A View From The Handbasket

Sunday, May 28, 2006
Great moments in cultural envy
Posted by neros_fiddle at 5:24 PM
Ideology aside, it must be frustrating to be a conservative. By definition, theirs is the philosophy of the status quo -- of not straining against the received wisdom of authority and tradition. Such a place is not where compelling art is made. This is doubly true of rock music, which in all its worthwhile forms contains at least an undercurrent of rebellion, if not a full-throated "fuck you" to the (conservative) Man. In the sphere of pop culture, those on the right have essentially three choices:


  1. Switch off the political part of the brain.
  2. Confine oneself to such ghastly cultural ghettos as Toby Keith, Mel Gibson and Mallard Fillmore.
  3. Create a bizarre alternative reality in which scruffy pop idols reflect your values.


It's the third choice which has spawned National Review's list of the Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs. While I can't believe the list is entirely serious, the assumptions and rationalizations involved are nevertheless often as mind-twisting as a typical Michelle Malkin column.

So, in the spirit of the mindless "theme" programming that takes over the television on Memorial Day weekend ("Tune in for the Kevin Costner movie marathon!), here's the list. Each song is followed by first the Review's tortured reasoning and then my comments.

1. "Won't Get Fooled Again," by The Who.
National Review says: The conservative movement is full of disillusioned revolutionaries; this could be their theme song, an oath that swears off naive idealism once and for all. "There's nothing in the streets / Looks any different to me / And the slogans are replaced, by—the—bye. . . . Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss." The instantly recognizable synthesizer intro, Pete Townshend's ringing guitar, Keith Moon's pounding drums, and Roger Daltrey's wailing vocals make this one of the most explosive rock anthems ever recorded — the best number by a big band, and a classic for conservatives.

The Fiddle says: This cynical lyric (which Townshend has disowned at various times for its nihilism) teaches that all efforts at reform are doomed to fail, as the corruption of power is total and inevitable. This is equally applicable to the 60s counterculture and the 1994 Gingrich "revolution." If the conservatives wish to claim such political defeatism as their credo, I won't stop them.

2. "Taxman," by The Beatles.
National Review says: A George Harrison masterpiece with a famous guitar riff (which was actually played by Paul McCartney): "If you drive a car, I'll tax the street / If you try to sit, I'll tax your seat / If you get too cold, I'll tax the heat / If you take a walk, I'll tax your feet." The song closes with a humorous jab at death taxes: "Now my advice for those who die / Declare the pennies on your eyes."

The Fiddle says: Only a conservative could cheer the spectacle of an infinitely rich man complaining about his taxes.

3. "Sympathy for the Devil," by The Rolling Stones.
National Review says: Don't be misled by the title; this song is "The Screwtape Letters" of rock. The devil is a tempter who leans hard on moral relativism — he will try to make you think that "every cop is a criminal / And all the sinners saints." What's more, he is the sinister inspiration for the cruelties of Bolshevism: "I stuck around St. Petersburg / When I saw it was a time for a change / Killed the czar and his ministers / Anastasia screamed in vain."

The Fiddle says: Here's a theme you'll see again and again in this list -- any criticism of Stalinist tyranny is a "conservative" viewpoint. By this logic, only "liberals" complain about the Nazis. This lazy assumption instantly increases the pool of available songs for this list considerably. And we're only at #3, which should give you some idea of the desperate nature of the list.

4. "Sweet Home Alabama," by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
National Review says: A tribute to the region of America that liberals love to loathe, taking a shot at Neil Young's Canadian arrogance along the way: "A Southern man don't need him around anyhow."

The Fiddle says: Having just decried moral relativism in the last entry, suddenly praising a song that compares the sins of George Wallace and Richard Nixon is an interesting choice. In any case, I'm guessing the Review doesn't cuddle this band quite so enthusiastically when they blast handguns in "Saturday Night Special."

5. "Wouldn't It Be Nice," by The Beach Boys.
National Review says: Pro—abstinence and pro—marriage: "Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true / Baby then there wouldn't be a single thing we couldn't do / We could be married / And then we'd be happy."

