Rock and the Backlash
People used to look on their music listening as separate from their other life, but that just isn’t true. I want to say, and to insist, that the music you listen to shapes your life.
—John Sinclair, leader of the White Panther Party, in a 1970 prison interview
The Los Angeles Coliseum, October 9, 1981, nearly a year after Ronald Reagan’s election. The Rolling Stones are touring behind the dull Tattoo You album. Their performances are memorable mainly for the way Mick Jagger, wearing football pants, is hoisted above the fans’ heads in a cherry-picker at the finale. The Stones’ stage also moves around on wheels, displaying considerably more personality than their recent records. Prince, their hand-picked opening act, is everything the Stones once were. Described that year as “a prophet of sexual anarchy,” he fuses dance music with hard rock guitar and has just finished recording a song where he asks “Am I black or white?. . .Am I straight or gay?” It’s no surprise the Stones like him: they’ve always been up-front about their connections to black music. They may not have played much blues since the sixties, but they happily admit to copping moves and inspiration, and they’ve picked important black acts, ranging from Otis Redding to Living Colour, to open for them. And the Stones’ story is supposed to be the story of rock: “The blues had a baby, and they called it rock ‘n’ roll.” Something weird and ugly about that story will become clear tonight.
We’ve all heard the story of rock ‘n’ roll as a racial meeting ground, but it’s a story with a bad conscience: the minstrel show. In the nineteenth-century South, white people shed their inhibitions by dressing up as coal-black minstrels for other whites. File that away as a foul relic of a forgotten cracker past, but it keeps coming back: The first talking movie Hollywood ever made, The Jazz Singer, just happens to have been about a minstrel. More specifically, it’s about a Jewish guy shedding his inhibitions and his synagogue past by donning blackface: the first music ever heard in an American movie was Al Jolson’s grease-painted “Toot-toot-tootsie.” Jolson’s character goes on to assimilate and address the mainstream, to become successful and widely loved. The first sound movie is about an outsider putting on a black mask to become a real American.
At the LA Coliseum the Rolling Stones are updating Jolson’s story. They’re outsiders to the American mainstream in a different way—they’re English—but like Jolson they won that mainstream over playing black to white audiences. If rock is a place where white and black forged a unique American voice together, the people using and listening to that voice since the Sixties have mostly been white. It’s made for fantastic, and awful, art: every time Mick Jagger pouts sassily through “Brown Sugar,” you can see minstrel ghosts. It makes each retelling of the story of rock ‘n’ roll either a little disturbing or a little fake.
The Stones are a little disturbing. Their fans, generally as white as the Stones themselves, tend to prefer them to their black ancestors and contemporaries. And while the Stones’ black support acts have usually gone over well, by the eighties there was something didactic about their choices: it was as though Stones fans ought to be exposed to someone like Prince. He’s absorbed twenty more years of black music into his sound. He isn’t just down with Robert Johnson, Little Richard and Muddy Waters; he’s down with Donna Summer, Funkadelic, and James Brown. Stones fans think he’s disco. Or they think he’s gay.
That night in 1981 Prince takes the stage and is immediately met with shouts of “nigger” and volleys of Michelob. He plays his allotted twenty minutes and splits. Rock may have black roots; these fans may have dozens of blues songs tucked away at home (at least on Stones and Zep albums), but they didn’t come to hear a sexually ambiguous black man playing something that both black and white people might actually listen to. Cue imaginary soundtrack—audience members shaking their booties, enthusiastically casting ballots for Reagan to the tune of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and pan to a letter to the Los Angeles Times that reads like the Monster from the Rock-Critical Id:
You obviously are a fan of that faggot nigger group our you wouldn’t’ve lied about it. I just wanted you to know that us W.A.S.P. Rock n rollers pay to see white performers and not niggers, faggots our tawdry critics like yourself President Reagan has proven once and for all that liberals, niggers, fags, and minorities are out. Thank god for that. I can sure bet your ass on one thing, prince wont open up for the stones next time around.
This demented drivel, reprinted in Greil Marcus’s book In the Fascist Bathroom, could be mistaken for a KKK plant, but the angry Stones fans were for real. How the hell did we get here from Woodstock, and exactly what did Reagan have to do with it? According to the story of rock ‘n’ roll, its fusion of sex and self-expression was to be shared by black and white, not by mean-spirited crackers who can’t spell. According to the story of rock ‘n’ roll, the 1981 Rolling Stones concert makes no sense.
