Springsteen, Linkin Park, and social justice

After discovering some of Linkin Park’s newest work – specifically, Hands Held High from the Minutes to Midnight album – I found an ironic contradiction in the songwriter Mike Shinoda’s desire for a peaceful world that “doesn’t cater to [the] rich and abandon [the] poor.”  Shinoda’s emotional lyrics reveal that his sympathies lie with the poor (who die “when the rich wage war”) and with those “who can’t put gas in [their] tank.”  The lyrics make the baseless accusation that the American war leadership in recent years (including George W. Bush) were “laughin’ their way to the bank and cashin’ the check.”

Here, the band hitches onto the recent tendency in rap/rock music to blindly hold well-intentioned leaders liable for the world’s social problems.  I hold leftist policies accountable for many of America’s structural economic ails, but only because I have a clear trace, if you will, from the net effects of leftist economic policy down to the welfare of needy Americans today.  The correlation between those net effects and the welfare of needy Americans is clearly an inverse one.

Arguing otherwise takes a certain level of emotion-grounded ignorance, which Mike Shinoda and other, more politically vocal rockers, like Bruce Springsteen, certainly possess.  In his famous (and very political) Born in the USA (1984), Springsteen first complains that the Vietnam War was an excursion designed only to “go and kill the yellow man.”  Then, Springsteen lambasts the economic state of the country:  “Come back home to the refinery / Hiring man said ‘son, if it was up to me…'”

But the Boss needs to build a more complete picture of the situation.  First, Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat widely praised by the left today for enacting unsustainable social programs, initiated the most serious stage of the Vietnam War after the Democratic-controlled Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.  Second, New Jersey’s economic decline was largely due to state’s shift to a more confiscatory tax regime.  To quote a May 18th, 2009, Wall Street Journal piece by economists Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore:

Or consider the fiasco of New Jersey. In the early 1960s, the state had no state income tax and no state sales tax. It was a rapidly growing state attracting people from everywhere and running budget surpluses. Today its income and sales taxes are among the highest in the nation yet it suffers from perpetual deficits and its schools rank among the worst in the nation — much worse than those in New Hampshire. Most of the massive infusion of tax dollars over the past 40 years has simply enriched the public-employee unions in the Garden State. People are fleeing the state in droves.

Springsteen endorsed Obama and his policies this past election season.  Those types of policies are responsible for New Jersey’s problems.  Given that New Jersey’s recent economic history under such policies is often a story of decay, Springsteen should have endorsed a candidate with more growth-oriented policies.

Near the end of Linkin Park’s Hands Held High, Mike Shinoda sings, “For a leader so nervous, in an obvious way/ Stuttering and mumbling for nightly news to replay/ And the rest of the world watching at the end of the day/ In the living room laughing, like, ‘What did he say?’ ”  Ignorance also drives Shinoda’s false impression that citizens of all other countries think Bush was a weak leader who stumbled his way around foreign policy.  Perhaps Bush was so strong on foreign policy that some world observers pushed back by rolling out their own agendas.

In the left’s world of relativism with regard to the legitimacy of systems of government, we should not decide whether Bush is right or whether the the policies from the various members of the “rest of the world” (the band shouldn’t have lumped a diverse group of peoples and nations and political ideologies into a single category) should have equal footing as ours.

Perhaps Bush pushed so hard for justice for the Iraqi people – he committed American lives to the cause – that Shinoda cannot fully comprehend the enormity of the American contribution to Iraqi freedom and democracy.  That’s just a thought, not a definitive explanation.

Whatever the leaders of the E Street Band and Linkin Park think about specific policies, it’s clear that both songwriters pen music with deference to the party that engages in activism.  Since the songwriters do not pay attention to the details of the activist policies, those policies almost always earn their endorsement no matter the unintended consequences, historical precedent for success or failure of the policy in question, or fiscal feasibility and sustainability of the policy.  In other words, modern rock musicians write uninformed songs that help lead the masses to blindly accept sweeping economic policy changes that end up doing net harm to society.  That’s too bad.

