Can't Get Fooled Again

Two harrowing hours of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 drew to a close, and we watched as George W. Bush's brain, on display in Tennessee, got lost in the convolutions of an old axiom: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me." That's what Bush meant to say; but the logic of the line escaped him, and as it scampered away, the widening silence threatened to admit laughter from the assembled elite. So, famously quick thinker that he is, Bush cut to the chase: "You can't get fooled again."

I wasn't the only one who expected the opening chords of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" to kick in just then, to engulf the theater and bathe the film's open wounds in some cleansing fury. Moore has a knack for musical cues that seem obvious at first but that, set against the accumulation of disgust and demise his films drive toward, curdle into new kinds of sadness or savagery ("Wouldn't It Be Nice" in Roger & Me, "Happiness is a Warm Gun" in Bowling for Columbine). Surely he knew what song was called for. But no: The exit music was Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" – not a great song, in fact something of a headache, however ideologically serviceable.

"Won't Get Fooled Again" not only rocks, it is an epic sneer at leaders, social swindlers, and ideologues of all stripes. It would have lent a dimension of social critique and vigilant skepticism to Fahrenheit 9/11 beyond even the obvious Bush bash that Moore intended. Young's easy, punky rhymes fell in as a dim substitute for something sadder, wiser, fuller, larger. And, despite having been roused by a blame-placing, name-naming populist broadside the like of which has seldom crossed an American movie screen, one was justified in feeling cheated of a great release.

Behind the absence, it turns out, are feuding celebrities and competing narratives. Pete Townshend, Who guitarist and author of "Won't Get Fooled Again," placed a diary entry on his official Web site July 7, claiming that Michael Moore had lately been slandering him. "He says – among other things – that I refused to allow him to use my song . . . because I support the war, and that at the last minute I recanted, but he turned me down," the site reads. Townshend claims that, though low money was the first issue, he ultimately refused Moore's request because he felt "unconvinced" by the filmmaker's previous work. He also admits that "at the beginning of the war in Iraq I was a supporter. But now, like millions of others, I am less sure we did the right thing." (What would Meher Baba have advised?)

Moore has his own version of what went down. Believe whichever side you like. But that Pete Townshend favored the Iraq War and denied use of his music in a film that was bound to inflict some salutary damage on the Bush-Blair axis – while approving its use as theme music for both the CSI series and an allergy medication – should disillusion precisely no one. Not at this late date. For decades now, our pop stars have been sending us political messages that are less mixed than mangled beyond reason.

In 1966, John Lennon came out against the Vietnam War; but a year later, discussing the recent fascist coup in Greece (where The Beatles were preparing to buy an island), he insisted that it didn't worry him "as long as it doesn't affect us." (They never bought the island.) Around the same time, James Brown journeyed to the White House to dine with warmonger Lyndon Johnson; in 1972, the black-pride advocate endorsed Richard Nixon's re-election run (right on!). Linda Ronstadt and Queen, whatever liberating blows they may once have struck for female empowerment or male cosmetics, reaped the rewards of apartheid by playing Sun City against the cultural boycott. Neil Young has flitted from pacifism to Reaganism to anti-corporatism to let's-rollism. The Rolling Stones, who talked a good revolution circa 1968, have turned out to be among the grandest beneficiaries of the very system they once got a chart hit or two out of attacking.

Pop's social politics, like its sexual politics, is at once a flavorful stew of robust contradictions, a slimy pit of self-interest, and a hopeless muddle. But more than anything just now, it is beside the point. Where once it was, as Robert Christgau put it, "an index of vitality" in an artist, his or her political profile is now usually an accessory at best. Does anyone still look to pop stars for help in defining a personal politics? Should we even expect them to define their own politics coherently, given that your typical pop star will be at once a soft liberal, a rapacious capitalist, and a dictatorial control freak? Do we expect or need stars, yesterday's or today's, to second our stance? Who are "we," for that matter, and what is "our" stance?

