"It gets late early around here." - Yogi Berra
January 31, 2011
BLOG: Open Thread 1/31/11
It's been a couple of days, and none of my long-brewing essays are done yet, so have at it.
January 24, 2011
POLITICS: Why 2012 Is Not 1996
A little history can be a dangerous thing, and in advance of Tuesday's State of the Union Address by President Obama, political commentary will be focusing on Obama's ability to replay 1995-96, when President Clinton rebounded from a similar rout in the midterm elections to more or less coast to re-election (while Clinton finished below 50% of the popular vote, it was only a "coming home" of Republicans in the campaign's closing weeks that averted a more lopsided result; the outcome was not seriously in doubt).
Undoubtedly, Obama will have the opportunity to take advantage of many of the same dynamics that favored Clinton's re-election, and he may succeed for those and other reasons. But history never repeats itself precisely. It is worthwhile to reflect on the many things that worked to Clinton's benefit that Obama can't count on:
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1) The Democrats Still Hold The Senate: Clinton lost both Houses of Congress in the midterms, the third president of the past century to do so, the others being Truman in 1946 and Eisenhower in 1954. Both were re-elected; Truman used the GOP as a foil to confront, Eisenhower showed he could cooperate with the Democrats, and Clinton did some of both. Each was able in one sense or another to run on the same divided-government rationale that had helped them lose Congress in the first place.
Obama won't have the same crisp contrast with Congress; the unpopular Harry Reid is still running the Senate, and sooner or later it will become impossible to conceal that fact. History suggests that this can matter: Obama's the third President in the past century to lose only the House and keep the Senate in the midterms, and the other two - Taft and Hoover - both got slaughtered (Hoover carried just six states and drew 39.7% of the popular vote, Taft carried just two states, finished third in a three-way race and drew just 23.4% of the popular vote).
2) The GOP Candidate in 2012 Will Not Be A Leader of The GOP Congress: A hugely underrated factor in Clinton's revival was the fact that his opponent was also one of the leaders of the Congressional Republicans across the table from him; in addition to Bob Dole's other flaws as a candidate (his age, his status as an ideas-free compromise-driven moderate, his lack of executive experience), Dole couldn't run a campaign independent of Newt Gingrich and the rest of the Congressional GOP, which not only tied him down on particular issues but also diminished him in the eyes of the public, as Clinton alone would negotiate with - and face down - a team of which Dole was only one representative. Whoever the GOP nominates in 2012 will have the ability a presidential candidate usually has to declare some level of independence from his or her Congressional party.
3) Obamacare passed; Hillarycare didn't: As unpopular as the Clinton Administration's health care plan was, it wasn't a major issue in the 1996 campaign because it had failed and, with Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress, it wasn't coming back. (Ditto Clinton's destructive BTU tax). Not so Obamacare, which remains very much a live issue. There's clearly a decisive majority supporting repeal right now in the House, and possibly a majority could be mustered in the Senate (certainly if the GOP gains more seats in 2012), but obviously not enough votes to override Obama's veto. Unless Mitt Romney wins the nomination, the GOP will almost certainly run a presidential candidate who can and will mount a full-throated campaign in favor of repealing the bill. The same will be broadly true of a number of Obama's big-spending, big-regulating initiatives.
4) The Economy: The unemployment rate is the most obvious of numerous economic indicators showing the U.S. economy in bad shape in 2011: unemployment, as low as 4.3% when voters elected the Democrats to control Congress in November 2006, was 6.5% when Obama was elected and 8.5% when he was inaugurated, and he expended much political capital arguing that his "stimulus" package would fix this with federal spending on "shovel-ready" projects; instead it peaked at 10.6% in January 2010, and remains above 9% a year later. These are very high numbers historically; since 1960, the unemployment rate has been above 6% on election day five times, and the only time the party in power wasn't booted was 1984, when the 7.2% rate was the lowest it had been since before President Reagan took office and had plunged more than three points in two years. By contrast, the unemployment rate in 1996 was 5.4%, down from 7.4% when Bill Clinton was elected. If Obama can't make the argument that Presidents Reagan and Clinton made - that they were not only making major headway on unemployment but in better shape than they were when elected (in Reagan's case, the slight drop in unemployment was accompanied by an enormous drop in interest rates and inflation and a stock market boom) - he'll face an electorate that is much more suspicious of entrusting him with the economy for four more years.
5) War: It is little remarked today, but a significant factor in Clinton's loss of prestige in 1993-94 was as a result of his obvious unreadiness to be Commander-in-Chief and resulting series of fiascos in the deployment - or not - of American troops. The timeline of that period shows a straight line from Clinton's indecsiveness in Somalia (the "Black Hawk Down" battle of Mogadishu) to the ignominious withdrawal of U.S. assistance from Haiti in the face of opposition armed mainly with machetes, to the genocide in Rwanda that followed when it was apparent that the U.S.-led "New World Order" would not have the will to back up its own rhetoric.
But to Clinton's good fortune, other than the situation in the former Yugoslavia (the massacre at Srebrenica took place in July 1995), the overall global situation was unusually peaceful in 1995-96, as the world continued to reap the dividends of the end of the Cold War and associated boom in international trade. Even longstanding hotspots like Northern Ireland, Palestine and South Africa were making efforts at peace; it would be a few years before it was obvious to casual observers that the September 1993 Oslo accords were not a plausible foundation for peace. Most importantly, by 1996 there were few American troops in harm's way. And the differences between Clinton and Dole on overall national security strategy were not dramatic. The election was fought almost entirely on domestic policy.
This will not be the case in 2012. America is still at war in Afghanistan, as well as maintaining a significant presence in brittle Iraq. It is possible that tensions with North Korea and the strategic rivalries with China and Russia could calm down, but the multifaceted issue of what do do about the threat of the political project of radical Islam remains a divisive issue, and the war in Afghanistan is specifically divisive within Obama's party in a way that no foreign policy question was in 1996. It's premature to predict how the national security issues will play out, but it's hard to imagine them being as completely secondary as they were in 1996.
6) Money: In 1996, Bill Clinton was able to raise a massive warchest and start spending it very early, famously deploying direct TV ads in battleground states as early as July 1995. Obama, who is expected to raise a billion dollars for his re-election, will have no trouble doing the same, but ironically, the Republican nominee in 2012 may be helped at the front end by the chaos of the presidential field; it will be more difficult to hammer one front-runner with ads the way Clinton did to Bob Dolegingrich (as you'd have thought his name was from the ads). And it seems unlikely, in the current environment, that the opposition will simply run out of money the way Dole did between wrapping up the primaries and launching his general election campaign. I'll be very surprised if the Republicans are as hobbled by a financial imbalance as they were in 1996.
7) Obama's Not Clinton: This should be an obvious point. Obama has his strengths as a politician, notably his ability to deliver prepared speeches, but he lacks Clinton's gifts as a retail politician, he's prickly when questioned, and of course unlike Clinton - who learned triangulation as a way of regaining the governorship of Arkansas after his 1980 defeat - Obama has no real experience of moderate governance to fall back on. Clinton signed a longstanding conservative policy priority (welfare reform), and didn't campaign against it; Obama's most significant nod to the center so far was signing a temporary extension of the Bush income tax cuts, but he has promised to run against them.
