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Raging With The Machine

It was once America’s outlet for political and cultural rebellion, but now rock and roll has taken a disturbing new direction, endorsing censorship, Covid mandates, and, worst of all, conformity.

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“Anybody wants to get mellow, you can turn around and get the f-ck outta here!”

To be honest, nothing Ted Nugent might have said after that would have mattered: He’d already won over my 15-year-old soul with that blistering, testosterone-soaked introduction to “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.”

Nugent’s “Double Live Gonzo” album, released in 1978, was loaded with such morsels. As a teenager, such ebullitions reinforced the insubordinate rock ‘n’ roll creed to which I’d long since committed: Think for yourself, go against the grain, and, most important, make your parents uneasy.

Of course, that last bit only mattered if your folks actually cared about what you were putting on your turntable or into your 8-track.

My alcohol-addled, perpetually-on-the-verge-of-divorce parents were far too checked out to worry about my grades or where I was, let alone my music, so I was forced to look to other authoritarians for credible condemnation: teachers, politicians, police. You know — The Man.

Truth-to-tell, The Man provided the best rebellion fodder for most teens of that era. You see, whereas many of our parents did have some redeeming qualities, the same could not be said of the dingbats running the country: By 1979, with inflation and unemployment at record levels and our international position in the toilet, the government had so thoroughly screwed up almost every aspect of American life that news anchors were routinely referencing a “misery index” as an assessment of the nation.

Indeed, as the decade of bell bottoms and mood rings came to a close, much was in limbo, but there was one thing about which we were all unequivocally certain: The people in charge are utter asshats. Are they put off by songs such as “Yank Me, Crank Me“?  That was a great reason to be a Nugent fan — in retrospect, maybe the best one.

By the early 1980s, the malaise of the Carter years had given way to the get-tough strutting of the Reagan era. Though the times might have changed, the subversive spirit of rock and roll had not, and, just as The Man was starting to get comfortable with acts like Nugent, a new breed of musicians was kicking in the door and coming for the kids: The raw, back-to-basics onslaught pioneered by the Ramones in late-’70s New York had ignited a rebel snottiness in America’s teens not seen since the 1950s.

By the time it landed in California in the early ’80s, bands such as Fear and The Circle Jerks were primed to once again make sure your parents lost sleep over what you were up to. And so, year upon glorious year, it continued, the sublime, unstoppable middle finger to everything you were supposed to do.

Best of all, every successive incarnation of rock and roll seemed intent on upping the ante. Whereas the establishment might have thrown a tantrum when Elvis fused hillbilly music with rhythm and blues, they were all but convulsing once heavy metal began inbreeding with punk. The sound and culture conceived from this unholy consummation was unabashedly menacing, and so, by 1985, federal legislators were condemning this dangerous filth, insisting that it had to be stopped. From Motley Crue to 2 Live Crew, music was apparently more of a threat to our fragile youth than AIDS or Soviet ICBMs.

Things came to a head when then-Sen. Al Gore’s wife, Tipper, organized a cabal of other bored D.C. housewives to lobby Congress to censor music by Judas Priest, W.A.S.P., Prince, and others. In response, everyone from John Denver to Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider showed up in Washington with intelligent, articulate arguments that made those calling for censorship — and the career politicians they were married to — look like buffoonish, bubble-dwelling mediocrities who wasted money on inane pursuits while children went without medicine.

The realization the numbskulls in government in the ’80s were as bad as or worse than those of 10 years earlier was prima facie evidence that we were still on the right track, and it was our rockers who exposed them as the horses’ asses we all knew they were. Which is why, if you grew up watching this all play out and headbanging in agreement, nothing is more dejecting than seeing the rockers that defied The Man become him.

Rockstars for Mandates

To paraphrase a classic punk tune, the 1970s and ’80s feel like another time, another planet.

In an August 2021 Interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Gene Simmons, leader of ’70s shock rockers Kiss, came out and said he would like to see compulsory Covid vaccination, backed up by the force of law. He also called for mandatory masking of the face, again, enforced at the point of a gun. This is, of course, precisely the position of the U.S. government — a government that, in 2023, is not only still astoundingly incompetent, but also unprecedentedly authoritarian on a frightening scale. 