19 thoughts on “Springsteen, Linkin Park, and social justice

  • The Right has good reason to be bitter about the over-whelming percentage of support given to the Left by culturally significant (i.e., artistic, literary and creative) individuals and groups: they get so little themselves that it really must seem unfair. How awful it must be to reside on that end of the political spectrum whose most notable defenders in the world of culture, music and art today are stupid rednecks of the "boot up their ass, its the American way" variety and “Pepsi-and-my-president” vacuous tramps (Brittany Spears; see included interview below). Musicians of the Left, just to name a few (and just to name musicians!), include luminaries that run the historical gamut from Beethoven to Woody Guthrie to Ronnie van Zant to, yes, The Boss. And really, what contemporary musicians and artists of import does the right have to its name? Any one who can stand against those of the left? This criterion obviously isn’t a serious decision-maker, but it sure does have something important to say about the kinds of people who are attracted to various political ideas.

    Because this entire CR post is an incoherent string of "just thoughts," and certainly nothing approximating a "definitive explanation" as you so accurately observe, I can’t address the whole thing. But I can, without biting off too much, point out the fact that you have totally missed the appeal of Springsteen’s music to so many millions of Americans. “Born in the U.S.A.,” like Woody Guthrie’s immortal “This Land Is Your Land,” on which it is loosely based, is not meant to be (and is not) a rigorous, academic dissection of social history, or a point-for-point reproduction of Democratic Party platform planks. Rather, it serves the function of a people’s history, documenting the attitudes and experiences of ordinary citizens and their perspectives on the state of political and economic affairs. So when Springsteen sings the lines “Got in a little hometown jam/ So they put a rifle in my hand/ Sent me off to a foreign land/ To go and kill the yellow man,” he is expressing the sentiment that many angry young Americans felt at being drafted to fight in a war whose origins were so shrouded in official lies and misinformation. Nowhere does he say that the Vietnam War was an excursion designed “only” to “go and kill the yellow man.” He is assuming the voice of an anonymous American and presenting the very earnest conviction that many American vets and draftees shared at that time.

    Also, your logical connection between social welfare policies and economic depression in New Jersey is pretty tenuous. For all the evidence you provide (which is, I’d like to point out, merely the foregone conclusion of editorialists in the conservative Journal) one could just as easily say that the stagnation of the Jersey economy corresponds with the fall in union membership during these years. Just a thought…

    In the end, the musical political tradition that Springsteen inherited from Guthrie will outlast anything comparable that conservatives have (if, in fact, they have anything), because of the example of the New Deal. Fight it all you want, but the growth of the social democratic welfare state, aided by the organization of labor, helped out a lot of people. Springsteen’s objective in “Born in the USA” was to use a people’s history of the post-Vietnam years to protest the dismantling of everything that Guthrie sang so hard for. (You noticeably didn’t quote the lines about the narrator’s abandonment at the hands of the VA; are you scared of acknowledging a pro-veteran, pro-welfare left wing sentiment?) I’d like to see a conservative musician do anything half so poetic and honorable.

    And now, without further ado, I present the infamous CNN Access Interview with Brittney Spears, September 3, 2003

    CARLSON: You're going to be on the National Mall [in Washington, D.C.] soon performing for Pepsi and the NFL and also to support our troops. A lot of entertainers have come out against the war in Iraq. Have you?

    SPEARS: Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens.

    CARLSON: Do you trust this president?

    SPEARS: Yes, I do.

    CARLSON: Excellent. Do you think he's going to win again?

    SPEARS: I don't know. I don't know that.

    CARLSON: You worked with Pepsi for a long time. Candidly between you and me, how much Pepsi do you think [you drink] on an average day?

    SPEARS: I really do like Pepsi.

    CARLSON: Really?

    SPEARS: I really do.

    CARLSON: What's your favorite kind?

    SPEARS: My favorite kind of Pepsi? Pepsi's Pepsi.