8) No Oklahoma City: One of the fortuitous events that played into Clinton's hands was the Oklahoma City bombing, and while Tim McVeigh was not in a conservative of any stripe, Clinton was able to slow the Right's momentum by blaming Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh for encouraging "anti-government" sentiment. Obama's allies tried the same thing with the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, but their palpable desire to score political advantage from the tragedy, combined with the fact that the shooter turned out to be a left-leaning nutjob with no connection whatsoever to conservatives, fatally undermined that argument, as subsequent polls have shown that solid majorities don't blame political debate for the shootings.
All of this is before we observe other features of the landscape not existing in 1996, like blogs and the Tea Party movement, as well as the possibility that John Boehner, having lived through 1995, will not repeat all of the same mistakes made by Newt Gingrich. As I said above, none of this is an argument that Obama is necessarily doomed or can't repeat some of the aspects of Clinton's revival plus some new tricks of his own. But treating 2012 as a straight replay of 1996 is not just bad punditry, it's bad history.
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Posted by Baseball Crank at 1:00 PM | Politics 2011 | Politics 2012 | Comments (41) | TrackBack (0)
January 20, 2011
Patterico notes a meme being rapidly spread by left-wing bloggers: that Glenn Beck told his viewers to shoot Democratic Members of Congress in the head. This is, sadly, the kind of thing the left-blogs try to put over on their readers, hoping it will stick quickly before the facts can come out. But I would not advise doing that while the likes of Patterico are on the case.
Here's the actual transcript that Patterico links to, and as you can see, you'd need to be illiterate to fall for the spin being put on this. After a lengthy diatribe about the growing danger to Democrats posed by hard-core radicals and Communists in their own coalition, Beck concludes:
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Tea parties believe in small government. We believe in returning to the principles of our Founding Fathers. We respect them. We revere them. Shoot me in the head before I stop talking about the Founders. Shoot me in the head if you try to change our government.
Now, you may argue that Beck is being alarmist here with regard to the notion that domestic left-wing radicals are really all that likely to assassinate Nancy Pelosi, but that's not the argument that's being made; the argument being made is that Beck said something completely and totally different from what he was actually talking about. The "you" he is talking to is the Democratic leadership in Congress.
I'm almost embarrassed for anybody gullible enough that they fell for this one.
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January 19, 2011
POLITICS/LAW: The Winning Statistic in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate
There are a welter of issues raised by the public policy debate over same-sex marriage and whether to treat it, for purposes of the law, as identical to traditional opposite-sex marriage. Among other things, there is the broader debate over the propriety of valuing tradition (i.e., the collected experience by trial and error of large numbers of people over time) and the respect we give to broad-based popular sovereignty in evaluating human relationships. But even treated purely as a matter of quantifiable empirical social science, the legal debate comes down to whether there exists any rational basis for distinguishing the two relationships. The burden of establishing the complete absence of such a rational basis is on the proponents of court-mandated "marriage equality." And new Census data makes that burden harder to carry.
While I'm in favor of granting civil-union status to consenting same-sex adults, I have made the point at great length previously (see here and here) that the most obvious legal argument for why opposite-sex relationships are different from same-sex relationships - and can be recognized as such in democratically-enacted laws - is that they are vastly more likely to produce children, for reasons so biologically obvious they should not have to be repeated. Now the New York Times has given us some statistics from the Census Bureau that confirm the relatively low number of same-sex couples that are raising children (even before we get to the issue of bearing biological children): "About a third of lesbians are parents, and a fifth of gay men are." The Times article breaks this out by region, but even its most optimistic spin shows an incidence of child-rearing that would be very low by the standards of opposite-sex couples:
About 32 percent of gay couples in Jacksonville are raising children, Mr. Gates said, citing the 2009 Census data, second only to San Antonio, where the rate is about 34 percent.
Consider, by contrast, the overall Census data for married couples. If you compare the "All Families" line to the "With own children, any age" line, you can quickly calculate that 60.2% of married couples have children in the household, and 74% of those include at least one child under age 18. If you break it out by the age of the heads of household, you see that a very large proportion of married couples in the prime child-bearing years have children at home - 24.6% for married teenagers, 37.7%, 22.8% and 26.1% for married couples 55-64, 65-74 and age 75+, respectively, but for the prime years 58.5% (age 20-24), 69.8% (25-29), 80.6% (30-34), 86.2% (35-39), 84.9% (40-44), 77.8% (45-49), and 62.1% (50-54). And the declining numbers after age 55 simply reflect people who have finished the job of parenthood. If that's not a statistically significant disparity, what would be? I defy anybody to come up with any significantly-sized sample of same-sex couples at any age that shows over 80-85% to be engaged in raising children.
At the end of the day, this is why the real action in the legal battle - other than simply judge-shopping - is in the proponents trying to change the legal standard by which their evidence should be judged. Because the data is against them.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 12:00 PM | Law 2009-14 | Politics 2011 | Comments (27) | TrackBack (0)
January 17, 2011
POLITICS/HISTORY: Rev. King's Day
We celebrate today a national holiday in honor of an ordained minister of Jesus Christ.
There are three men in American history distinguished enough that they have been honored with a national holiday - George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King jr. - but only Dr. King has been honored solely for his time as a private citizen, having never held public office or military commission.
Unsurprisingly, to be so honored, all three men hold lessons for conservatives and liberals alike. All were in some sense revolutionary figures, unwilling to sit quietly on the status quo for the sake of comity and going along to get along, even at the sake of personal danger and the making of many enemies. Washington took up arms against his own government, and forged a new nation unlike any that had come before. Lincoln led a new, sometimes hard-edged political party that challenged a deeply embedded evil afoot in the nation, never backing down from his anti-slavery convictions even when accused of fomenting violence by anti-slavery radicals, nor when half the country took up arms in rebellion rather than accept his election. And Dr. King challenged, with stubborn persistence, the equally entrenched legacy of slavery in the form of Jim Crow laws. Yet by the same token, none of the three was a radical. Washington, like others of his generation, saw himself not as author of a new order but the protector of an Englishman's traditional liberties against novel encroachments such as new and unjust taxes. Lincoln, for all his hatred of slavery, was initially willing to accept the pragmatic half-measure of stopping its spread, and only came to the drastic step of emancipation in the midst of a horrible war. And Dr. King eschewed the call to arms of the African-American radicals of his day, pushing for reform through the system and calling on his fellow Americans not to reject their heritage but to live up to the promises of America's founding documents and answer to their Christian consciences.
