Tuesday, May 02, 2006

In Birmingham, the Guvnah loved them back

Scott Lemieux has a good time at the expense of righties who misinterpret rock anthems with lefty lyrics.

At the level of the latent text, he is clearly right about Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free World" and Springsteen's "Born in the USA." Even at this level, I have my doubts about a progressive reading of "Sweet Home Alabama." It is said that George Wallace loved that song, and the Pithlord sees no reason to blame him.

But the deeper issue is whether there is bad faith in the leftism of white-male working-class guitar heroes. I wonder if it isn't the artists with their left-liberal pieties above a chorus of nationalist anthem that are fooling themselves. If all those French intellectuals taught us nothing else, they taught us that the listener helps construct the meaning of the text.

Take the Clash, the only band that matters. No major group had more overtly leftist politics. They genuinely took Marxism seriously. But it is hard to miss how they celebrate war and tribe. And that probably matters more.

Nothing beats the tragic irony of "Rock the Kasbah" as theme song for the various Gulf Wars. How many bombs have been rained down on Iraq by nineteen-year-olds with Combat Rock blaring.

I even must confess to a certain twinge of atavistic spine-tingling when I listen to that verse in The Card Cheat:

From the Hundred Years War to the Crimea
With a lance and a musket and a Roman spear
To all of the men who have stood with no fear
In the service of the King.

It doesn't matter that the verse is ironic. It has exactly the same effect on me as the Saint Crispin's Day speech. I certainly distrust that emotion, but that doesn't mean I don't feel it.

"Born in the USA" leaves me cold, but then there is no particular reason for American patriotic iconography to appeal to me. I don't like the Popular Front aesthetic Woody Guthrie created, and one of the most interesting things about Dylan is how he escaped from it. Lefty Springsteen fans (Springsteen himself seems to have some doubts) still imagine that aesthetic isn't wholly owned by their enemies.

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