Rock gave young white people in the seventies a sense of who they were.
But maybe the story of rock ‘n’ roll needs to be changed. Consider the racial angle: It is widely believed that rock ‘n’ roll and the civil rights movement followed parallel histories. After all, 1964 was the year of both the Beatles and the Civil Rights Act. But then the paths started to diverge. The later sixties may have promised liberation and equality, but they delivered further racial separation. Before that decade, Republicans, the party of Lincoln, were sometimes stronger backers of civil rights than were Democrats. In 1960, polled voters saw no difference between Democrats and Republicans on race issues. By 1968, after the rise of Black Power and three years of catastrophic urban riots, there was no doubt about the difference: the Republicans had become the white people’s party they are today. They won the White House in that year and in so many subsequent years by exploiting Southern and working-class whites’ fears. It can’t be a mere coincidence that rock started to signify white at the same time.
The Rolling Stones weren’t Republicans, and they almost certainly rejected the bitter politics of the backlash, but to Stones fans the world looked very different. The bigotry on display at that 1981 Stones concert epitomized the shifts underway in American politics and pop culture. It’s no accident that the division of U.S. politics along racial lines went hand in hand with the triumph of rock ‘n’ roll. More than any other art form, rock gave young white people in the seventies a sense of who they were. In an age of deepening racial backlash and social fragmentation, rock helped divide America.
Consider the Rocker
Let us first consider the rocker. Not an uncanny fifties originator like Little Richard, Elvis, or Chuck Berry. No, consider the seventies rocker: a bloated, complacent mug-wump, lavished with money, drugs, studio time, and what our boys fighting in Vietnam liked to call “poon-tang.” Imagine a tender young Cameron Crowe reverently asking him about his work’s social significance. Imagine the coke glazing the star’s brainpan shiny as he begins to expound.
And consider the seventies rock audience: free-living rugged individuals doing their thing, heads chockablock with aphorisms like “Whatever floats your boat!” and “lookin’ out for #1,” tear-assing down the freeway in customized vans with bumper stickers that read, “Gas, Grass or Ass: Nobody Rides for Free.”
A far cry from “Blowin’ in the Wind,” surely, but these dippy seventies images are just as close to the heart of rock ‘n’ roll as any of the respectable visions of the sixties. Seventies rockers were rebels for the sheer fun of it; their pose was an aesthetic choice. How does this translate into politics? Critics have generally interpreted aesthetic choices the way diviners used to tell the gods’ will from animal entrails, reading people’s deepest commitments directly off of the songs they like. In Invisible Republic, for example, critic Greil Marcus imagines a judgment day where everyone will have to answer for which song they like best, since their musical choices reveal who they really are.
If they do, it’s thanks to two of the towering figures of the 1960s, Bob Dylan and Barry Goldwater. What ties the prophetic bard and the far-right demagogue together is the way both rock and race helped to pull politics and identity free from the gravity of class. By the end of the sixties, noneconomic factors had become drastically more important in determining people’s politics. The traditional constituents of the left—poor whites, working-class ethnics—were moving to the Republicans en masse. In 1960, votes cast in the poorest white areas of Southern cities were 22 percent more Democratic than those in the richest white areas; by 1964 they were virtually indistinguishable. In the North the change would take a little longer, but would have still greater consequences. Dylan and Goldwater shared one more thing: converted Jews who joined the dominant American religion of Protestantism, they came out of Al Jolson’s synagogue and doffed their identities for the drama of the mainstream.
We have missed rock’s real impact because our cultural interpreters have tended to read its politics directly off of the music or the lives of musicians (Bob Dylan’s lyrics, Neil Young’s voting record). This naive, wishful impulse reaches some kind of end point in a 1995 essay by rock critic Ann Powers, written on the morning of the Gingrich revolution in Congress, in which she theorizes desperately about “the path that leads from being a Pearl Jam fan to volunteering at a center for child abuse victims.” A nice thought, but how many have actually traveled that path? Powers doesn’t bother to find out. It is simply assumed, or ardently hoped, that, like some flannel-clad Pied Piper of Gen-X dissidence, Eddie Vedder will lead the kids to the barricades. It’s typical of how critics make rock seem important: they eschew the dirty work of history for acts of political mystification.