America has never been an exclusively Christian country - Washington, for example, famously helped set the tone for religious pluralism with his 1790 letter to the Jewish congregation at Newport, Rhode Island - but we have relied again and again on the Christian faith of so many Americans to form an essential part of our national character. We cannot know where Dr. King's politics would have gone had he lived past 1968, and perhaps his legacy would be more complicated today if we did. Nor do we have any illusions that he was perfect; like many famous heroes of church and of state, and even prominent saints, he had his personal failings, such as plagiarism and adultery. But we know this much: it was no public office, no earthly wealth or power, but simply his faith in the redeeming power of Christ, for sinful men and sinful nations alike, that gave him the courage and the conviction to give moral leadership to a reluctant and at times bitterly hostile nation. Let us hope and pray we never run short of such inspiration.
January 14, 2011
BASEBALL: Perfect Fit
Rafael Soriano to the Yankees is a perfect marriage of player and team. Let us count the ways.
1) The 31 year old Soriano's an outstanding pitcher, with a career ERA+ of 156 (165 in his years in the AL), and last year's 0.6 HR/9, 2.0 BB/9, 8.2 K/9 line, while a little off his career mark in the strikeout department, is more than adequate to sustain continued pitching at a high level. Granted, Soriano benefitted from a bizarrely low .199 BABIP, which is unsustainable, but his career mark of .243 across three organizations (2009's .281 was his only even semi-full season above .260) suggests some degree of ability to influence that line. (This is not unheard-of with short relievers; Mariano has a career BABIP of .263 and has only been over .300 once - 2007, when he posted an uncharacteristic 3.15 ERA - despite being a groundball pitcher working in front of frequently subpar defensive infields).
2) Signing Soriano takes him away from the Rays.
3) Both sides get Mariano Rivera insurance; the Yankees sign a potential successor closer, but Soriano gets options to bail out of the deal after the first year or two if Mo looks like he's going to go on like this forever.
4) The Yankees, with their vast budget, are uniquely situated to absorb the inherent injury risks carried by a guy with Soriano's checkered (to put it mildly) injury history (Soriano missed most of the 2004, 2005 and 2008 seasons).
5) By bringing in a guy who's capable of being a top-tier setup man and emergency closer, the Yankees take the heat off Joba (and to a lesser extent Hughes, although Hughes is now fairly well-entrenched in the rotation); the Yankees can focus more on dealing Joba or putting him where he will thrive best, rather than being driven by team needs.
January 13, 2011
I've been tied up a bit and was too late to the party to really add anything new to the blogospheric reaction to the Arizona shootings, but looking over the comments to this thread, I am reminded that many of the left-wingers still trying to score political points on this one are seriously beyond parody.
Everything we know about the Arizona shootings points to the same conclusions: Jared Lee Loughner was not any sort of political conservative or Republican, paid no attention to political conservatives or Republicans, didn't even vote in 2010, was your basic unhinged lunatic and recognized as such by the people around him, and had been obsessed with Congresswoman Giffords since 2007. Thus, any effort to use the shootings as an excuse to attack Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Jan Brewer, the Tea Party movement, etc. in any connection with the shootings is dishonest political opportunism, plain and simple. And yet the ecstasy of folks on the left in their immediate reactions to the shootings was palpable from the instant the story hit Twitter, and nearly none of those folks have allowed their initial reactions to be affected even slightly by the facts.
I know why this is being done, but I don't know why anybody should be expected to believe it. We all saw coming clearly the pre-existing desire of the Left to replicate how Bill Clinton benefitted from Oklahoma City. We also saw the the instant efforts to blame all the same people for the Discovery Channel shootings, the Holocaust Museum shootings, the suicide of a government worker in Kentucky, the Times Square bombing, the DC Sniper, etc., none of which held up at all after the facts came out. But the lesson of Hurricane Katrina remains embedded for the Left: the first out of the chute to build a narrative can set it in stone before the facts are available. So we see the same people using the same "frame" over and over again until they can get it to stick. This week's Word Of The Week was "eliminationist," which got recycled endlessly by Kos, Paul Krugman, Peter Daou and other usual suspects (samples here). Which is ironic, of course, as it is the Left that has conducted the noisiest campaign over the past several years to delegitimize the Tea Party and the Republicans it supports through a barrage that has little or nothing to do with discussion of political ideas and everything to do with trying to make citizen activists sound crazy, dangerous, racist, etc.
The merits of the argument that people on the Right were using "dangerous" rhetoric that could have hypothetically contributed to the shootings - even in the complete absence of any sign that they did - are also lame, best symbolized by this rather pathetic effort to explain why it's dangerous to use a crosshairs on a map of political election targets, but perfectly OK to use a bullseye. These angels-on-heads-of-pins distinctions are, unsurprisingly, not that effective in persuading the public, but effective in giving the media a deniable rationalization to keep running stories drawing a connnection that's not there.
What's left is a sort of passive-agressive rabbit-punching strategy: attack Sarah Palin in particular in an effort to politically destroy her over the shootings, then complain that she's politicizing the issue when she fights back (one day we had Chris Matthews saying Palin was "on the lam" for not addressing the attacks, the next she was being faulted for responding; heads I win, tails you lose). This is emblematic of people who cannot bear to take a fraction of what they dish out, and are uncomfortable with robust debate rather than a one-sided media narrative in which all media voices proceed from the same premises.
And you know who really has no standing to complain about extremists? Supporters of Barack Obama, that's who, as we can recall from the extensive evidence of Obama's long, sorded background with hate-spewing and in some cases violent extremists. Sarah Palin condemned Jared Lee Loughner after the fact; that may seem like a ridiculously low bar to set for public discourse until you consider that our current president directed large sums of grant money to Bill Ayers, an unrepentant member of the terrorist group the Weather Underground, to direct a distinctly politicized school curriculum after Ayers' crimes.* Of course, typical of the rabbit-punching strategy, the same people who concoct incredibly baroque theories trying to tie Sarah Palin to violent extremists argue that it is illegitimate and racist to discuss Obama's direct association with an actual terrorist.
None of the criticisms leveled at Palin or the Right in general here have been made in good faith. None at all.
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* - I have no idea if there is any credibility to this report that one such curriculum was used by the school attended by Loughner; World Net Daily is not exactly what you'd call a credible source. But the facts asserted by WND ought to be checkable, and checking them would give you the basis for an article less dependent on wholesale speculation than, say, this one.
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BASEBALL: The New Cap
Let me tell you, spring training cannot come soon enough.
I'm actually talking myself into some measure of enthusiasm for the Mets' signing of Chris Capuano to be their, um, fourth third starter or third fourth starter, depending how you look at things.
It's hard to get too excited about Capuano; he has started just nine games in the past three seasons due to multiple Tommy John surgeries after going 5-12 with a 5.10 ERA (including a 6.08 ERA in his last 22 appearances, 18 of them starts, in which the Brewers went 0-22; they were 83-57 in their other games) in 2007. As with last season's acquisition of Kelvim Escobar, there's a decent chance that Capuano's health will prevent him from contributing anything at all (even if he comes to camp 100% healthy, guys with that kind of track record can unravel without warning).