  • How is Beethoven a musician from the Left? That is PATENTLY false. How dare you utter a falsehood against him such as that. The vast majority of great musicians, JS Bach, CPE Bach, Mozart, Widor, were conservative. You can have Leonard Bernstein, keep him. I don't want to associate with anyone who rubbed shoulders with Black Panthers.

    • I consider Beethoven a musician of the Left because of his ardent support of the French Revolution, and his famous musical translation of Schiller's Enlightenment-internationalist "An die Freude." Why would you say he was a conservative?

      • "An die Freude" isn't a leftist piece. You can find the idea of a brotherhood of humanity in Christianity, and as Beethoven was a Christian, he would find himself in agreement with it. You can find that theme in some of Bach's chorales, and Bach is by no means a leftist.
        Beethoven was an ardent Bonapartist, so it's more complicated than saying he is either a leftist or a conservative. I'll retract my statement saying he was a conservative, but I stand by the statement that he was not a leftist.

      • Then how do you explain his serious sympathy with the French Revolution (which was not, I might add, a big hit among Christians)? Those who supported the French Republic and were opposed to royalism in Beethoven's day were considered leftists (it's literally where the word "leftist" comes from), and they form one part of the ideological foundation of modern leftism. If Beethoven does not fall under this category, please explain why that is.

  • Pattishall, I understand your point about music being an expression of sentiment rather than exact history, and I appreciate that.

    However, I also take exception to the claim that there are no conservatives in the arts. I'm not as knowledgeable about music, but in film I can name quite a few prominent conservatives: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Gary Sinise, Mel Gibson, Robert Downey Jr, Dennis Hopper, Jon Voight, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Selleck, Jerry Bruckheimer. You can find more listed here:

    http://usconservatives.about.com/od/hollywoodcons

  • “You noticeably didn’t quote the lines about the narrator’s abandonment at the hands of the VA; are you scared of acknowledging a pro-veteran, pro-welfare left wing sentiment?”

    I sympathize with his sentiment; it’s easy to get mistreated by an impersonal bureaucracy. I think Springsteen was slamming the government there… which brings me back to my point – he just wants things to be “fair,” but he’s too stupid to conduct a proper analysis of how to make things more fair. So he complains about the VA in his song, but isn’t willing to explore new ideas to improve veterans’ care – instead, he instinctively trusts whatever the activist politicians want to do. That doesn’t help improve veterans’ care.

    “Rather, it serves the function of a people’s history, documenting the attitudes and experiences of ordinary citizens and their perspectives on the state of political and economic affairs.”

    Not really. Springsteen just created those perspectives based on his uneducated impressions about military veterans’ political feelings – whether or not they are accurate on the whole would have to be determined by a rigorous quantitative analysis.

    “one could just as easily say that the stagnation of the Jersey economy corresponds with the fall in union membership during these years”

    No; union membership does not have a documented positive, causal correlation with rising incomes across society in the long term. Tax reform does.

    “And really, what contemporary musicians and artists of import does the right have to its name? Any one who can stand against those of the left? This criterion obviously isn’t a serious decision-maker, but it sure does have something important to say about the kinds of people who are attracted to various political ideas.”

    I would just like to point out that many rock musicians today were once potheads or stoners of another kind. Not all are highly educated. Their lyrics often turn into rants against the status quo, grounded by emotion and fed by false impressions. I would agree that that does have something important to say about the kinds of people who are attracted to various political ideas.

    I would say that Guthrie’s original song was a more personal political statement than “Born in the USA”, which, as you say, is Springsteen’s attempt to get at what he thinks is popular discontent.

  • Pattishall, I understand your point about music being an expression of sentiment rather than exact history, and I can appreciate the sentiments in political songs by Springsteen, U2, Linkin Park, Nirvana, etc without necessarily agreeing with the artists.