Intellectuals naturally want to see the art they love change the world. And it does, but seldom the way they want it to.
One of the earliest and noblest of these utopian visions of pop was advanced by Harry Smith, the collector–savant whose 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music taught a generation of hipsters and critics what music could be and do. Organized by theme, not race or genre, Smith’s Anthology showed how poor people’s music flowed around racial lines. It conjured up what Greil Marcus, inheritor of Smith’s democratic vision, referred to as an “invisible republic,” an imagined community of farmers and the working class of all colors that existed on vinyl. Outside of the cities, Smith argued, musical reality wasn’t organized by race. Underneath our misconceptions and Jim Crow laws, we’re a people with a shared culture.
The grand hope of thinkers like Smith or Marcus was that music would enable us to recognize what we had in common. As an act of imagination, it worked. But there’s a reason you can tell the difference between the music of the black John Hurt of Avalon, Mississippi, and the white Dock Boggs of Norton, Virginia. They came from societies and regions that were legally, often physically segregated. Rigid institutional barriers served to keep them apart. To cloak that iron curtain in the fog of an invisible republic or a “secret public” is a generous, hopeful, and productive act. It’s also an act of political mystification. As long as you’re listening to the records, the visible republic, the public republic fades out.
If the Anthology prophesied a racial reunion, a recognition of what we had in common, rock ‘n’ roll realized it in the public arena. Whatever else may be wrong with the usual story, the impact of the cultural convergence in fifties rock has not been underestimated. Before then the recording industry, with its “race” and “hillbilly” records intended for separate black and white audiences, had helped divide the two musical cultures as surely as segregation helped divide the people. But in the early forties, blacks and whites began to score hits with each others’ songs. In the fifties the sheer fact of this was publicly recognized as a thing called rock ‘n’ roll.
We have missed rock’s real impact because our cultural interpreters have tended to read its politics directly off of the music or the lives of musicians.
As the two cultures reunited in the popular imagination, style began to trump race. Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, lustful preachers beating the hell out of their keyboards, had more to do with each other stylistically than either had to do with the dazzling cool of guitarists like Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. Doo-wop was both black and Italian, something you couldn’t say about any later rock genre. Song forms lost the racial markings that had crusted over them: it’s not just that white people were playing R&B and black people were pounding out country riffs; they’d always done that. What was crucial was that now, everyone knew they were doing it. Reflection on that fact helped usher in new realities. White parents fretted over Elvis and Jerry Lee; about black parents less is generally said. The left wing’s imagined racial utopia of the sixties happened all right—but in the fifties, a period popularly memorialized in Leave It to Beaver reruns and postcards of gleaming, secretly angry robot housewives. That’s why Elvis meant so much: millions could actually see blues shouter Wynonie Harris’s sneer and thrust coming from a working-class white man’s mouth and hips. He was the invisible republic, in public, with a single ass.
But Elvis’s ass didn’t desegregate America. It was the grueling battles leading up to the Civil Rights Act that did that.
How the Beatles Became White
The Beatles were the first major rock band composed of record collectors, and it was no accident that they started out as the most R&B-sounding white group in years. Cutting their teeth as a cover band in Germany, they dug hard-edged American sounds, especially fifties rock, which by 1963 was already slightly unfashionable. They arrived during a period when black music had gone mostly underground; a pretty, pop-inflected version (the Drifters, the Shirelles) stayed on the charts. But while the Beatles brought black music back to an American audience, they were also huge fans of the Everly Brothers, the main source of their harmonies, and Buddy Holly. It was some of the rawest R&B white audiences in America had heard in years, and it was played by Englishmen.
The Beatles’ alien edge, their omnivorous fandom and distance from the original sources, was crucial to their accomplishment. Like their cinematic contemporaries in the French New Wave, they “got” American culture in a way the natives never could. The Beatles forged a version of American rock that had never existed. Americans picked up on the Beatles’ outsider status and their polite, English-boy vibe. The Fab Four were more welcome in mainstream white America than Elvis ever was, and they could draw the same bloodcurdling shrieks from teenaged girls without shaking their hips.