That said, there is every reason to believe that Capuano can still pitch, if healthy. His per-9 averages of 1.2 HR, 2.9 BB and 7.4 K after his June return are consistent with a solid pitcher who can hold down a #3 spot in a decent rotation and are right in line with his career averages. And he has the best pickoff move in the NL, maybe in baseball, having allowed just 14 steals in 27 attempts in 777.2 career innings, while generating 62 double play balls; if the Mets can settle on a decent defensive second baseman, that could help him a lot. It's something of a concern that Capuano has had huge home-road splits; career at Miller Park he's allowed a homer every 35.7 plate appearances and opponents' batting average on balls in play is a very low .283, while on the road those numbers are a homer every 26.5 PA and a .322 BABIP. But while Miller Park may not be the best place for righthanded power hitters to hit, it's not a particularly severe pitchers' park, and the power alleys in Citi should help (then again, while NL Central pitchers spend a lot of their road games in tough hitters' parks, Capuano has pitched well over the years in Houston, Chicago and Cincinnati; where he's struggled has been New Busch and PNC. Capuano's never pitched at Citi Field).
Anyway, if healthy, Capuano seems a solid bet for a ERA below 4.50 (career xFIP, including pitching hurt in 2007: 4.27) and a respectable shot at an ERA in the mid to high threes, which is more than enough to hang around .500 with a decent offensive team and win a bunch of games with a good offense. For a scrap heap pickup with a base salary of $1.5 million, the Mets could do worse.
January 10, 2011
POP CULTURE: Bruce Springsteen and the Right
When New Jersey's Republican governor, Chris Christie, was sworn into office, he chose to celebrate at his inauguration by joining a Bruce Springsteen cover band in singing the Boss' signature anthem, 'Born to Run'. Governor Christie hails from Bruce's home state of New Jersey, and his zealous Springsteen fandom is perhaps unusually dedicated for a politician. But it also symbolizes a paradox: while Springsteen has long been open about his left-wing political views and has hit the campaign trail for the last two Democratic presidential candidates, he remains enduringly popular with a broad segment of conservatives and Republicans. In part, that's for the obvious reason: Bruce is a rock legend with a ton of fans, so we should be unsurprised that he would have fans of every political persuasion. It's also partly demographic; Bruce's fans tend to be disproportionately white and, increasingly, older, and those are more conservative groups than the population at large. But my own anecdotal sense is that Bruce's fanbase is - if anything - more conservative-leaning than you would explain by those factors alone, and certainly not markedly more liberal. Speaking as a conservative and a longtime Springsteen diehard, let me offer some theories as to why that is. This is not an essay dedicated to claiming Springsteen for the Right, or arguing that he's unwittingly some sort of crypto-conservative, although I do note at a few points conservative themes in his writing and his life. Rather, my argument is that the things that appeal to fans of Bruce Springsteen and his music are, quite logically, most appealing to conservatives.
Generally, we conservatives have pretty low expectations, politically, for our pop-culture icons. We understand that most of them don't agree with us on politics or policy. So, what we look for are artists who have some tolerance and respect for us, some themes in common with our worldview, and sometimes being one of the good guys on something. Bruce delivers on all counts.
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One of the principal complaints of conservatives about the culture is that it's a sewer of indecency: too much sex, too much bad language, too much immorality of various kinds...in general, too much bombardment of the young and the unwilling with messages and imagery that subvert any effort to bring kids to maturity gradually, with the perspective of time.
Bruce may be a liberal, but on this count, he's been one of the good guys for a very long time. People bring their kids to Springsteen concerts and play his albums in the car without worry; out of his vast catalog, I can count on one hand the number of Springsteen songs I have to censor from my kids, and none of them are his major hits (on Live in Dublin, you can hear an audible crowd reaction to the line in 'Long Time Coming' where Bruce uses the F word). Bruce deals in adult themes without forcing his listeners into adulthood. Contrast this to a self-identified Republican like Britney Spears, who launched her career as an icon of underage sexuality, sings about threesomes and has presented an ongoing reality-show-style trainwreck of a life offstage.
In his personal life, Bruce is no perfect role model, but by and large he's avoided the public spectacle of a life of rock n' roll dissolution; he's raised a family (his first marriage collapsed quickly, but the second one has endured two decades), stayed out of trouble with the law, kept any tales of excess and vice out of the press. Clarence Clemons, in his book Big Man - which I highly recommend - recounts that Bruce had a "no drugs" policy for his band, more out of professionalism than anything else; while Clarence admits to violating this policy rather regularly, he nonetheless respected the fact that Bruce sought to hold himself and his band to some standards, if for no other reason than to keep the band from unraveling. (TIME's famous 1975 profile of Bruce noted his avoidance of drugs, an unusual stance in the 70s, a decade before Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign).
(2) Separation of Music and Politics
Bruce's first three albums were wholly apolitical; he didn't start to get into anything like social commentary until 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town, and his first real stab at political activism was with the "No Nukes" concerts in the fall of 1979. Since then, his politics have been no secret, and Bruce's worldview has certainly made its way into his music. But for the most part, his songs seek to describe the world as he sees it and leave it to the listener to draw his or her own political conclusions. Anti-war songs like 'Souls of the Departed' and 'Devils & Dust' remained at a high level of generality and never veered into the self-parodic rantings of the likes of the Rolling Stones' 'Sweet Neo Con' or the tendentious retellings of fact in Bob Dylan's 'Hurricane' (which is still a great song, but a transparently political tract that makes a lot of demands of the listener).
Even when Bruce puts politics front and center in his music, he doesn't stack the deck against his audience. A perfect example is one of the rarer explicitly political songs in Bruce's catalog, 'American Skin (41 Shots)', a song about the politically charged shooting death in early 1999 of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 23-year-old Guinean immigrant street vendor who was shot 41 times by a team of 4 New York City cops. The cops, for their part, contended that they thought he was pulling a weapon when he reached for his wallet to identify himself after being chased into the vestibule of a Bronx apartment building. In the hands of, say, Eddie Vedder or even Neil Young, an incident like this would have been an occasion for preachy denunciations of the cops as racist and trigger-happy. But Bruce, with a defter touch as a lyricist and understanding how many of his own fans are cops (many of whom protested the song when he debuted it at Madison Square Garden a few months after the shooting), was more balanced and sympathetic; while Diallo's innocent plight frames the song, the chorus starkly portrays the horrible life and death dilemma of the cops' split-second decision:
Is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet, this is your life
Or consider 'Born in the USA,' which took on the hardships of many Vietnam veterans a decade after the fall of Saigon. Ronald Reagan, who presumably relied on his speechwriters for the line, famously misinterpreted the song as a straightforward patriotic anthem, which a lot of people did the first time they heard the chorus. Personally, I blame Bruce in part for the common misperception of that song; if he didn't want it to be heard as a hymn to underappreciated patriots, he should have thought twice about releasing a video full of warm, fuzzy Americana where he played in front of the flag; about putting Old Glory on the cover of the record, and as the backdrop to the stage show, and as the backdrop to the tour posters, all at a time when the "USA! USA!" chant was at its highest ebb. But strippping away the iconography, the song itself simply tells the hard story of a guy who got shipped off to fight in Vietnam and couldn't catch a break ever since; while it's clearly an anti-war song (the best Bruce can come up with to describe the war's purpose is "go and kill the yellow man,") it's really neither a pro- nor anti-American song, just a human story of a group (Vietnam vets) that had gotten a raw deal. And more importantly, the song symbolized the point in our history when the activist Left's hostility to the war and the men who fought it was giving way to a broad, bipartisan consensus that the veterans of that war needed to be treated better (the early to mid-80s were the same years that saw the erection of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the election of pro- and anti-war Vietnam vets like John McCain and John Kerry to Congress).
