American Prospect essay on Pete and Michael Moore

Brian Cady brianinatlanta2001 at
Wed Jul 28 06:16:41 CDT 2004

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Can't Get Fooled Again

By Devin McKinney, The American Prospect. Posted July
28, 2004.

Two harrowing hours of Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11
drew to a close, and we watched as George W. Bush's
brain, on display in Tennessee, got lost in the
convolutions of an old axiom: "Fool me once, shame on
you; fool me twice, shame on me." That's what Bush
meant to say; but the logic of the line escaped him,
and as it scampered away, the widening silence
threatened to admit laughter from the assembled elite.
So, famously quick thinker that he is, Bush cut to the
chase: "You can't get fooled again."

I wasn't the only one who expected the opening chords
of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" to kick in just
then, to engulf the theater and bathe the film's open
wounds in some cleansing fury. Moore has a knack for
musical cues that seem obvious at first but that, set
against the accumulation of disgust and demise his
films drive toward, curdle into new kinds of sadness
or savagery ("Wouldn't It Be Nice" in Roger & Me,
"Happiness is a Warm Gun" in Bowling for Columbine).
Surely he knew what song was called for. But no: The
exit music was Neil Young's "Rockin' in the Free
World" – not a great song, in fact something of a
headache, however ideologically serviceable.

"Won't Get Fooled Again" not only rocks, it is an epic
sneer at leaders, social swindlers, and ideologues of
all stripes. It would have lent a dimension of social
critique and vigilant skepticism to Fahrenheit 9/11
beyond even the obvious Bush bash that Moore intended.
Young's easy, punky rhymes fell in as a dim substitute
for something sadder, wiser, fuller, larger. And,
despite having been roused by a blame-placing,
name-naming populist broadside the like of which has
seldom crossed an American movie screen, one was
justified in feeling cheated of a great release.

Behind the absence, it turns out, are feuding
celebrities and competing narratives. Pete Townshend,
Who guitarist and author of "Won't Get Fooled Again,"
placed a diary entry on his official Web site July 7,
claiming that Michael Moore had lately been slandering
him. "He says – among other things – that I refused to
allow him to use my song . . . because I support the
war, and that at the last minute I recanted, but he
turned me down," the site reads. Townshend claims
that, though low money was the first issue, he
ultimately refused Moore's request because he felt
"unconvinced" by the filmmaker's previous work. He
also admits that "at the beginning of the war in Iraq
I was a supporter. But now, like millions of others, I
am less sure we did the right thing." (What would
Meher Baba have advised?)

Moore has his own version of what went down. Believe
whichever side you like. But that Pete Townshend
favored the Iraq War and denied use of his music in a
film that was bound to inflict some salutary damage on
the Bush-Blair axis – while approving its use as theme
music for both the CSI series and an allergy
medication – should disillusion precisely no one. Not
at this late date. For decades now, our pop stars have
been sending us political messages that are less mixed
than mangled beyond reason.

In 1966, John Lennon came out against the Vietnam War;
but a year later, discussing the recent fascist coup
in Greece (where The Beatles were preparing to buy an
island), he insisted that it didn't worry him "as long
as it doesn't affect us." (They never bought the
island.) Around the same time, James Brown journeyed
to the White House to dine with warmonger Lyndon
Johnson; in 1972, the black-pride advocate endorsed
Richard Nixon's re-election run (right on!). Linda
Ronstadt and Queen, whatever liberating blows they may
once have struck for female empowerment or male
cosmetics, reaped the rewards of apartheid by playing
Sun City against the cultural boycott. Neil Young has
flitted from pacifism to Reaganism to anti-corporatism
to let's-rollism. The Rolling Stones, who talked a
good revolution circa 1968, have turned out to be
among the grandest beneficiaries of the very system
they once got a chart hit or two out of attacking.

Pop's social politics, like its sexual politics, is at
once a flavorful stew of robust contradictions, a
slimy pit of self-interest, and a hopeless muddle. But
more than anything just now, it is beside the point.
Where once it was, as Robert Christgau put it, "an
index of vitality" in an artist, his or her political
profile is now usually an accessory at best. Does
anyone still look to pop stars for help in defining a
personal politics? Should we even expect them to
define their own politics coherently, given that your
typical pop star will be at once a soft liberal, a
rapacious capitalist, and a dictatorial control freak?
Do we expect or need stars, yesterday's or today's, to
second our stance? Who are "we," for that matter, and
what is "our" stance?

