Corporate Rock Sucks

The Nation, August 25, 1997 | Go to article overview

Corporate Rock Sucks


With this special issue, we tune in to another province of the National Entertainment State--popular music. Music is big business, overseen by synergy-seeking transnational executives. It is relentlessly sold, and it sells--everything from toilet bowl cleaners to Hollywood movies to Presidents. (Even Bob Dole's campaign tried to appropriate "Soul Man" as its theme song.) Aging boomers cringe as they hear John Lennon's voice used to sell overpriced sneakers, or Janis Joplin's to promote overpriced cars. The commodification of passion makes people cynical and encourages the view that popular music can't provide much in the way of message or authenticity. Still, for those who grow up with popular music--from the 8-year-old girl chanting "I'II tell ya what I want, what I really, really want" to the grandmother who once screamed for Sinatra, and everyone in between--we can't ignore the beat. It's central to our lives and increasingly central to our culture.

As the articles in this issue show, popular music across the genres reports on, reacts to and riffs on the raw material of our politics--race, sexuality, feminism, crime and punishment, and more. Yet while some music carries an explicitly political message--and while it has played a crucial role in some organized movements, like civil rights--music can be political even when its lyrics deal with private joys and sorrows. The field slave singing "Steal Away to Jesus," the teenager watching as Elvis's grinding pelvis and black voice exposed the first cracks in the consensus culture of the fifties, the girl finding models of whip-smart female power in Liz Phair--all of them experienced the political dimension of popular music. And so, for that matter, did the kids in smoky clubs in Eastern European cities singing along to American rock lyrics they couldn't understand, or the boy perched on a Sandinista tank in Managua who held aloft one white-gloved hand in imitation of Michael Jackson. …

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