clap clap blog: we have moved

Thursday, August 14, 2003
A while back Jesse sent me a proposal for an article he wants to pitch. I thought I'd take a crack at critiquing/commenting on/building on the idea, both for the good of the article and for my own selfish education. So lemme paste in his idea.

On the weekend of August 2nd and 3rd, the rock band Phish drew over 60,000 fans to a remote corner of northwestern Maine for a two day festival at a decommissioned Air Force base. They were the only band on the bill. Between a 2.5 mile stretch of parallel runways, amidst mud and grass, concertgoers erected a massive tent city. On the tarmacs, unlicensed vendors who follow the band from show to show hawked beer, cigarettes, homemade food, clothing, and marijuana paraphernalia in a colorful bazaar.

On a main thoroughfare sat a man campaigning for Democratic Presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich. Faithful Phishheads filed by, few looking twice at their peer behind the table. Phish and, subsequently, their significant followers, are a notoriously apolitical bunch. With the exception of a pro-choice benefit played in 1995, Phish has never taken a public stand on a social issue, not wanting to wield what is potentially a lot of power. While few fans are cultish enough to follow Phish to the letter of their word, there is undoubtedly a general political apathy that courses through them.

Simultaneously, they have become a large demographic, the next generation of the Deadheads. "If every Deadhead voted, this country would be a different place," gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson recently groused. Music industry veteran and progressive activist Danny Goldberg has declared in a new book, Dispatches From The Culture Wars: How The Left Lost Teen Spirit, that the Democratic Party desperately needs to get in touch with American youth if they are to remain relevant, or even survive at all.

Disclaimer: it should be noted that while this is the theory of Danny's book, the reality turns out to be more of a half-memoir and a boomer reminisce / grumpy rant about how things used to be better back in the 60's and these darn kids etc. But the theory's pretty good, so we'll go with that.

Disclaimer 2: yeah, Kucinich ain't exactly representative of the Democratic party, but he's a pretty good one for deadheads, I think.

Thompson is right, as he still is a frightening percentage of the time, but his remark is telling: he's not talking about modern-day Phish fans, he's talking about the actual old-school deadheads, the products of the 60's, and pointing out that they themselves aren't (and weren't) actually all that politically active; they talk a good game, but through the rhetoric of the times (and of the scene), they tend to disdain regular politics in favor of localism, which to be honest is more a social than a political endeavor. So the issue seems to me to be about the apolitical nature of this particular demographic; what about the values of their group makes them avoid politics, and should they get involved in politics? And, for that matter, how would that happen? Phish, after all, is considered to have a certain political viewpoint (progressivism), even though, as Jesse points out, they don't really do anything progressive besides live in Vermont. How does this impression come about?

Hannah Arendt points out that a good portion of the citizens of almost every country are apolitical, and it's actually in the interests of the state for that to continue. She doesn't mean that in a Chomskybot, "they just want to keep you down, man!" kind of way--she simply points out that whenever this apolitical mass does get active, they tend to produce some pretty negative results. They go for demagoguery almost always, and totalitarianism seems to creep in there, too. I'm not saying that a motivated mass of deadheads would throw up a Mussolini, but as an abstract phenomenon, there is a certain value, democracy-wise, to having the apolitical stay apolitical.

Still, as a lifelong Democrat in a country that feels pretty Republican these days, it would be in my interest to have all of these people vote Democratic, as they hopefully would. (Brief sideline: would they? Certainly all the progressives that decided to vote for the Green party in 2000 had a bit of a negative effect, and it's unclear that the kind of kneejerk purists who seem to make up the jambands scene would be able to deal with the kind of compromises the Democrats have to engage in to get elected.) So why doesn't Phish, as Jesse asks, convert them? Partially I think it's because, as I've noted before, there's a weird repugnance to "political music," or to musicians who are political outside their music. Witness, for instance, reaction to Bono, or Thom Yorke, or the Dixie Chicks, or even Toby Keith--sure, some people get jazzed up about their particular stances, but a lot of people get pretty violently annoyed by them, far more annoyed than they would have been otherwise. It's simple mathematics, really, because politics is an energizing, divisive thing. You don't mind a musician one way or the other when they're singing about love or their own sadness or even, to a certain degree, Jesus or cowboys. (Tastes differ, of course.) You don't have such strong opinions on these things. But as soon as someone comes out, say, against abortion, it's a whole different matter. That you care about, and for whatever reason, it clouds people's judgment of the music. Clearly I think this is a fucking stupid thing to do, as a fan, but I also recognize that musicians are very aware of that possibility, which is why the causes you see them embracing are usually things like helping starving people or America being good or something. You get a vibe from them, like you do from Phish, but rarely policy positions, because that--as I say--is divisive. Partially this is an economic matter of musicians not wanting to lose fans, but it's also that it would suck if you made it harder for people to like your music, because you should be able to enjoy it. So even though it would be far less of a risk for Phish to take certain positions than it would be for other musicians too, I can sort of understand why they wouldn't. (This is leaving out the possibility that Phish, like many musicians, are themselves just plain ol' apolitical.)