Distance and love didn’t just define the Beatles’ music; it also let their “dumb” love songs come off as culture, winning the hearts and minds of white elites. It was through this victory that rock gained its class of interpreters, the critics who would have turned up their noses and flipped their folk anthologies a decade earlier. While early rockers starred in exploitation movies that made critics think they were simpletons, the Beatles sandbagged cultural gatekeepers with the self-mocking humor of A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Rubber Soul (1965), the first art rock record, was Real European Culture.
Meanwhile, actual living black people had abandoned the rock sound in a cultural inversion of white flight. Otis Redding and a few others still had the old sound, but the guitars of the fifties were giving way to the vocally based music of Motown and Sam Cooke: sixties soul. Guitars faded permanently into the background of black music.
The rock backlash began with the most symbolically white music around: country.
In 1968 politically-oriented youth culture hit an extreme of radicalism as the prominent rock groups hit an extreme of sophistication. For the white riots of Paris in 1968, the Beatles and Stones produced the massively orchestrated, ambivalent hits “Revolution #1” and “Street Fighting Man.” The Beatles song sounded like something that should be hanging in a gallery, and the Stones used something like ten overdubbed acoustic guitars to produce their record’s tough sound. While the top pop bands produced towering masterpieces of indirection and artifice, the avant garde of youth culture foamed at the mouth and made sure everyone saw them doing it. By adopting all ten planks of the Black Panther platform as the first plank of their platform and following it with their own call for a “total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including dope, guns and fucking in the streets,” the White Panther party symbolically incorporated everything the “silent majority” hated about black separatism. It was never really clear what the Black Panthers thought about the move, but its significance for the average white person was obvious. The platform was reprinted in 1969 and mailed to every registered voter in Ann Arbor by Republican Mayoral hopeful Jack J. Garris.
While white partisans in the culture wars used images of black unrest for their own ends, black music was also evolving in an increasingly distinctive direction. In 1967, James Brown began cutting R&B down to a minimal, quivering core and building it back up again. On “Cold Sweat” and “I Can’t Stand Myself,” Brown’s band improvised in the studio over shouted changes as he ad-libbed soul catchphrases. The seat-of-the-pants vibe recalled Elvis in the Sun Studios, but the lexicon of exclamations—“Good God!” “Lemme hearya,” “Uhh,” “Can I scream, Bobby?” “Oww!”—signified black the way Bob Dylan’s nasal whine signified white.
“Cold Sweat” hit number seven on the pop charts and topped the R&B charts, but with “I Can’t Stand Myself” the gulf became clear. The new thing, in and of itself, was not racial: the band that performed it, the Dapps, was composed entirely of white men. The most innovative tune Brown had yet recorded, it had no verse or chorus, no discernible song structure, just flux in a single, stuttering groove. Every word of the vocal was improvised. It threw down the gauntlet to the Anglo-American ballad form, the structure black and white music had always shared.
It seems ironic now that Brown was a Nixon supporter, down with the administration’s “black capitalism” program, but in fact Brown’s political agenda chimed perfectly with the mood of cultural nationalism one heard in his art. Black people—and black music—didn’t need to integrate: they could and should make it on their own. Among black activists these years marked the move from integration to nationalism; centuries of pent-up frustration combusted as the continuing tenacity of racial barriers became evident. The faction that inspired the White Panthers was no longer coming to the Man with hat in hand—they wanted to set his front lawn on fire. The term “race riot” was resemanticized from “a white pogrom against blacks” to “black people burning cities.”
The rock backlash began with the most symbolically white music around: country. In 1968 Rolling Stone publisher Jan Wenner, after studying the moves of Bob Dylan, the Byrds, the Beau Brummels, and the Band, declared the newly hip country and western to be “the soul music of white people.” “The music of reconciliation,” it was supposed to heal and reunite a pop audience torn by politics—but by now it went without saying that that audience was limited to just one race. Robert Christgau called it: “the gimmick of the year.”
