In the wake of the Presidential election, many Democratic and left wing fingers have been pointed in every direction, trying to explain what happened. Along the way, everyone’s been blamed, including FBI chief James Comey, the Russians, Millennials, pollsters, and of course, the media.
But in an interesting twist, Observer writer Tim Sommers says you also should be giving some of the discredit to rock n’ roll artists who no longer seem to revel in involvement in the political discourse. “How Rock N’ Roll Failed Us Again This Election” is provocative, a little angry, and worth a read.
Sommers avers that music has always carried a powerful message – from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan to the Doors – that has historically become the anthems of generations. As he notes,
“For generations, people have believed that rock n’ roll “stood” for something, that by endorsing it, one was fighting the establishment. This has all been utter bullshit. We’ve all been had.”
He points out that while celebrity musicians will make TV appearances, perform at fundraisers, or produce videos on behalf of candidates, rock has become a “paper tiger,” showing its true colors as well as being mostly impotent during a time when Americans were open to hearing political-tinged messages from their music idols.
Sommers is especially critical of Bruce Springsteen and Green Day for failing to truly engage with the political turbulence, ironically crediting Ted Nugent – an ardent Trump supporter – for risking concert dates and record sales because of his support of his strong views.
The reality is that Springsteen, in particular, has suffered from his active advocacy of Democratic candidates..for years. I've tracked it from his support of John Kerry in 2004 through last week’s Philadelphia appearance on behalf of Hillary Clinton. Springsteen’s activism has clearly cost him in airplay, and perhaps even concert attendance.
If you’ve seen music tests over the years, virtually all of Springsteen’s library has been penalized by roughly a third of respondents who automatically score every song in his repertoire a “1,” indicating their disdain for his politics by literally voting down his music. If you’re wondering why Springsteen songs are so rarely played on radio across the country, you can lay much of the blame on his overt political opinions and the toll that's taken on how his songs test.
But to suggest as Sommers does that Bruce took “the easy route” this election cycle, joining musicians, rock stars, and pop idols everywhere in simply taking a pass on speaking out, misses the point. A number of artists, from Katy Perry to Nugent to The Boss risked angering at least half their fan base every time they took the stage on behalf of a candidate.
The real omission is that music no longer is a reflection of the political times in which we live. We've come a long way since the “Fish Cheer.” In a year when any of us might have united around an anthem reflecting our values and our aspirations, we end up with innocuous songs that fill the charts. Ironically, Sean Ross’ pick for “Song of the Summer” is Twenty One Pilots’ “Ride” which is introspective and even deep by pop music standards. But in the midst of this political maelstrom, it fails to connect with the times, repeating the phrase “I’ve been thinking too much.”
Sommers points to an impressive list of musical activists and the songs they recorded that became emblematic of the political climate of the day. From Phil Ochs to Neil Young to Nobel prize-winner Bob Dylan, rock became more than music on the radio by holding up a musical mirror to their activated fans, capturing the zeitgeist of the day.
That just doesn't happen anymore. And it's a missed opportunity during a time where there are even more zealots on both sides of the spectrum, eager to rally around songs and lyrics that speak to their beliefs, dreams, and aspirations.
New rock music, in particular, has struggled in recent years. Inside Radio's series this week on Active Rock underscored the struggles that artists, labels, and radio stations have endured the past couple decades in producing and exposing music that connects with genuine enthusiasm and passion. At a time when it is so much easier to share tastes with friend networks, communities, and tribes, there is so little rock music that's truly worthy of word-of-mouth.
The past 18 months have been a roller coaster commandeered by Donald Trump. Based on the news coverage of the events of the last seven days, the next four years promises to be more of the same. No matter your politics or your point of view, a soundtrack on the radio reflective of these changing times would provide much-needed accompaniment and even inspiration.
Who will write and record next anthem to join “The Times They Are A' Changin',” “Outside A Small Circle of Friends,” “Fortunate Son,” or Ohio?”
This is that musical hole you could drive a truck through.
After writing this post, it occurred to me Observer is the online version of the New York Observer, purchased in 2006 by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump's son-in-law.
P.S. We received a comment from Tim Cawley, questioning whether Springsteen's airplay has suffered during the past several years. Our blog post discussed music research that's been eroding, but Tim's comment motivated me to check actual airplay over time. The chart below shows the national Mediabase Classic Rock panel's historic airplay of Springsteen songs.
In 2001, he was the 32nd most-play artist in the Classic Rock format. Since then it's been all downhill. Now looking 2016 to date, he has dropped more than thirty rank positions and sits at a very mortal 65, behind Kiss, Bryan Adams, Bill Idol, and Blue Oyster Cult.
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