The Fiddle says: Brian Wilson's lyrics are notoriously regressive and infantile, which explains why conservatives love them.

6. "Gloria," by U2.
National Review says: Just because a rock song is about faith doesn't mean that it's conservative. But what about a rock song that's about faith and whose chorus is in Latin? That's beautifully reactionary: "Gloria / In te domine / Gloria / Exultate."

The Fiddle says: They protest too much. It speaks volumes about the navel-gazing solipsism of the conservative movement that they think any expression of faith is conservative in nature.

7. "Revolution," by The Beatles.
National Review says: "You say you want a revolution / Well you know / We all want to change the world . . . Don't you know you can count me out?" What's more, Communism isn't even cool: "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow." (Someone tell the Che Guevara crowd.)

The Fiddle says: Interesting how they pointedly omit the important line "If you talk about destruction" before "Don't you know that you can count me out." And again, the "only conservatives can criticize authoritarian Communism" fallacy, which from here on out will be shorthanded as A.L.L.S. (All Lefties Love Stalinism).

8. "Bodies," by The Sex Pistols.
National Review says: Violent and vulgar, but also a searing anti—abortion anthem by the quintessential punk band: "It's not an animal / It's an abortion."

The Fiddle says: I think they'd put Ted Kennedy on the list if he said something bad about abortion.

9. "Don't Tread on Me," by Metallica.
National Review says: A head—banging tribute to the doctrine of peace through strength, written in response to the first Gulf War: "So be it / Threaten no more / To secure peace is to prepare for war."

The Fiddle says: I'll gladly let them have Metallica.

10. "20th Century Man," by The Kinks.
National Review says: "You keep all your smart modern writers / Give me William Shakespeare / You keep all your smart modern painters / I'll take Rembrandt, Titian, da Vinci, and Gainsborough. . . . I was born in a welfare state / Ruled by bureaucracy / Controlled by civil servants / And people dressed in grey / Got no privacy got no liberty / 'Cause the 20th—century people / Took it all away from me."

The Fiddle says: Ray Davies is well-known for his nostalgic streak, and is a good fit for conservatives if they wish to take that aspect in isolation.

11. "The Trees," by Rush.
National Review says: Before there was Rush Limbaugh, there was Rush, a Canadian band whose lyrics are often libertarian. What happens in a forest when equal rights become equal outcomes? "The trees are all kept equal / By hatchet, axe, and saw."

The Fiddle says: Ugh. If the Review wants to hoist the flag of adolescent sub-Randian piffle, I won't save them from their own humiliation.

12. "Neighborhood Bully," by Bob Dylan.
National Review says: A pro—Israel song released in 1983, two years after the bombing of Iraq's nuclear reactor, this ironic number could be a theme song for the Bush Doctrine: "He destroyed a bomb factory, nobody was glad / The bombs were meant for him / He was supposed to feel bad / He's the neighborhood bully."

The Fiddle says: It takes a brave man to sort through the philosophical murk of Dylan's born-again phase. It takes a stupid man to advocate basing foreign policy on those records.

13. "My City Was Gone," by The Pretenders.
National Review says: Virtually every conservative knows the bass line, which supplies the theme music for Limbaugh's radio show. But the lyrics also display a Jane Jacobs sensibility against central planning and a conservative's dissatisfaction with rapid change: "I went back to Ohio / But my pretty countryside / Had been paved down the middle / By a government that had no pride."

The Fiddle says: Here, at #13, the list descends into pure fantasy. "Dissatisfaction with rapid change?" "Against central planning?" Come on. The right never met a Wal-Mart they didn't like.

14. "Right Here, Right Now," by Jesus Jones.
National Review says: The words are vague, but they're also about the fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War: "I was alive and I waited for this. . . . Watching the world wake up from history."

The Fiddle says: A.L.L.S. strikes again, this time as the sole reason to dredge up this lousy 90s one-hit wonder.