Country divided the rock audience the same way it divided Wenner and Christgau. For more intellectual listeners country may have been a way of finding the musical roots rock had left behind, but to most fans (and to liberal critics), it was a way of telling the counterculture to fuck off and die. The top-selling country single in the year of Altamont, Woodstock and the Days of Rage was Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” a middle finger to hippies everywhere. Haggard wrote the song after driving past a small town and imagining it as a place where nobody did drugs or had student protests: “We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/And we don’t take our trips on LSD/We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street/We like livin’ right and bein’ free.” Haggard, who enjoyed a wide spectrum of illegal drugs himself, was pleasantly surprised when the song became his first number one hit. He was even more surprised when conservatives led by country music fan Richard Nixon adopted it as an anthem, thereby alienating a number of his fans.
Bohemian delight in country as super-authentic roots music bogged down fast. Lush records by the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers integrated country harmonies and themes with wry irony but never sold. It took a band of Californians named after a generic national symbol to turn country into mainstream rock: In 1972, the Eagles released their first album. Although “Take It Easy” and “Peaceful Easy Feeling” didn’t exactly reverberate with the angst of the truck-driving man, their cautious rhythms and airbrushed spirit made the songs feel as white as Nixon in briefs. The Eagles sat around a cozy-looking campfire on the cover, and they rocked gently but confidently. And that was the main point.
If the Eagles stood for white isolation, funk was its black counterpart. James Brown’s introduction of polyrhythms, extended improvisations, and repetition made white audiences an offer they couldn’t help but refuse. His new forms had drawn a line in the sand, an aesthetic negritude that could stand for Black Power the second you heard it.
By the early seventies, the musical integration rock promised had been reversed. While artists and critics still saw the connections, the audiences were sealed off from each other. Music alone could never explain it, because white and black musicians were still enthusiastically drawing on each other’s heritages: brilliant rednecks like Lynyrd Skynyrd drank deep of soul music and black superheroes like Funkadelic did significant heavy metal axe damage. But nobody could imagine Skynyrd’s heavy guitars and soul harmonies as anything but white: Funkadelic’s heavy guitars and soul harmonies sounded irreducibly black.
The Importance of Being Vinnie
If musical integration was dead in the water, social integration wasn’t looking much better. Society was re-segregating just as music had. The causes were different, but the big picture was similar. Carelessly conceived social programs like busing angered working-class whites and left black people ambivalent. In a vicious circle, white flight bled cities of crucial resources, and the resulting social breakdown triggered further flight; in extreme cases like Detroit, large sections of the city were left uninhabited altogether.
Urban working-class whites resented the suburbanites who they thought had concocted busing: “They can experiment on us because they don’t have to live here.” Democratic delegations started to squeeze out urban ethnics in favor of blacks, women, and well-educated men. Liberals were never curious about why the white working class didn’t get it. They’d mutter something about the manufacture of consent and get back to whatever business was at hand.
But for hard-nosed political observers, the answers weren’t so obscure. Wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko in 1972: “Anybody who would reform Chicago’s Democratic Party by dropping the white ethnic would probably begin a diet by shooting himself in the stomach.” The same chain reaction that divided electoral politics along racial lines was reorganizing white voters along class lines, pushing the working class to the right.
Left thinking in this period played into the backlash by becoming its mirror image. Leftist hopes were embodied in characters like Vinnie, who was described in Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven as the only student in the white working-class neighborhood of Charlestown who was willing to be bused to black Roxbury.
Held up as a model of racial enlightenment in an account of the busing crisis by Pamela Bullard and Judith Stoia, Boston television reporters, Vinnie might better have been seen as a model of social mobility and cultural expatriation. As Martha Bayles noted in a perceptive review, Vinnie was a hero for Bullard and Stoia because he was “just like us.”
“Unlike his backward and ignorant neighbors, he wants to go to Harvard. Unlike his insular neighbors, he intends to leave Charlestown and never come back . . . . Unlike his sexually repressed neighbors, he sees no harm in unmarried girls having babies . . . The point is that Bullard and Stoia, in their zeal to show how busing has cured Vinnie of racial prejudice, show also how it has cured him of numerous other beliefs and values. Instead of describing a Charlestown boy who has overcome racism, they describe a Charlestown boy who has overcome Charlestown.”
All through the seventies rock critics were discovering their own Vinnies, working-class types as enlightened as they were. Of these imaginary bridgers of the great chasm, Bruce Springsteen was undoubtedly the best known and most widely theorized. A sophisticated singer-songwriter with actual working-class cred, he represented a solution to the isolation felt by upper-middle-class liberals, who were starting to realize that the left now belonged almost exclusively to people like them.