Bruce has likewise mostly avoided excessive political speechmaking, signs and the like at his concerts; while he'll pop off now and then, he's a great believer in the idea that a concert is about "communion" with the audience, and so his shows never lose sight of the fact that Bruce is there to entertain and bond with the crowd, not to lecture from a distant pulpit.
(3) Roots and Respect
Related to the point about why people believed 'Born in the USA' was a patriotic anthem: for all Bruce's liberalism, and for all the times he's sung about breaking away from his native New Jersey as "a death trap, it's a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we're young," he's always had an element of traditional love-my-hometown, blood-and-soil patriotism to him, and respect for his fellow Americans, that sets him apart from the cultural Left and its visceral contempt for both. Bruce has never been the type to bash America with broad-brush complaints about "Jesusland" and the like; you get the sense that he actually likes ordinary Americans, with their flags and their churches, their muscle cars and their guns and their quaint middle-class notions about marriage and family and loyalty. As the protagonist of 'Highway Patrolman' sings, "Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain't no good."
The idea of patriotism and familial loyalty in its classic form - the love of hearth and home, of the dear and familiar, a preference for one's own over others - is one of the foundation stones of any form of conservatism, and one that comes in for frequent scorn from the internationalists and transnationalists of the Left. Bruce's songs appeal to conservatives who hold these things dear because he treats them with the respect due to serious things. This aspect of Bruce's view of the world can be seen in his ease and even enthusiasm at mingling with fans of all stripes, but it's also all over his songwriting. The sense of geographic rootedness starts with the omnipresence of New Jersey in his writing, even when Bruce struggled for a time in the early 90s with the pressures of being a local icon (memorialized in 'Local Hero': "First they made me the king then they made me pope...Then they brought the rope") and moved for a while to California. 'My Hometown,' of course, is one of the classic odes to the emotional pull of home even when home is falling apart, a theme Bruce was mining with deepening sadness by the time of 'Youngstown' and 'My City of Ruins'. Bruce's songs about busting out and hitting the open road are likewise frequently tinged with the nostalgic pull of home, as shown perhaps most clearly by the protagonist of 'Independence Day', in which Bruce's mournful vocals illustrate the conflict in a young man striking out on his own from a father he could never talk to and a town that offered him no future.
Bruce treats the ordinary, average American with respect, too. As Jon Stewart wryly put it, "When you listen to Bruce's music, you aren't a loser. You are a character in an epic poem...about losers." David Brooks, a sometime conservative and long-time Springsteen fan, connects Bruce's respect for the people in his songs to something deeper and more profoundly conservative:
In Springsteen's universe, life's "losers" always retain their dignity. Their choices have immense moral consequences, and are seen on an epic and anthemic scale.
There's never a snide or mocking tone in Bruce's depictions of factory workers, cops, waitresses, cowboys, steelworkers, guys who race cars in the street, distant fathers, single moms, or for that matter the country or the Church or anybody who takes the big things seriously. This is less common than it should be. Consider, for a fairly typical contrast, a sampling of lyrics from the Green Day song 'American Idiot,' the title track of one of the most successful albums of the past decade, now a Broadway musical:
Don't want to be an American idiot. Don't want a nation under the new media And can you hear the sound of hysteria? The subliminal mind f**k America.
It's not possible to imagine Bruce mustering that kind of sneering contempt for his countrymen and the land they live in.
(4) Consequences and Responsibilities
Springsteen will never be mistaken for a social conservative, given his consistent support for liberal politicians. But an overarching theme that recurs throughout Springsteen's writing - noted by the Brooks quote above - is the central theme of social conservatism: that actions have consequences, both moral and practical. So much of the lyrics and imagery of rock and post-rock pop is about one form or another of hedonism, the ancient Dionysian lure of indulging today without thought of tomorrow. But while the characters in Bruce's songs may be no saints, the world they inhabit is as relentless in tracing the consequences of their sins as anything sketched by Dostoevsky, Victor Hugo or Cormac McCarthy.
One of the starkest examples of that trend comes in 'Outlaw Pete,' the overblown but still oddly entertaining 8-1/2 minute cowboy opera that opens Working on a Dream. Pete, essentially a born criminal in the Billy the Kid mode, eventually decides to marry and retire from his career of murder and bank robbery to the quiet life, but he's tracked down by a remorseless bounty hunter:
He found Pete peacefully fishing by the river Pulled his gun and got the drop He said "Pete you think you've changed but you have not"
And he's right; Pete is pursued to the hills after that, and never seen again, his wife and child left behind and bereft by his past. Consequences, in Bruce's universe, aren't always equally distributed; the previously law-abiding protagonist of 'Johnny 99' gets 99 years for murder during a botched robbery from a tough judge, while the protagonist of 'Highway Patrolman' lets his brother escape to Canada for a killing in a bar fight after years of misbehavior. But in the latter song, it's the highway patrolman who must contemplate the compromise of his position as a result of his brother's crime. The law turns out not to be the end to the ripple effects of sin. As Bruce writes in 'Adam Raised a Cain':
In the Bible Cain slew Abel/ and East of Eden he was cast/ You're born into this life paying/ for the sins of somebody else's past. Daddy worked his whole life for nothing but the pain/ Now he walks these empty rooms looking for something to blame/ You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames/ Adam raised a Cain
Bruce applies the same lessons to love and sex. 'The River' is just one of an endless number of famous songs about teenage sex, except that Bruce follows the consequences with pitiless certainty as the protagonist gets his girlfriend pregnant and ends up in a hollow shotgun marriage and a dead-end job:
Then I got Mary pregnant/ and man that was all she wrote. And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat. We went down to the courthouse/ and the judge put it all to rest. No wedding day smiles no walk down the aisle/ No flowers no wedding dress
Now all them things that seemed so important/ Well mister they vanished right into the air. Now I just act like I don't remember/ Mary acts like she don't care.