15. "I Fought the Law," by The Crickets.
National Review says: The original law—and—order classic, made famous in 1965 by The Bobby Fuller Four and covered by just about everyone since then.

The Fiddle says: Law-and-order classic? Er, OK. Like Bonnie and Clyde, I guess.

16. "Get Over It," by The Eagles.
National Review says: Against the culture of grievance: "The big, bad world doesn't owe you a thing." There's also this nice line: "I'd like to find your inner child and kick its little ass."

The Fiddle says: The Review likes songs that sound like they were sung by a cranky old man telling you to get off his lawn.

17. "Stay Together for the Kids," by Blink 182.
National Review says: A eulogy for family values by an alt—rock band whose members were raised in a generation without enough of them: "So here's your holiday / Hope you enjoy it this time / You gave it all away. . . . It's not right."

The Fiddle says: If this is the best they can do at #17, I don't see why they didn't just stop at ten.

18. "Cult of Personality," by Living Colour.
National Review says: A hard—rocking critique of state power, whacking Mussolini, Stalin, and even JFK: "I exploit you, still you love me / I tell you one and one makes three / I'm the cult of personality."

The Fiddle says: That's odd, it almost sounds like the mission statement of the Bush White House. Sounds like the conservatives need to heal themselves.

19. "Kicks," by Paul Revere and the Raiders.
National Review says: An anti—drug song that is also anti—utopian: "Well, you think you're gonna find yourself a little piece of paradise / But it ain't happened yet, so girl you better think twice."

The Fiddle says: I'm guessing the Review gang secretly prefers the 80s cover by the Monkees.

20. "Rock the Casbah," by The Clash.
National Review says: After 9/11, American radio stations were urged not to play this 1982 song, one of the biggest hits by a seminal punk band, because it was seen as too provocative. Meanwhile, British Forces Broadcasting Service (the radio station for British troops serving in Iraq) has said that this is one of its most requested tunes.

The Fiddle says: I've tried and tried to figure out what's "conservative" about this song, and have come up empty. Is it just because there's a bombing of an Islamic target in it? Is bombing Islamic people a defining value for conservatives? (Or, more accurately, a value they wish to trumpet?) How depressing.

21. "Heroes," by David Bowie.
National Review says: A Cold War love song about a man and a woman divided by the Berlin Wall. No moral equivalence here: "I can remember / Standing / By the wall / And the guns / Shot above our heads / And we kissed / As though nothing could fall / And the shame / Was on the other side / Oh we can beat them / For ever and ever."

The Fiddle says: A.L.L.S. again. Yawn.

22. "Red Barchetta," by Rush.
National Review says: In a time of "the Motor Law," presumably legislated by green extremists, the singer describes family reunion and the thrill of driving a fast car — an act that is his "weekly crime."

The Fiddle says: Because for conservatives, playing with their toys rises to the level of a political statement.

23. "Brick," by Ben Folds Five.
National Review says: Written from the perspective of a man who takes his young girlfriend to an abortion clinic, this song describes the emotional scars of "reproductive freedom": "Now she's feeling more alone / Than she ever has before. . . . As weeks went by / It showed that she was not fine."

The Fiddle says: If they want to read this song as "pro-life," that's fine, but it's more complicated than that.

24. "Der Kommissar," by After the Fire.
National Review says: On the misery of East German life: "Don't turn around, uh—oh / Der Kommissar's in town, uh—oh / He's got the power / And you're so weak / And your frustration / Will not let you speak." Also a hit song for Falco, who wrote it.

The Fiddle says: The A.L.L.S. effect gets progressively more pathetic...

25. "The Battle of Evermore," by Led Zeppelin.
National Review says: The lyrics are straight out of Robert Plant's Middle Earth period — there are lines about "ring wraiths" and "magic runes" — but for a song released in 1971, it's hard to miss the Cold War metaphor: "The tyrant's face is red."

The Fiddle says: ...and hits rock bottom here. This is even more ridiculous than the idiots who find Satanic backwards messges in "Stairway To Heaven."