But really, Phish shouldn't have to convert their fans; you would think, as Jesse does, that a scene whose values seem so firmly rooted in leftist politics would just vote Democratic anyway. The reason for this can maybe be found in a comparison with the kind of rightists who have driven the Republicans in recent years. They, being against big government and against taxes, etc., would appear to be apolitical, but are, in fact, deeply political, because (and this is impressive) they actually convert this apoliticism to a political stance. Deadheads, on the other hand, appear political but are in fact apolitical. Sure, they're environmentalists, but that mainly means they recycle, or are vegetarians, or buy organic food--consumerist stuff. Maybe they organize a group to lobby the local council to institute new conservation programs, but this is rarely taken nationwide, and it's rarely sustained so it can be allied with the Democrats. (It's important that interest groups be sustainable and somewhat widespread so that parties can help them, and they in turn can be helped; this is partially the theory behind the Greens, but it doesn't seem to be working so well so far.) Like I said above, a lot of their solutions tend to be social: they support local farmers, they ride bikes, they don't own guns, they live on communes. And while these things may have political meaning, they are not, in and of themselves, political acts; they do not constitute participation in politics.

And despite the dewy-eyed nostalgia of boomers like Danny (it's worth noting that Todd Gitlin seems to happily avoid this), like a similar kind of apolitical purism found in the indie scene, this flows directly from the idealism of the 60's. This idealism peters out when it comes to politics because it is utopian, and because it's never really accepted the true impact of their actions "back in the day," which from a contemporary perspective look far less impressive; the civil rights movement was driven by black leaders and Democrats, the gay rights movement by, well, gays, and even the war itself ended less because of the actions of a group of people who no one in "the establishment" ever particularly liked or agreed with, and more because it dragged out for so long and lots and lots of young Americans came home in body bags. Their favorite issue, ending the Vietnam war, was a success mainly because they were joined in their opinion by mainstream America, and most telling, they (by "they" you can substitute SDS or "the hippies" or what-have-you) never really managed to move beyond that issue to all the other ones they were so concerned about. It's not even certain that they managed to have an effect on the Democratic party--how many ex-hippies do you see today in public office or political activism? Hell, even the Trotskyites managed to change sides and elect themselves a President.

Hippies, as the 90's showed (how many startups bringing in millions were run by ex-hippies?), are only a step removed from being libertarians, although oddly it's this step that allows them to be politically active. You can see the ideology still active today, and see the problems it's caused. Search for a utopia which can never be found--dissatisfaction with anything less than perfection. Distrust of money--inability to get your voice heard. Search for the new--inability to appreciate the old.

But by far, the most pernicious and most damaging belief of the boomers is their distrust of authority. Up to a certain point, this can be a good thing--dictators and all that. But authority is a key component of politics, and politics is the way we hopefully get stuff done. It's a lot better than violence or payoffs, anyway. Without authority, without power, you can't do anything, can't start a movement, can't pass a law, can't change the way things work. It clearly makes folks like this very, very nervous to have authority over other people, and while I can sympathize, it's just these kind of people who we need to get over their discomfort and start moving things along, since otherwise it'll just be the ones who aren't uncomfortable with power taking charge. I can respect the rhetoric of equality and fairness, but until we are living in that perfect world, lots of other people are going to be getting rich and using that money to influence the political system, are going to be seizing power and using it for their own aims, are going to be leading movements antithetical to our interests. In the face of this reality, it's clear that a lot of jambands folks back away, get nervous, prefer to retreat and remain untainted.

And I have no doubt that it's this distrust of authority that plays a large part in Phish's refusal to be political. "Hey, do your own thing, man--we aren't going to tell you what to think." But people need to be organized, and telling them what to think is different than identifying a bunch of people who think the same way and getting them to all speak together to get something done. It is an unfortunate thing that they are not willing to take this risk.

I can certainly understand the people who say that they just want to listen to some music and have a good time. That's cool. But I think the opportunity is there, and I'm curious, at least, to see what would happen were someone to take advantage of it.