For the flip side of that story there's the song that immediately precedes it on the album, 'I Wanna Marry You', in which the protagonist's reaction to a single mom is the most traditional stirring of the masculine heart: he wants to marry her and share the burden of raising a family with her, recognizing in full the measure of adulthood:
Now honey, I don't wanna clip your wings/ But a time comes when two people should think of these things/ Having a home and a family/ Facing up to their responsibilities
The protagonist of 'Hungry Heart' makes the opposite choice, walking out on his wife and kids, but he ends up regretting his wanderlust:
Everybody needs a place to rest/ Everybody wants to have a home/ Don't make no difference what nobody says/ Ain't nobody like to be alone
We're a very, very long way here from free love; love, in Bruce's universe, always has a price, but it's still worth paying. That's one reason why so few of Bruce's songs, comparatively speaking, are about the blush of first love and lust, and so many are built around fraying relationships and pledges to stay in it for the long term. Bruce writes about love through the eyes of a grown man who understands its cost. As 'The Price You Pay' puts it: "You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take...Now you can't walk away from the price you pay."
Bruce's sense of moral consequence undoubtedly derives at least in part from his Catholic faith, and that faith is another thing he shares more in common with the Right. It's no secret that conservatives in the U.S. tend as a group to be more religious, and more comfortable with public discussion of religion, than liberals in general and entertainment industry liberals in particular. Bruce's body of work isn't perhaps as overtly religious as, say, U2, and as with the light touch of his political commentary he often invokes the concepts and imagery of faith as a theme rather than delve more explicitly into matters of theology, but the recurrent theme of faith throughout his work offers a distinctive appeal that separates him vividly from many of his peers and endears him to religious, often conservative fans.
Hope and faith are linked everywhere in Bruce's songs, and are treated as perhaps the most important thing a man can have. In 'Badlands,' one of his most enduring concert staples, Bruce declares:
I believe in the love that you gave me/ I believe in the faith that could save me/ I believe in the hope/ and I pray that some day/ It may raise me above these badlands
In 'The Promised Land,' Bruce warns of "a twister to blow everything down/That ain't got the faith to stand its ground." Almost a quarter century later, in the powerful 'Into the Fire,' Bruce offers a prayer for the faith shown by the firefighters who perished on September 11:
May your strength give us strength/ May your faith give us faith/ May your hope give us hope/ May your love give us love.
'The Rising' goes further, building the entire structure of the song around the parallel between the firefighter's ascension of the steps of the Twin Towers with his ascension to the next life as the building collapses. And Bruce closes that album with an explicit prayer in 'My City of Ruins':
With these hands,/ I pray for the strength, Lord/ With these hands,/ With these hands,/ I pray for the faith, Lord/ We pray for your love, Lord/ We pray for the lost, Lord/ We pray for this world, Lord/ We pray for the strength, Lord/ We pray for the strength, Lord
Bruce's revivalist streak is never more on display than in the marvelous 'Land of Hope and Dreams,' the theme of which is a train carrying passengers to a "land of hope and dreams" where "faith will be rewarded":
This train/ Carries saints and sinners/ This train/ Carries losers and winners/ This Train/ Carries whores and gamblers/ This Train/ Carries lost souls
In 'Living Proof,' Bruce treats the birth of his first child as a sign of God's goodness:
Well now on a summer night in a dusky room/ Come a little piece of the Lord's undying light/ Crying like he swallowed the fiery moon/ In his mother's arms it was all the beauty I could take/ Like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make/ In a world so hard and dirty so fouled and confused/ Searching for a little bit of God's mercy/ I found living proof
Nor does Springsteen shy away from explicit references to Scripture; he draws directly from Bible stories in 'Adam Raised a Cain,' (Cain & Abel), 'The Price You Pay' (Moses and the promised land), 'Lion's Den' (Daniel and the lion's den), 'Leap of Faith' (Moses and the Red Sea, to which he returned in covering the old-time spiritual 'O Mary Don't You Weep,'), and 'Pink Cadillac' (Adam and Eve), among others.
This article by a Jesuit on Bruce's Catholic influences quotes Bruce noting, in a letter responding to Catholic writer Walker Percy, "[t]he loss and search for faith and meaning have been at the core of my own work for most of my adult life" and, speaking of the influence of Flannery O'Connor on the Nebraska album:
It was always at the core of every one of her stories - the way that she'd left that hole there, that hole that's inside of everybody. There was some dark thing - a component of spirituality - that I sensed in her stories, and that set me off exploring characters of my own. She knew original sin - knew how to give it the flesh of a story.
Bruce's view of a mean, sinful and fallen world, repeated throughout his lyrics, is an unmistakably Christian perspective, and one specifically that appeals to social conservatives. Contrary to the caricature, conservative Christians are firm believers in the inevitability of sin, and indeed that reality shapes the worldview of conservatives who see God's saving grace as the sole remedy for sin. Springsteen may not share the politics, but his vision of man and God is much the same.
(6) Tone and Style
I've discussed here the themes in Bruce's work, his lifestyle and his interactions with his fans, but there's also something to be said for the man's tone, style and public persona.
One piece of that is sincerity. Bruce's music is all about passionate commitments, not ironic distance, and while temperamental preferences of this sort don't always split neatly along ideological lines, Bruce's approach - like that of many country musicians - by nature lends itself more to a fanbase tilted towards the kind of folks who go to church and get misty-eyed at God Bless America (even if Bruce himself never liked that song). From the early days of 'Born to Run', 'Thunder Road' and 'Backstreets' to 'Badlands' and "The Promised Land' to songs like 'No Surrender' and 'My Love Will Not Let You Down,' Bruce was always about taking the big things in life seriously, giving it everything you've got and holding nothing back, clutching fiercely to your commitments, and pursuing joy with the full knowledge that it's a respite in a hard life in a hard world. As Jon Stewart put it, Bruce "empties the tank" in everything he does. His marathon concerts - with no opening act, exhausting length, blazing energy level and even today few concessions to age - are part and parcel of that commitment.
Other aspects of Bruce's style contribute to his appeal to conservative-leaning fans. In a field full of boy bands, bent genders and perpetual adolescents, Bruce has always been an unapologetically manly figure, a sweaty, hard-working, blue-jeans-wearing, cars-and-motorbikes loving adult, a grown man who sings about a grown man's concerns. 25 years ago, Bruce's long-time romance with cars and motorcycles and the open road wasn't a "conservative" thing, but in an age of environmental nags and a red-blue divide between liberal cities obsessed with mass transit and bicycles and conservative suburbs and countryside still wedded to big cars and personal independence, Bruce's fascination with Cadillacs and Harleys seems positively reactionary.
Bruce Springsteen is, as I said at the outset, an unapologetic political liberal, albeit one with a distinctly 1930s tinge to his liberalism. He writes about many common liberal themes - economic inequality, hostility to big business, hatred of war - campaigns for liberal Democratic politicians and vocally opposes much of the conservative political agenda. No amount of lyrical exegesis or biography can or should refashion him into something he's not. But as I have tried to make clear, Bruce nonetheless has much in common with conservatives, and avoids many of the traits and themes that cause many other liberal entertainers to rub the Right the wrong way. And that's why you can find so many of his fans on the opposite side of the political fence from the Boss himself.