The problem hit rock critics especially hard. They had labored in the sixties to portray rock as an art form that was both radical and popular. But by the early seventies, these two halves of the formula had come apart, and rock crits wrung their hands over the split between the smart, progressive elite and the dumb, rockin’, fun-loving proles. Making matters worse, the music’s swaggering, street-level vitality now rested exclusively with the hard rock bands like Grand Funk and Foghat. Kiss, not the Band, was the group working-class kids congregated to see in the vast communal space of sports arenas. On the surface it looked collective, proletarian—progressive. But the only social conflicts the music talked about were those involving unappreciative girlfriends who had spurned the mighty mojo. Hard rock’s vision of collective transcendence revolved not around barricades and workers’ councils but Quaaludes and Wild Turkey.
By contrast, the singer-songwriter music favored by the critics used a subtle palette to portray complex, plausible characters and relationships. It was upper-middle-class in every respect, from its genteel tastefulness to the kind of people it talked about. When Joni Mitchell and other singer-songwriter acts played a benefit for McGovern, the critics would squirm at the sight of the elite musicians rubbing up against elite fans and elite causes. The sensitive artistes were just too much like the critics to feel authentic.
Springsteen, on the other hand, promised to resolve this embarrassing dilemma. He seemed both to speak to the working class that was fleeing the Democrats and the cities, and to do so in an intelligent, progressive way. Problem solved. Jon Landau, Rolling Stone music editor and the most influential rock critic in America, described him simply as the “Rock and Roll future.”
It took a critic as off-kilter as Richard Meltzer to notice that Springsteen didn’t just draw on but invented a more innocent and promising time before the country ripped apart. His fantasies were the musical equivalent of American Graffiti. And in the political context of the mid-seventies, they were brilliant acts of evasion. Instead of confronting the fragmentation of rock, the racial divide, Springsteen tried to go back to some putative pure source of rock and bring it back with its pan-racial innocence intact. But as Meltzer knew, you can never step in the same river twice. (Springsteen’s studied political ambiguity played a much grander second act in the mid-eighties, when Reagan himself appropriated the Boss’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Springsteen, probably wary of alienating a big chunk of his audience, distanced himself from the president’s co-optation in the cagiest possible way.)
In 1975, Springsteen’s Born to Run came out. In the months of preparation leading up to the album’s release, the Boss had been hysterically anxious about living up to the apocalyptic expectations generated by writers like Landau. Springsteen’s record company had plastered the “Rock and Roll future” line all over its ads. But how can you a be a naive, working-class folk artist and spontaneously generate exactly what a sophisticated rock-critical intelligentsia is hoping for? The most direct way, obviously, is to allow a member of that intelligentsia to produce your album, and that’s what Springsteen did. Born to Run, produced by Jon Landau, did indeed make Springsteen the future of rock ‘n’ roll: within weeks of the album’s release, he was on the covers of both Time and Newsweek.
In 1975, Phnom Penh, the capitol of Cambodia, was forcibly evacuated by the Khmer Rouge. A Time/Life photographer captured a pile of shoes on the sidewalk of the empty city, thrown out of a ransacked house. This was what Springsteen’s stories about Big Balls Billy and Weak-Kneed Willie missed: his characters wanted to leave the city too, but just because they felt bad. They hadn’t been decapitated. And this was what the terminal music of the Seventies obsessed on: cities without people at all, the backlash war of all against all reaching a logical endpoint of mutual annihilation. Punk was that terminal music, and the terminal form of punk was the Los Angeles variety, which returned again and again to these images: Cambodia, Uganda, the Neutron Bomb.
In 2002 it’s possible to see both Springsteen and punk as flavors of seventies escape: run away or kill them all, either way you don’t have to deal with all these intractably different assholes. Punk rock also followed Springsteen’s imaginary-conservative strategy: the big point of the Ramones was that rock had deviated from its pre-hippie purity. But while Bruce tried to revive that purity through nostalgia, the Ramones’ raw, simple sound captured the harsh Seventies reality. The murderous, rejected hustler in “53rd and 3rd” was the kind of person the heroes of Born to Run sped past in their souped-up car, fleeing toward the Boss’s imaginary all-nite burger stand.
