the days after September 11, as Americans were desperately trying
to put the inconceivable into some sort of context, MTV (to which
a depressingly large number of teens turn for political news) did
its part by rounding up the usual experts: film and rock stars. The
singer Melissa Etheridge spoke for many when she urged Americans to
learn to "embrace difference." Now, she meant well. And
the stars from Hollywood and the music industry have behaved with
restraint, even at times reverence, in their fundraising performances.
But the unqualified call to embrace difference is a mindless mantra
that, after Sept. 11, we would do well to discard. The experience
of planes crashing into buildings and killing thousands is quite different,
but few want to embrace that. And some cultural differences, such
as the celebration of suicide pilots slaughtering the innocent, cannot
be embraced as part of what Stanley Fish has called boutique multiculturalism.
For all the
calls to embrace difference, the song that has emerged as the post-Sept.
11 anthem of the rock community is John Lennon's "Imagine,"
a song that imagines all difference away. Thus does current rock
oscillate between two extremes, neither of which is much help in
thinking through our current crisis. Admittedly, Lennon's song is
not so much about practical politics as it is about an inspiring
and hopeful ideal of peace. But how, one cannot help but ask, are
we to imagine the road toward this world beyond all national and
religious differences, beyond possessions, with nothing "to
kill or die for," where we all live in the moment? Clearly
not by the old religious answer, which has to do with God's decisive
and transforming intervention into history. Instead, "Imagine"
is a sophisticated advertising jingle for Communism. In what it
fails to say and especially in its hypnotic and placid melody, "Imagine"
is a deeply dishonest song. Tracy Chapman's "Talkin' 'Bout
a Revolution," with its warning that "poor people are
going to rise up and take what's theirs" is more honest about
the violence necessary for revolution. If we must have Lennon, let's
at least have him as part of the Beatles, whose wry and ambivalent
"Revolution" is superior to anything Lennon produced as
Since its inception,
rock has been fixated on the image of an escape from the complexity
of history and civilization through a return to innocence and harmony.
It is there in CSNY's "Woodstock": "we are stardust,
we are golden
and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden."
As Robert Pattison has shown in his recently reissued The
Triumph of Vulgarity: Rock Music in the Mirror of Romanticism,
Rousseau, the father of romanticism, is alive and well in American
popular culture. And not just in the music world but in Hollywood
In the past
few decades, Hollywood has suffered from a Forrest Gump syndrome,
where the only characters unequivocally praised as good are inveterate
children, incapable of participating in the complex adult world
of American civilization. (The Romantic vision exercises an equally
powerful influence in certain leftist segments of academia, where
the evil, civilized West is pitted against the innocent, non-Western
world.) Rousseau depicts the pre-civilized savage as a model of
innocence, a simple and peaceful child, at one with nature, and
incapable of evil. Only with civilization, the invention of language
and reason, and especially the discovery of property, does consciousness
of self and other emerge and with it the spirit of competition,
an ability to calculate gain and loss, for oneself and others. Here
civilization and technology the first fruits of reason
are the sources of human corruption and evil. But of course, Rousseau
does not rest with this pessimistic vision. He announces a revolutionary
politics that seeks to restructure government in order to eliminate
every vestige of inequality. It is no accident that the perpetrators
of the French Revolution idolized Rousseau. And rock has given repeated
testimony to the link between romanticism and violence. The same
culture that gave us the Summer of Love gave us the Rolling Stones
at Altamont, where Mick Jagger sang "Sympathy for the Devil"
as their makeshift body guards, the Hells Angels, murdered a black
At its worst,
rock tends to narcissistic nihilism; at its best, it produces entertaining
and moving, even modestly thought-provoking and poetic, music. But,
aside from occasional exceptions, rock has been in serious decline
for some time. Nowadays, performers, fans and critics can't even
seem to tell songs of revolution from satires. Just days after the
terrorist attacks, a John Mellencamp concert turned into a patriotic
celebration. Opening for Mellencamp was the Wallflowers who, according
to the Boston Globe's Steve Morse, stirred the audience into
a patriotic frenzy by playing a song of "revolution,"
The Who's "We Don't Get Fooled Again." In fact, the song
is a satire of the naivete of revolutionary thinking, for which
The Who caught some grief when they first released the song in the
'60s. Pessimism about the efficacy of revolution is palpable in
the refrain, "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
Don't get fooled again? Oh, yeah!