For those of us who grew up pumping our fists to Deuce’s power chords, the fact that Gene Simmons wants to give the government the right to throw you in jail if you don’t follow Orwellian directives is nothing short of treasonous. With his ghastly appearance and degenerate song titles (e.g., “Let’s Put the X in Sex” and “Christine Sixteen”), Simmons was the one rocker who epitomized why our music was threatening to The Man. So why is he now standing shoulder to shoulder with him, threatening us?

Especially perverse is the fact that what the 73-year-old Simmons proposes disproportionately harms the demographic upon which he built his fortune: teens, pre-teens, and youth. For them, the greatest damage was done not by Covid, but by the government’s clubfooted response to it. In keeping kids out of school, shutting down their opportunities for socialization, and otherwise targeting a population not at any appreciable risk from Covid, the government did more than fail to provide effective, targeted protection of the populations that were at risk. It created an entire generation of (literally) faceless automatons programmed for isolation.

Well, that’s OK, Simmons explains. It’s for their own good. It’s like “stopping at a red light,” says a guy who once seemed to view statutory rape laws as a suggestion.   

Simmons’ “red light” analogy reveals a profound naiveté and doesn’t work. In a cost-benefit comparison, we know for certain what the upside and the downside of stopping at a traffic signal are: A slight delay weighed against a catastrophic, flaming car wreck. With the vaccines, we really don’t know either one. With each passing day, more and more evidence conclusively demonstrates that The Man was wrong about the vaccines stopping the spread of Covid, and only two years in, we have no idea what the long-term effects of mRNA vaccines could be. For young people, who have the most to lose and the least to gain, a rational analysis doesn’t weigh in favor of taking them. The evidence that vaccines cause heart problems for young men is particularly disconcerting. When The Who sang, “I hope I die before I get old,” they weren’t referring to vaccine-induced myocarditis.

Amazingly, in spite of all this, Simmons isn’t the only rocker who wants to toss his non-vaccinated fans onto the gulag-bound crazy train: Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters’ frontman and self-appointed health expert, is also segregating the mindlessly obedient from those concert-goers who dare question The Man and isn’t above alienating them in order to demonstrate his allegiance to the establishment.

This past August, Grohl canceled an already ticketed show in Minnesota because the venue wouldn’t turn away those who refused to show their government-issued vaccination papers, and, in June of 2021, his band excluded those not carrying the requisite state credentials from attending a concert in New York — prior to contracting Covid themselves despite being vaccinated and right before their drummer’s death from a drug overdose. (The Foo Fighters’ taking a hardline on Covid at the expense of young fans also marks a dramatic overcorrection from the band’s previous history of idiotic AIDS denialism.) Other rock acts fronting for The Man’s vaccination agenda include Maroon 5, The Killers, and Phish.

Rockers calling for Draconian measures against those skeptical of the government aren’t limiting their ire to the Covid fiasco, either. Where the ’80s saw rockers rising up to defend free speech, today’s musicians crave a safe space.

Consider Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. In the ’90s, he sold millions of CDs with black and white “Parental Advisory” notices plastered all over them, while suburban teens marinated in his violent and edgy takes on drugs, sex, and religion that freaked out more than a few parents. But recently, Reznor very publicly announced he was leaving Twitter shortly after Donald Trump’s account was reinstated, prompting Elon Musk to call him a “crybaby.” When asked about it, Reznor said that leaving Twitter was necessary for his “mental health,” which appears to be threatened by the possibility of being exposed to ideas he disagrees with.

Then there’s Jack White. When it comes to dizzying rants targeting those who would challenge the government (at least those ever put in writing by a rock musician), White stands alone. In a Nov. 20, 2022, Instagram post, the former John Gillis rages against Elon Musk for reinstating Donald Trump’s Twitter account.