26. "Capitalism," by Oingo Boingo.
National Review says: "There's nothing wrong with Capitalism / There's nothing wrong with free enterprise. . . . You're just a middle class, socialist brat / From a suburban family and you never really had to work."

The Fiddle says: Well, at least they held off until the second 25 before scraping the barrel to uncover Oingo Boingo.

27. "Obvious Song," by Joe Jackson.
National Review says: For property rights and economic development, and against liberal hypocrisy: "There was a man in the jungle / Trying to make ends meet / Found himself one day with an axe in his hand / When a voice said 'Buddy can you spare that tree / We gotta save the world — starting with your land' / It was a rock 'n' roll millionaire from the USA / Doing three to the gallon in a big white car / And he sang and he sang 'til he polluted the air / And he blew a lot of smoke from a Cuban cigar."

The Fiddle says: I suppose they didn't stick around for the next verse, which attacks the "liberal hypocrisy" of the War on Drugs.

28. "Janie's Got a Gun," by Aerosmith.
National Review says: How the right to bear arms can protect women from sexual predators: "What did her daddy do? / It's Janie's last I.O.U. / She had to take him down easy / And put a bullet in his brain / She said 'cause nobody believes me / The man was such a sleaze / He ain't never gonna be the same."

The Fiddle says: Um, sure thing. The left has impassioned statements by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger -- the right has overproduced dreck by Aerosmith with tenuous connections to talking points.

29. "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," by Iron Maiden.
National Review says: A heavy—metal classic inspired by a literary classic. How many other rock songs quote directly from Samuel Taylor Coleridge?

The Fiddle says: Who said quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a rock song was a good thing?

30. "You Can't Be Too Strong," by Graham Parker.
National Review says: Although it's not explicitly pro—life, this tune describes the horror of abortion with bracing honesty: "Did they tear it out with talons of steel, and give you a shot so that you wouldn't feel?"

The Fiddle says: So, the #30 Best Conservative Rock Song Ever isn't explicitly conservative?

31. "Small Town," by John Mellencamp.
National Review says: A Burkean rocker: "No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from / I cannot forget the people who love me."

The Fiddle says: Have you noticed how many songs on this list take a relatively non-ideological idea like "I like my hometown" and turn it into a Great Statement of Right-Wing Dogma? Have you noticed how often conservatives do this in real life?

32. "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," by The Georgia Satellites.
National Review says: An outstanding vocal performance, with lyrics that affirm old—time sexual mores: "She said no huggy, no kissy until I get a wedding vow."

The Fiddle says: Oh, dear.

33. "You Can't Always Get What You Want," by The Rolling Stones.
National Review says: You can "[go] down to the demonstration" and vent your frustration, but you must understand that there's no such thing as a perfect society — there are merely decent and free ones.

The Fiddle says: This is so puzzling I can't even mock it.

34. "Godzilla," by Blue Ayster Cult.
National Review says: A 1977 classic about a big green monster — and more: "History shows again and again / How nature points up the folly of men."

The Fiddle says: They're just making shit up at this point, aren't they? Just 12 songs ago they were babbling about "green extremism," and now they're heaping praise on the pro-ecology message of Godzilla. This list must have been compiled by an attention-span-impaired intern.

35. "Who'll Stop the Rain," by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
National Review says: Written as an anti—Vietnam War song, this tune nevertheless is pessimistic about activism and takes a dim view of both Communism and liberalism: "Five—year plans and new deals, wrapped in golden chains . . ."

The Fiddle says: Er, what?

36. "Government Cheese," by The Rainmakers.
National Review says: A protest song against the welfare state by a Kansas City band that deserved more success than it got. The first line: "Give a man a free house and he'll bust out the windows."

The Fiddle says: So now we're to the point that they're apologizing for the obscurity of their choices?

37. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," by The Band.
National Review says: Despite its sins, the American South always has been about more than racism — this song captures its pride and tradition.

The Fiddle says: And this is "conservative"? Interesting how between this and the Skynyrd song they seem to equate "South" and "conservative."