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January 6, 2011
POLITICS: "The Deficit" Is The Wrong Yardstick
Yesterday's swearing in of the new House and Senate, including the transition of power to Speaker Boehner and the new Republican majority in the House, inaugurates a new political season, in which "the deficit" promises to be front and center. President Obama is already sending up trial balloons about various proposals made by the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission. But Republicans should resist efforts to frame the debate as being about "the deficit," because that term itself focuses on the wrong measurement.
Democrats like to talk about the federal government's operating budget deficit as if it is a matter of balancing income against spending. It's not. The money taken in by the federal government is taxes, but taxes are not income; they are simply a subset of the income of the private sector, in the same way that the money you withdraw from your bank account is only a subset of your bank balance. If you want to know whether you can afford to buy something, you look to the size of that bank balance (and the sources of real income that go into your deposits), not simply into whether you withdrew enough money to pay the latest credit card bill.
The mistake made in talking about "the deficit," then, is in assuming that fiscal responsibility comes from matching public spending with the government revenues used to pay for that spending in the short term, rather than with the actual income produced by the private sector. It is the money thrown off by the private sector that is the ultimate source of all public spending, and therefore any sane measurement of real fiscal responsibility will measure the outflows (public spending) as a fraction of real income (private sector income) rather than the intermediate step of taxing real income. The larger that fraction is, the less the private sector has to work with to continue producing growth and a high standard of living; in short, the more of our private sector income we are spending today on government, the less we will have to leave to our children, regardless of how high or low we set our tax rates. Put another way, the problem isn't that the government is spending more than the government takes in, but that the government is spending too much of what we create. (Keynsian economics, which is based on trying to create short-term growth with public spending, is fatally flawed because it ignores all but the shortest term effects of public spending - a predictable failing in the work of a childless economist and a director of the British Eugenics Society). Anybody who tells you that the federal budget operating deficit is a better measure of fiscal responsibility than comparing public spending to private sector income is simply trying to mislead you and isn't serious about long-term fiscal responsibility.
Moreover, the broader question isn't just federal spending, but all public spending, federal, state and local, although a good start to keeping a restraining hand on state and local spending is to refuse to use the federal government's fiscal printing presses to bail out imprudent state and local governments, and in the long run stop using Washington as a tax collector for state and local governments, as happens in the myriad ways that revenues are raised nationally and then laundered back to the states.
As I have explained before, the federal budget deficit is only a symptom, and an imprecise one at that. Public spending of privately created resources, depleting the source of future growth, is the disease. If we restore the proper balance of robust private sector growth to a limited public sector, we'll have no problem in the long run handling any operating deficits; if we don't, the size of the operating deficit will be the least of our concerns. If the GOP is serious about setting our fiscal house in order, the new Republican majority must resist at every turn the urge to treat the symptom rather than the disease.
January 5, 2011
BASEBALL: Power and Speed
Joe Posnanski and Jim Caple, both of whom I respect, argue that steroid use is indistinguishable, for Hall of Fame purposes, from amphetamines, which we know to have been prevalent in years past and undoubtedly used by many players now enshrined in Cooperstown. I disagree.
I've explained previously here and as far back as 2002 why I didn't think steroid users should be held out of the Hall of Fame, and here why I tend to mistrust the agendas of a lot of people on both sides of the question who write on this issue. So, don't confuse this for an apologetic for sportswriters' preening and highly selective outrage on the topic. On the other hand, I remain utterly unconvinced by the claim that steroids do not aid performance in baseball.
But it's a vast oversimplification to argue that amphetamines and steroids are exactly the same, or that the distinction between the two is totally illogical. An amphetamine is, basically, a mind-altering drug, like alcohol or caffeine or marijuana - you take it, it has an effect, the effect wears off unless you take more. (Once upon a time, the military used to give it to pilots). Steroids, by contrast, alter the very structure of your body, enabling the growth of more muscle tissue. On some level, taking steroids changes you, not just your daily mood or perception or energy level.
Is this an oversimplified distinction? Sure. Both mind- and body-altering drugs basically screw with your body chemistry, and given the physiological connection between brain and body it would be silly to overstate the distinction or ignore how things like speed and booze affect your motor skills. And it's also true that while steroids have persistent effects, they're not indefinite - guys who go off the juice are rarely able to sustain the same level of muscle mass, and tend to either sort of deflate or get fat.
But distinctions of this nature are not at all unusual in the way we draw moral, ethical, legal and practical rules, which are often based on the way our moral intuition interacts with our practical experiences after considering a variety of factors, rather than making rules based solely on one-line logical syllogisms. There are reasons why we have laws against pot and not booze or cigarettes, and while you can disagree with the distinctions of degree involved, those distinctions are not meaningless. It's not irrational at all to see the alteration of the structure of the body by illegal and dangerous substances as a step too far, even compared to taking mind/mood altering drugs on game day. It's also not irrational to look at some of the really unusual career paths of some known steroid users and see no parallel to a similarly dramatic effect discernible among amphetamine users.
Should we ban steroid users from the Hall? No. But is it crazy to treat them as more problematic than guys who took speed? Not at all.
POP CULTURE: The Lost Black Voice of Rock
Race is only skin deep, but so is voice; it's one attribute that is indelibly intertwined with racial identity. Let us consider the tragic loss of the black voice in rock n' roll.
Listen with me to the voice of Chester Arthur Burnett, a/k/a Howlin' Wolf*:
The birth of rock n' roll is usually traced back to the early African-American bluesmen, from Robert Johnson in the mid-1930s to Muddy Waters in the late 1940s and early 1950s. If you listen to those artists, you can see why; their vocal and guitar stylings are quite different from the prevailing Big Band, jazz and country/bluegrass sounds of their era, and you can hear echoes of the rock artists that have covered their songs and built on their foundation. But Johnson and Waters are not, themselves, rock; you would not confuse them with rock recordings. It's listening to the more raucous and powerful voice of Howlin' Wolf that you can hear, for the first time, the blues become something that would become rock. And Howlin' Wolf, even moreso than his predecessors, did so with a voice no white man could quite duplicate. It's why he was such a big influence on early rockers, especially the Rolling Stones, who - while they took their name almost by accident from a Muddy Waters song - not only imitated Howlin' Wolf but opened doors for him to perform with them on white television (which in the early 60s was the only kind of television there was):
Rock, from the time of its inception, was predominantly black music. Never solely so; for example, one of the genre's most important forefathers was electric guitar inventor Les Paul. Rock's early days included a lot of people like Jerry Lee Lewis who brought country influences into what became rockabilly (Carl Perkins, the King of Rockabilly, drew more obviously on both sources). And even Elvis, who famously got his big break because he was seen as a white man who could sing rock in the style of a black man, still drew a lot of his sound as a crooner from the Bing Crosby school of smooth singing. But many of the most dynamic, influential and oft-imitated early rockers - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino - were African-American. As those early stars faded and the first generation of great rock bands arrived, the influences of the black pioneers were obvious - the Beatles covered songs by Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys just openly stole his riffs, and the Stones recorded standards by the bluesmen. Yet, as white bands built on what they'd started, the voice of black singers was still something distinctive and irreplaceable.