    However, I also take exception to the claim that there are no conservatives in the arts. I'm not as knowledgeable about music, but I would like to point out James Hetfield of Metallica, Gene Simmons of KISS and Alice Cooper as examples of notable conservative musicians.

    In film I can name quite a few prominent conservatives: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Gary Sinise, Mel Gibson, Robert Downey Jr, Dennis Hopper, Jon Voight, Sylvester Stallone, Tom Selleck, Jerry Bruckheimer. You can find more listed here:

    <a href="http://usconservatives.about.com/od/hollywoodcons…” target=”_blank”>http://usconservatives.about.com/od/hollywoodcons

  • Dexter,

    "Not really. Springsteen just created those perspectives based on his uneducated impressions about military veterans' political feelings – whether or not they are accurate on the whole would have to be determined by a rigorous quantitative analysis."

    Once again, you have totally missed the social and political function that art performs. Songs, as works of social art, have no business being discussed in the same sentence with "rigorous quantitative analysis." All that matters for Springsteen's song is the fact that there were a significant number of vets and draftees who felt that they were lied to and exploited by the American military-industrial complex in Vietnam. This is the sentiment that he encountered, and it was pervasive and strong enough in American life to make a significant impact on the already sizable anti-war movement. It doesn't need to be "accurate on the whole" for all veterans to warrant musical expression; it was accurate for a large enough number of people to resonate with the public (which it clearly did, and I'd love to see you try to deny that one), and therefore it played the role of a people's history. Political rage often cannot be quantified, but that's ok because we have a qualitative measure for such sentiments. It's called "art." It's not called "math," and it sure as fuck isn't called a "rigorous quantitative analysis." Your approach to the entire issue explains a great deal about why conservatives and reactionaries have brought next to nothing to the artistic table since the end of the Victorian age. You can't make anything beautiful when half your ranks are Philistines and the other half are number-crunchers.

    "I would just like to point out that many rock musicians today were once potheads or stoners of another kind. Not all are highly educated. Their lyrics often turn into rants against the status quo, grounded by emotion and fed by false impressions. I would agree that that does have something important to say about the kinds of people who are attracted to various political ideas."

    On top of repeating everything I said above, I'd just like to point out a couple of facts. First is the fact that being a former pothead does not disqualify anyone from being a critical thinker any more than being a former alcoholic disqualifies someone from being president, and we all know who I'm talking about. Second is the fact that quite a few left-leaning rockers are actually highly educated: just to name a couple off the top of my head, Tom Morello of the ultra-left rap/rock band Rage Against the Machine graduated with honors from Harvard undergrad, and Milo Aukerman of the 80's hardcore band The Descendants holds a Ph. D from UM-Ann Arbor and is currently a biochemical researcher. Third is the fact that there are many different forms of education, and the most important in artistic terms, as is evident to anyone who understands the qualitative nature of art, is that of life experience; left-leaning rockers, whether they be Euro transplants like Mick Jagger or all-American rednecks like Ronnie van Zant (you know who that is, right?) were educated in the school of hard knocks, and they give voice to the sentiments that many regular people feel about these issues.

    I know its hard to swallow the obvious fact that the right has been lagging behind the left in the cultural and artistic arenas for decades now, but pretending like The Boss doesn't know what he's talking about won't turn Toby Keith into a talented song-writer any time soon.

    Chris,

    Music isn't my area of expertise either, but I do know that there are conservatives in the popular rock scene. My argument is that there are noticeably few of them, and there have been for a long, long time. And even those that you mention aren't the best examples. Gene Simmons is conservative on foreign policy issues, but he's a social libertine; he claims to have slept with, literally, thousands of women.

    As for film, you're also right that there are conservatives. But once again, the right has had a noticeably smaller aesthetic, directorial and thespian impact than the left in film. Of the list you provided, the only individuals who have anything more than name recognition and lots of money (i.e., real artistic import) are Eastwood, Downey, Hopper and possibly Voight. Of those four only two are cut and dry conservatives. (And one of those two, Downey, is a former drug addict and convict. You should probably discuss with Dexter what that says about conservatives in the arts.) The right has no Daniel-Day Lewis, and certainly no Godard. It's a simple point, but it's my main one, and I still think it says a lot about the kind of people attracted to various political ideas.