38. "I Can't Drive 55," by Sammy Hagar.
National Review says: A rocker's objection to the nanny state. (See also Hagar's pro—America song "VOA.")

The Fiddle says: What happened to "law-and-order classics"? Apparently conservatives only observe laws that don't involve fast cars.

39. "Property Line," by The Marshall Tucker Band.
National Review says: The secret to happiness, according to these southern—rock heavyweights, is life, liberty, and property: "Well my idea of a good time / Is walkin' my property line / And knowin' the mud on my boots is mine."

The Fiddle says: Because, in case you've forgotten, Communism is bad.

40. "Wake Up Little Susie," by The Everly Brothers.
National Review says: A smash hit in 1957, back when high—school social pressures were rather different from what they have become: "We fell asleep, our goose is cooked, our reputation is shot."

The Fiddle says: Judging people on the basis of sexual gossip is always a good thing in conservative-land.

41. "The Icicle Melts," by The Cranberries.
National Review says: A pro—life tune sung by Irish warbler Dolores O'Riordan: "I don't know what's happening to people today / When a child, he was taken away . . . 'Cause nine months is too long."

The Fiddle says: I think every vaguely anti-abortion pop song is on this list somewhere.

42. "Everybody's a Victim," by The Proclaimers.
National Review says: Best known for their smash hit "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," this Scottish band also recorded a catchy song about the problem of suspending moral judgment: "It doesn't matter what I do / You have to say it's all right . . . Everybody's a victim / We're becoming like the USA."

The Fiddle says: It's always amused me how much hot air the right expends on the value of personal responsibility, when their poster boy in the White House has never taken responsibility for anything.

43. "Wonderful," by Everclear.
National Review says: A child's take on divorce: "I don't wanna hear you say / That I will understand someday / No, no, no, no / I don't wanna hear you say / You both have grown in a different way / No, no, no, no / I don't wanna meet your friends / And I don't wanna start over again / I just want my life to be the same / Just like it used to be."

The Fiddle says: Conservative dogma is full of "child's takes" of complicated issues, so it's nice they found room for this.

44. "Two Sisters," by The Kinks.
National Review says: Why the "drudgery of being wed" is more rewarding than bohemian life.

The Fiddle says: I'll admit not stuffing the list with more than two each from Rush and the Kinks probably made the Review's job harder.

45. "Taxman, Mr. Thief," by Cheap Trick.
National Review says: An anti—tax protest song: "You work hard, you went hungry / Now the taxman is out to get you. . . . He hates you, he loves money."

The Fiddle says: Then again, the fact that #45 is a remake of #2 suggests that they didn't work too hard.

46. "Wind of Change," by The Scorpions.
National Review says: A German hard—rock group's optimistic power ballad about the end of the Cold War and national reunification: "The world is closing in / Did you ever think / That we could be so close, like brothers / The future's in the air / I can feel it everywhere / Blowing with the wind of change."

The Fiddle says: A.L.L.S. makes one more appearance, venerating a band that has produced album covers featuring child porn.

47. "One," by Creed.
National Review says: Against racial preferences: "Society blind by color / Why hold down one to raise another / Discrimination now on both sides / Seeds of hate blossom further."

The Fiddle says: This is more embarrassing than one of those VH-1 list shows.

48. "Why Don't You Get a Job," by The Offspring.
National Review says: The lyrics aren't exactly Shakespearean, but they're refreshingly blunt and they capture a motive force behind welfare reform.

The Fiddle says: The cranky old guy strikes again.

49. "Abortion," by Kid Rock.
National Review says: A plaintive song sung by a man who confronts his unborn child's abortion: "I know your brothers and your sister and your mother too / Man I wish you could see them too."

The Fiddle says: I spoke too soon back at #41.

50. "Stand By Your Man," by Tammy Wynette.
National Review says: Hillary trashed it — isn't that enough? If you're worried that Wynette's original is too country, then check out the cover version by Motörhead.

The Fiddle says: And there you have it -- "conservative" is "whatever Hillary doesn't like." Appropriate that the final entry on the list is the most reactionary.

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