Christgau asked essentially the same questions in
1969, and though he admitted it was "puritanical to
expect musicians, or anyone, to hew to the proper
line," he also suggested it was "reasonable to request
that they not go out of their way to oppose it." I
fear that what seemed a reasonable request 35 years
ago seems churlish and outdated today. Rock stars, you
see, care about what they care about, when they care
about it – be that inconsistent with or utterly
contradictory of any previous statement, implied
sympathy, or ideological allegiance.

We take this as the order of business. Where once they
were thought to be progressive coevals, pop and
politics are now ironic familiars, like the secret
agents of warring superpowers who talk jaded shop in
old spy movies. Each uses the other at its
convenience, winks conspiratorially, and walks away
unchanged. Most of the remaining figureheads of
"classic" rock, to the extent they are political at
all, stump for only the safest of liberal causes –
Paul McCartney on land mines and animal rights, say,
or Carole King pumping piano for John Kerry's empty
suit – and thus do nothing to jar the discourse or
alter the landscape. (Would anyone claim to be for
missing limbs or martyred bunnies? Abortion rights and
gay marriage, that's another story.)

Bringing it back to Townshend and Moore, there is also
the matter of what a star chooses to do, or allows to
be done, with his or her work – and the meanings that
work will inevitably take on once it is used in a
certain way. Here is where certain idols of a previous
generation have made a small but unique contribution
to our current culture of cheapened feelings and
meatball ethics. In 1998, David Bowie refused director
Todd Haynes permission to use a handful of his
classics in the dark, devilish, sexually subversive
glam valentine Velvet Goldmine; it was evidently more
in keeping with Bowie's agenda to permit a car company
to use "Rebel Rebel" as a way of telling its consumer
base that it was still cutting-edge despite having
taken on the bourgeois weight of wealth and PTA

When the Rolling Stones recorded "You Can't Always Get
What You Want" in 1969, "what you wanted" might have
been something as earthbound as good sex or a decent
high, or as lofty as personal grace and social
redemption. But whatever it was, it was presumed, by
both Stones and audience, to be something important. A
few years ago, "what you wanted," according to the
Motorola ad that licensed the song, was more bells and
whistles on your cell phone. Today, the soft-drink
commercial tells us via fast editing and the familiar
Jagger exhortation, "what you want" amounts to
precisely this: that your dog won't chew your pillows;
that your fat, stupid, hippie parents won't embarrass
you in front of your rad boyfriend; and that the new
Coca-Cola concoction won't taste like malted battery

That such sellouts are commercial choices does not
mean that they're not ethical choices as well – and
that they are ethical choices does not mean that
they're not political choices. For some of us, these
things are, or should be, at least somewhat
interrelated. To all of which Pete Townshend might
pragmatically reply, "People have their views. Anyway,
how do you know I'm not, as you say, for the war?" In
fact, those words were spoken by Bob Dylan in 1968,
when the war was in Vietnam and the question of
for-or-against was far hotter, and more defining of an
artist, than it is today. But it is what Townshend is
saying, even if he doesn't use those words. Indeed,
how do we know? Why should you or I have ever guessed
he would oppose the Iraq War? Or that Dylan would not
one day shill for a lingerie catalog? Or that the
Stones would not flay their own corporate carcass to
the snapping point by selling themselves to one
conglomerate after another, even if it means directly
insulting the very fans who once thought "Street
Fighting Man" was for real?

A pop song is a commercial construction designed to
bring a return of profit on a certain investment; it
is also a spontaneous eruption of human and mechanical
sound, the meanings and effects of which are
unpredictable. A politics is a system of reasoned and
articulated beliefs on issues relevant to the common
life of a society; it is also whatever scraps and
slivers of fear, anger, and subversion happen to be
flapping in the breezes of a particular moment. One is
controlled; the other is not. One has a set and
standard meaning; the other has a meaning just waiting
to be made, or remade, by whoever grabs it.

The fan who wants to use pop politically, then, is
still free to do so. If a song can bear the weight of
politics, it will; if not, it will crumple like tin.
The solution is simple: Trust the song, not the
singer. Most of us have made the mistake of trusting
the singer, believing the singer believed what we
believed, what the singer seemed to believe. But that
day is past; the idols are dead, and we need to grow

As our outgoing president puts it, "You can't get
fooled again." Can you?

Copyright 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc.
Preferred Citation: Devin McKinney, "Can't Get Fooled
Again", The American Prospect Online, Jul 21, 2004.
This article may not be resold, reprinted, or
redistributed for compensation of any kind without
prior written permission from the author. Direct
questions about permissions to
permissions at 

Devin McKinney is the author of 'Magic Circles: The
Beatles in Dream and History.'

-Brian in Atlanta
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