“You intend to give platforms to known liars,” begins the man who married Meg White, taking her name before divorcing her and portraying his two-piece band with her as a brother-sister act. “I’m not about to let the KKK hold a rally at our record label’s performance stage,” he writes, and then, as if that weren’t incongruent enough, “I wouldn’t be selling the KKK gasoline to burn crosses either.”

It goes on like this. White gets so carried away that at one point, seemingly oblivious to the irony, he accuses Musk of “endangering democracy” for providing a venue for the lead opposition candidate to speak against the current administration.

Even people not that interested in music sense that there is something wrong here. There is a clear shift, one that has little direct relationship with the Covid debacle, or even the marginal credibility afforded singers who chain smoke and try to pass their ex-wives off as siblings.  Rather, the most important, nay, frightening change is that so many prominent, influential rock musicians have become mouthpieces for the government.

Know Your Enemy

Far from calling for censorship of contentious or controversial viewpoints, musicians of yesteryear put their careers on the line in order to give a voice to those without one. From Pete Seeger to Country Joe, from Three Dog Night to the MC5, they denounced the idiocy of pointless foreign wars, the moral bankruptcy of racial segregation, and the unconstitutionality of unwarranted government intrusion into our lives.

Youth relied on their musicians to be both their inspiration and their voice in fighting the regime that sanctioned all of those things. It was apparent to them that those in power not only didn’t have their interests in mind, but were generally out of touch, inept, and corrupt. That is clearly the case in America today — more than ever, judging by any metric not originating from the state itself.

Which is to say, measures that have largely evaporated: Virtually all of the media, corporate America, and all major internet gatekeepers are in lockstep with those in power. As such, anything not in keeping with the rulers’ narrative is labeled “misinformation,” “false,” a “lie,” or is simply censored outright. Indeed, the most chilling aspect of what’s happening in our country is not that we have an increasingly authoritarian government with a strong inclination to shut down dissent — it’s that they have never had more ability to do so. If ever there were a time for rock musicians to be composing, publishing, and performing music that calls all of this into question, it’s now.

Of course, the music business has changed, and artists such as The Foo Fighters and Jack White — not to mention Kiss — are not exactly up-and-comers. But that’s the point: Younger musicians don’t have the same platform or audience. In the face of a ruling class that has never before had so much control, while also operating with such reckless disregard for our youth, shouldn’t our older rockers be leading the charge on their behalf?

Eighteen years ago, now-veteran act System of a Down was decrying the architects of the Iraq war for sending thousands of American kids to die for a questionable agenda. Now, who is writing songs protesting the billions of dollars being sent to finance a war on behalf of the corrupt government of Ukraine while children go hungry in our own country?

Without youth culture mentors to inspire them to adopt the skepticism-for-its-own-sake mindset that brings balance and needed conversation to what otherwise amounts to nothing more than a herd mentality, what happens to our young people?

In having hijacked popular culture, The Man has systematically segregated out the rebellious — that is to say, those most given to independent thinking, imagination, and the practice of moral courage in the face of authoritarian pressure.

All of this should frighten — and disgust — any true rock ‘n’ roller. In having forfeited its sacrosanct role as the voice of youthful rebellion, rock music has abdicated its responsibility to a generation, and we have lost an important force in American society. Rather than providing solace and salvation from The Man and the idiocy that he has consistently personified, we now find ourselves betrayed by those we relied upon to provide a counterpoint to the myopic conformity the blockhead class has always tried to impose upon us.

In light of what Simmons, Grohl, White, and other well-known rockers have foisted upon us, Rage Against The Machine’s words from 1992 are not a clarion call to the youth, but a quaint historical footnote:

Yes, I know my enemies!
They’re the teachers who taught me to fight me!
Compromise! Conformity! Assimilation! Submission!
Ignorance! Hypocrisy! Brutality! The elite!

These directly incisive lyrics speak to the indispensability of the subversion that has always been the lifeblood of rock and roll. Yet Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello is now a columnist for The New York Times, the main mouthpiece of The Man’s propaganda juggernaut.

“Know Your Enemy,” indeed. When it comes to rock and roll these days, the enemy is within.


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