Christgau asked essentially the same questions in 1969, and though he admitted it was "puritanical to expect musicians, or anyone, to hew to the proper line," he also suggested it was "reasonable to request that they not go out of their way to oppose it." I fear that what seemed a reasonable request 35 years ago seems churlish and outdated today. Rock stars, you see, care about what they care about, when they care about it – be that inconsistent with or utterly contradictory of any previous statement, implied sympathy, or ideological allegiance.

We take this as the order of business. Where once they were thought to be progressive coevals, pop and politics are now ironic familiars, like the secret agents of warring superpowers who talk jaded shop in old spy movies. Each uses the other at its convenience, winks conspiratorially, and walks away unchanged. Most of the remaining figureheads of "classic" rock, to the extent they are political at all, stump for only the safest of liberal causes – Paul McCartney on land mines and animal rights, say, or Carole King pumping piano for John Kerry's empty suit – and thus do nothing to jar the discourse or alter the landscape. (Would anyone claim to be for missing limbs or martyred bunnies? Abortion rights and gay marriage, that's another story.)

Bringing it back to Townshend and Moore, there is also the matter of what a star chooses to do, or allows to be done, with his or her work – and the meanings that work will inevitably take on once it is used in a certain way. Here is where certain idols of a previous generation have made a small but unique contribution to our current culture of cheapened feelings and meatball ethics. In 1998, David Bowie refused director Todd Haynes permission to use a handful of his classics in the dark, devilish, sexually subversive glam valentine Velvet Goldmine; it was evidently more in keeping with Bowie's agenda to permit a car company to use "Rebel Rebel" as a way of telling its consumer base that it was still cutting-edge despite having taken on the bourgeois weight of wealth and PTA meetings.

When the Rolling Stones recorded "You Can't Always Get What You Want" in 1969, "what you wanted" might have been something as earthbound as good sex or a decent high, or as lofty as personal grace and social redemption. But whatever it was, it was presumed, by both Stones and audience, to be something important. A few years ago, "what you wanted," according to the Motorola ad that licensed the song, was more bells and whistles on your cell phone. Today, the soft-drink commercial tells us via fast editing and the familiar Jagger exhortation, "what you want" amounts to precisely this: that your dog won't chew your pillows; that your fat, stupid, hippie parents won't embarrass you in front of your rad boyfriend; and that the new Coca-Cola concoction won't taste like malted battery acid.

That such sellouts are commercial choices does not mean that they're not ethical choices as well – and that they are ethical choices does not mean that they're not political choices. For some of us, these things are, or should be, at least somewhat interrelated. To all of which Pete Townshend might pragmatically reply, "People have their views. Anyway, how do you know I'm not, as you say, for the war?" In fact, those words were spoken by Bob Dylan in 1968, when the war was in Vietnam and the question of for-or-against was far hotter, and more defining of an artist, than it is today. But it is what Townshend is saying, even if he doesn't use those words. Indeed, how do we know? Why should you or I have ever guessed he would oppose the Iraq War? Or that Dylan would not one day shill for a lingerie catalog? Or that the Stones would not flay their own corporate carcass to the snapping point by selling themselves to one conglomerate after another, even if it means directly insulting the very fans who once thought "Street Fighting Man" was for real?

A pop song is a commercial construction designed to bring a return of profit on a certain investment; it is also a spontaneous eruption of human and mechanical sound, the meanings and effects of which are unpredictable. A politics is a system of reasoned and articulated beliefs on issues relevant to the common life of a society; it is also whatever scraps and slivers of fear, anger, and subversion happen to be flapping in the breezes of a particular moment. One is controlled; the other is not. One has a set and standard meaning; the other has a meaning just waiting to be made, or remade, by whoever grabs it.

The fan who wants to use pop politically, then, is still free to do so. If a song can bear the weight of politics, it will; if not, it will crumple like tin. The solution is simple: Trust the song, not the singer. Most of us have made the mistake of trusting the singer, believing the singer believed what we believed, what the singer seemed to believe. But that day is past; the idols are dead, and we need to grow up.

As our outgoing president puts it, "You can't get fooled again." Can you?

Copyright 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Devin McKinney, "Can't Get Fooled Again", The American Prospect Online, Jul 21, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.

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