    • Well, with all due respect art is a largely subjective thing. What someone finds to be "good" or "of artistic value" varies from person to person. And a person's views, political beliefs, and life experiences are all major factors in determining what art they think is "good."

      The point being that you, as a leftist, are likely more inclined to be attracted to art that expresses leftist sentiments. Therefore you are more likely to value such art and think that it's more important than art by conservatives. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this, so long as one can recognize that valuing art is a subjective judgment.

      • Absolutely. The value of any work of art is entirely subjective; or, more appropriately, it is not objective. (I wouldn't rule out some third factor intruding upon the subject's impression of a work of art. But whatever that third factor is, it is not an objective standard.) There is no artistic center of gravity by which we can determine what is right side up and what is upside down. I couldn't agree more. My point in trash-talking some of the actors and producers you named was not to assert some objective standard of the value of art. That was just me passing judgment on something I feel very strongly about, and think I know a bit about as well (film). Just because I think John Wayne is a no-talent dope doesn't mean someone else could not reasonably consider him a talented artist.

        At the same time, however, there are such things as uninformed opinions, or opinions that are less informed than others. I'm not saying you personally have an uninformed opinion, because you haven't expressed your opinion on the subject, but I would wager all the money in Rush Limbaugh's secret pill-pop fund that a large majority of experts in the realm of film would agree with my analysis of it's political history and current political state.

  • "pretending like The Boss doesn't know what he's talking about won't turn Toby Keith into a talented song-writer any time soon."

    Toby Keith is a Democrat who supported Obama….

    You named educated rockers. Refer to other comments above for educated rightist musicians.

    "You can't make anything beautiful when half your ranks are Philistines and the other half are number-crunchers."

    Such a generalization… all economic liberals are either brutish fools or intelligent mathematicians who get everything right? I'd say that there are some in between those extremes.

    "being a former pothead does not disqualify anyone from being a critical thinker any more than being a former alcoholic disqualifies someone from being president"

    Maybe we should look outside the ranks of former alcoholics and drug users for leaders.

    "Political rage often cannot be quantified, but that's ok because we have a qualitative measure for such sentiments. It's called "art.""

    So because a musical artist gives his/her impression of rage, that impression is automatically correct? I don't think so.

  • Keith is a self-proclaimed "conservative Democrat" who supported Bush in 2004. And seeing as we're looking at artists by political outlook, and not party affiliation, I would say that makes him a conservative.

    "Philistine," in the context of a discussion about the nature of art, will almost exclusively refer to someone who is inherently suspicious about the value of art. Try to discriminate in your interpretation a little better.

    And nowhere did anyone say that an expression of rage is automatically correct. The point of art is not to be correct. That would make it quantitative. Once again, art is not quantitative. And once again, you clearly do not understand the purpose or nature of art.

  • I didn't say that art is quantitative (whatever that blanket statement might mean).

    My larger implication was that the sentiments expressed in Springsteen's song should lead the disgruntled voters (who you say exist in reality) to which the song appeals to vote for right-wing candidates.

  • ""Philistine," in the context of a discussion about the nature of art, will almost exclusively refer to someone who is inherently suspicious about the value of art. Try to discriminate in your interpretation a little better. "

    Didn't say otherwise…

    Toby Keith seems more attracted to the center by a social conservative tendency than a desire to promote the implementation of market economics.

    Again… Springsteen is free to articulate whatever sentiments he likes. But I've always seen his songs as somewhat of a tool to achieve his personal political ends more than a pure form of artistic expression where he is merely extracting the sentiments of one group and playing them out for an audience. I think he's invested in those sentiments and probably agrees with them himself – which is why I'm sort of confused why he is such a left winger, considering the content of those sentinments.

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