That voice had moved by the early 60s to early R&B and soul, personified first and foremost by Ray Charles and James Brown in the late 1950s, but followed over the next decade by a long series of artists on the Motown and Stax Records labels: Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Supremes, and many others. Ray Charles, James Brown and the Motown/Stax artists were commercially anchored in black radio and live performances to black audiences, but they crossed over repeatedly to white radio, and their work was frequently covered or influential on white artists. The instruments, the beats, the styles of production - both black and white artists of that era had a lot in common. And the relationship wasn't entirely one-way, either; the Motown/Stax sound was influenced by white writers and producers like Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Phil Spector, and leading black artists would also cover songs by white artists. Consider Wilson Pickett's version of Hey Jude, written by Paul McCartney and featuring the guitar stylings of Duane Allman.
The point of the foregoing is to emphasize that the 1960s were a high watermark for the cross-pollination of the most popular genres white and black music, and that a major component of that was the mainstream white rock audience's acceptance of black artists and the unique sounds of black vocalists. True, African-American influences have always been a part of the American musical scene, from the influence of the old 'Negro' spirituals on American folk music to the influence of black jazz on the Big Band era; there's really no dispute that no other racial, ethnic or religious group has had as much influence on American music. And true, too, music's audiences were still basically segregated in the 60s - white listeners listened mainly to Top 40 and the newly-emerging FM rock radio, while black audiences generally listened to R&B and Soul stations. And true as well that while black artists influenced and were influenced by white artists, and white audiences embraced black artists, it seems that black audiences still mostly listened only to black artists. Musical integration was never truly symmetrical. But the musical ferment of that era was nonetheless the product of remarkable talents of both races feeding off one another's sounds.
At the apex of this era, in 1967, rock got its first true black superstar. Jimi Hendrix wasn't an R&B musician crossing over to rock; he was straight-up rock n' roll, the archetypical guitar god. He was also his own lead vocalist, and while vocals were never Hendrix's forte, there was no confusing him with a white man.
Did Hendrix bring a lot of black fans into rock, or even into his own music? I can't answer that question, and I'm not sure the data is really out there to study the question in a systematic way, but it's hard to detect any real signs of a cultural shift among black audiences (check out the sea of white faces in the crowd shots at any Hendrix show). I do know that his career lasted only four short years after Monterey, and that he died at age 27, probably leaving more great music on the table than anybody in rock history (only Duane Allman and Otis Redding could really compete). Hendrix had his share of problems handling success and more than his share of drug issues, but unlike, say, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or Kurt Cobain, there's nothing in Hendrix's life that makes it that hard to imagine him surviving, as Clapton and Keith Richards did, and prospering to this day as a 68 year old creative genius carrying the blues not as a pursuing demon but as an old companion, his self-designed studio still attracting younger artists. If that had happened, I have to believe that somewhere along the line, Hendrix would eventually have attracted a following both of black fans and black imitators, and maybe helped keep a bridge open from the rock world to the African-American audience.
It was not to be. There were other black rockers (e.g. Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy), and eventually in the late 80s there were a few who tried to step into Hendrix's shoes (Lenny Kravitz, Living Colour, Slash - Slash's mother is African-American), but times had changed, and the moment could not be recaptured. There was never another time when you could find a black face among the handful of rock's biggest stars. Hendrix had come along at a moment in rock history when it was possible to imagine a genuine integration of black music and the rock world that owed so much to its black forbears. That possibility would evaporate within half a decade.
The world didn't change overnight when Jimi Hendrix died; it never does. But the trends started moving in different directions. Motown and Stax suffered a series of reversals between 1967 and 1972 - Otis Redding died, Sam & Dave broke up (as, later, would the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas, as well as Sly & the Family Stone, which wasn't a Motown or Stax act but shared a similar sound), the Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting team left Motown, and eventually Motown left Detroit in 1972, around the time Stax went into irreversible decline. Many of the signature artists of that era - the Four Tops, the Temptations - never found the same success after the early 1970s, while others (Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles) went into slower decline.
At first, the next generation of Motown artists, like Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5, recorded in something like the old style, and by the early to mid 70s, Stevie's various experiments included funkier rock (Superstition, his best song, remains the high watermark of his rock influences). But by around 1976, tastes and trends were changing quickly. R&B and Soul moved more in the direction of crooners like Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass who had little in common with anything being done by the rock bands of the era, and then the disco craze hit, propelling stars like Diana Ross, Donna Summer and Gladys Knight to success that left the old Motown sound in the dustbin. Some mainstream rock acts (the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Rod Stewart) tried their hands at disco as well, but unlike the blues, disco had no lasting imprint on the rock world.
It's debatable, given the complex racial politics of the 70s, what drove white and black audiences in divergent musical directions from the mid-70s on, but the trends away from the Motown and blues sounds were evident on both sides. Led Zeppelin drew openly on the blues roots that traced back to Jimmy Page's Yardbirds days, but the success of Zeppelin ushered in a whole era of metal that would be almost entirely white, as were the glam rock of acts like David Bowie and Queen, the ethereal sounds of the likes of Yes, Styx, Supertramp and eventually Journey, the mellow California rock of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, and most of all punk, which rose and fell in parallel with disco (neither the prime years of Sex Pistols, the Clash, nor even the Ramones lasted much longer than those of the Bee Gees). (I'm simplifying here by skipping the rise of reggae, which had only a modest impact on the rock world.) The keepers of the flame of the integrated musical heritage of the mid-60s - Springsteen, Southside Johnny, even the Blues Brothers (backed by essentially the old Stax house band) - were audibly out of step with their times. And when the waters of disco and punk receded, the nascent genre of rap began to emerge.
And that, for the most part, is where we stand today: despite its black roots, rock is made by and for white people, abandoned by African-American performers and audiences alike. Oh, every few years we get a black-fronted rock act - Living Colour, Lenny Kravitz, Hootie and the Blowfish, Ben Harper. But they don't represent a significant movement, anymore than Grant Fuhr represented a significant movement in the NHL. Michael Jackson's Beat It aside, the leading black performers popular with black audiences haven't set more than a toe in the rock world in the past 30 years; the lone exception would be Prince, who in his 80s heyday melded electric guitars with current funk. And Prince has been over the hill for almost 20 years. Black women have been even more absent in the ranks of rock vocalists - any list of the best straight-up rock acts of all time will get down in the hundreds before you locate a black female lead vocalist, even though the pool of talented black female singers is perennially deep, and their voices unique (as one can see by the number of major rock acts that have drawn on black women for backing vocals).
This doesn't mean that the music world is wholly segregated today - there's still crossover in other formats (like Elvis back in the day, arguably the biggest star in rap is a white man, Eminem), although surely the gulf between rock and other formats contributes to a more generally heightened level of segregation in radio and live entertainment. But the loss of black influence and interest in rock is surely a loss for rock, and a contributing cause in the fragmentation of the nation's musical culture. Some voices can never be entirely replaced.
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* - Howlin' Wolf was also almost certainly the last major African-American music star named after a Republican president.
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