, she just released her first commercial CD in nearly a decade after having remarried, had a fourth kid, signed with a different record company and lost and regained her voice after nearly three years of silence.

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.

I said yes to writing about Rosanne when the Capitol publicist called about Rules of Travel because (a) I've always wanted to meet her, (b) she was kind enough to blurb my Springsteen book and I've never had the chance to thank her, and (c) hello, she's Johnny Cash's daughter, though it's not easy to see the connection musically. Johnny is gruff, to the point and occasionally prophetic; Rosanne is smooth and subtle. Johnny is inspiring; Rosanne, comforting, even warming. I was hoping to learn something about where these differences derive.

Over cappuccinos in a Chelsea bakery, I asked Rosanne about trying to relaunch her career at age 47 in an industry that cares more about the lint in Britney's bellybutton than the adult ambivalence to which she gives voice. "When I first moved to Nashville," she recalled, "the first record exec I met said, 'Well now, we just have to make this girl fuckable.'" Rosanne resisted, and it paid off. "I guess I was naïve, but I thought I was this tough little songwriter, pseudorock chick, less kittenish than Chrissie Hynde-ish. And this has worked to my advantage as I've gotten older." Indeed, Rosanne is the first musician I've met who doesn't complain about her record company. "They get everything about me," she says.

What's it like to be the "Daughter in Black"? Rosanne has been sensitive about this issue for most of her career, but now with dad singing on the new album, it seemed OK to ask about their relationship and how it felt for him to always be on the road. "Dad belongs to the world. He doesn't just belong to his family. A huge part of his impact is defined by his absence, and it arranges your DNA," she says. "I really want to stress that I am not bitter about this--whose life would I have traded it for?" And the pressure? After all, did she have to go into the family business? "Because I am a woman, I do not have to hold myself up against my dad. My father is a truly great artist, and a revolutionary artist, and he is going to look back at the arc of his life with that joy or pain. I won't, either because I wasn't willing to make the sacrifices, or I never had it in me in the first place."

Well, that's about it for the nice, innocuous column I wanted to write. What with an unnecessary, unprovoked war on the way, that column became impossible halfway through my interview. Returning from the ladies' room, Rosanne informs me that she's to appear at a press conference the following day to support an effort spearheaded by David Byrne and Russell Simmons called "Musicians United to Win Without War." She also signed a full-page protest in the New York Times, together with Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle, along with a bunch of hip-hop and world music artists.

This kinda pisses me off. I ask Rosanne who really cares what a bunch of musicians or artists think about Iraq. Robert Redford on the environment and Paul Newman on gun violence are one thing--those guys have done their homework and know their issues as well as any expert. But what do Missy Elliott or Dave Matthews know about international politics? I suggest that perhaps the left has paid a steep price for the misimpression, shared by much of the country, that pampered, spoiled stars like Barbra Streisand and Alec Baldwin are liberalism's most significant spokespeople. Rosanne admits to sharing my ambivalence. "Yes, it kind of turns me off when artists get on their soapboxes. Art does not give you a better insight into politics. But if I learned anything from my dad--who, by the way, opposes this war more passionately than just about anyone I know--it's that if you're not willing to stand publicly behind what you believe, what good are you?"

David Fenton, the PR guru who helped facilitate the effort and the full-page Times ad, calls my pissy I've-got-a-PhD-in-this-stuff attitude about celebrity politicking "purposely stupid." The whole point of using artists, he explains, is to open doors in the mainstream media that have so far been closed to the antiwar point of view. "I've been turned down trying to book ex-ambassadors and national security professionals [by producers] who are clamoring for Janeane Garofalo and Mike Farrell. If we need celebrities to get people to listen to [liberal national security expert] Mort Halperin, so be it. That's the craziness of the media we're trying to open up. It's also the only way to reach lots of young people, who, believe it or not, don't read The Nation."

OK, fair point. I apologize. If the likes of Ms. Elliott and Mr. Matthews can go where yours truly cannot in helping to create a lasting, significant and sensible antiwar movement, then I'm all for it. I think it was Mark Twain who said nobody ever went broke overestimating the idiocy of the American television punditocracy. Kudos to Messrs. Byrne and Simmons for realizing this before I did.

Properly chastened, I return with Rosanne to the broader question raised by my talk with Jackson Browne last fall [see "Stop the Presses," Nov. 11]. Just what is the relationship between art and politics? "Politics are not good for art," says Rosanne, who says she finds that few musicians mix the two with much success. "Too much politics in art comes out of self-righteousness or bitterness. Too often, you lose the art, and then it is just politics that rhyme. And who gives a shit about that?" Then again, a handful of visionaries, she admits, have figured out how to do it right. "Steve Earle, Springsteen and my dad are among the few artists who can mix the two without affecting the integrity of their work. It's organic. They tend to step into character rather than rail against the system. And if it resonates on a soul level, it can change the world."

What? Three more lines? OK, that's just enough room to again plug my book, What Liberal Media? (Basic Books, www.whatliberalmedia.com).

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size