The Ramones pounded out pseudo-fascist songs like “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World,” but it’s hard to remember exactly who they were trying to piss off.
Punk was also the first white rock music to confront the racial divide and take it as a fact of life. Though scarcely a racist, Joey Ramone was nonetheless the first white rock singer to not even pretend to be black. This signaled an end to the bad faith, an end to the gross spectacle of arena blues acts parading a minstrel show to a mook audience, and also an end to the narcissistic self-righteousness of the singer-songwriters pretending to be bluesmen, to be down with the migrant workers. Punks like the Ramones, the Dictators, and X projected a razor-sharp sense of place because they had stopped pretending. But this also meant that the most creative form of rock had definitively cut itself off from black music.
Punk’s frankness about race bled over into winking acceptance of the racial divide. The guys in Cleveland’s Electric Eels danced with each other in working-class bars just to pick fights, but when they used lines from a KKK pamphlet, did it matter that “Let’s pull the triggers on the niggers” was blank irony, that there were probably no black people in the club? “We’re just showing you the way things are,” was a clever aesthetic strategy and a great cover story for racially separatist music, from punk to rap. The Ramones pounded out pseudo-fascist songs like “Today Your Love, Tomorrow the World” and “Mercenary,” but it’s hard to remember exactly who they were trying to piss off. The answer is pathetic: like their buddies who wrote for New York’s Punk magazine, they had managed to convince themselves that hippies were the dominant oppressive force in society. You could only believe something that stupid if your cultural horizons ended at the New York rock scene.
The one thing that punks, hard rockers, and fat old right-wingers could get behind was disco. They all hated it. In fact, disco was the most hated genre in the history of popular music—and the most socially inclusive since the fifties. Pioneered by gay, female, Latin, and black audiences, disco also reached into the white working class, symbolized by Tony Manero, John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Fever. According to the sixties line that inclusiveness is progressive, disco should have been the most revolutionary music yet.
But it wasn’t. Disco united races and sexualities solely as consumers, rallying everyone around fashion and pleasures that were enthusiastically of the moment. It wasn’t just the velvet rope in Studio 54 that kept out people who weren’t pretty or important—it was the whole disco style, based on an ideal of luxury and sophistication. The music itself was stripped of affective content, the point being to generate a sensual heat shorn of specific emotions. This was best exemplified by the ethereal iciness of Giorgio Moroder’s famous Donna Summer mixes, which aspired to be totally functional soul music without the soul. Naturally, it was politically complacent.
If the white backlash is really about the death of class politics in America, multiracial disco is still all about the backlash. This is the paradox that pins the tail on the donkey: It’s not despite disco’s integration but because of it that disco is quintessential backlash pop. Disco fans weren’t united by shared ideals, economic conditions or political commitments—they all just grooved to the same thing. Here integration was just another fad.
Dreaming of Mötley Crüe Shouting Racial Epithets at War Orphans
As different as they were, something united all the seventies rock styles: a bedlam of generalized social animosity that found its political expression in the Nixon-Reagan backlash. Disco’s luxury aspirations, hard rock’s macho fantasies, the singer-songwriters’ narcissism, punk’s dystopias: these weren’t random choices based on individual consumer whimsy but statements of commitment—commitment to a way of being in the world, a new politics where class is off the radar and everything is about identity.
If rock changed the way people act politically, it wasn’t because it told them what to do or softened them up for the “right” message. It worked because it did what it was so good at: it changed the way they saw themselves. Everybody agrees that rock expanded our possibilities for self-definition. The crippling mistake has been to assume that all that wonderful rockin’ self-definition was the natural ally of sixties-style liberatory politics.
The real story of rock isn’t just how it made us free and let us sing our own song, but how it became white at the same time. As American politics began to revolve more and more around race in the sixties, rock helped to peel identity away from involuntary economic positions. In the seventies you couldn’t just be a worker or a white man, you had to be an individual, a consumer, a member of a subculture: into hard rock, stock car racing, or faux-redneck Urban Cowboy bullshit. The Stones may not have known it, so close were they to the heart of the spectacle that they couldn’t see its size or shape, but their fans were well aware that by 1981 rock had become a flavor of white.