Red state or blue state, it’s not the songs, it’s the stories. The Great Epic spun by the Right Wing Talk Shows to angry conservative drive-time white males stuck in traffic versus the Left Wing Movie Documentaries discussed by frightened liberals on the Internet. Rush Limbaugh versus Michael Moore. Songs and singers participate in these larger flows, but don’t define them. Linda Ronstadt bounced out of Vegas for her kind words about Fahrenheit 9/11 before singing “Desperado” could be the signal pop music event of this election.
Stance and persona are minimized in the rationale for an anti-Bush coalition. The I Gotta Be Me of identity politics is just a muted note in the chord of hoped-for consensus. And the Hell No, We Won’t Go of anti-identity politics will be M.I.A. until Washington reactivates the draft. Familiar artistic dissenters—the avant-gardist, the misunderstood genius, the prophetic minority—are less compelling when history hinges on winning the electoral college. Last time Nader had the best musicians, this time who cares? It’s not about assembling the most interesting audience. It’s about assembling the biggest one.
The most successful personal songs reflecting political realities are the c&w ones about the patriotic soldier just doing his job far from home. And the most effective political persona is presented by the president himself. Just a simple born-again rancher who mispronounces big words but is doing his best to lower taxes and raise up the family. With George W. playing the Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan wise fool, what’s a lefty folksinger to do?
At times, feisty, tuneful Dan Bern has channeled protest Bob so closely he’s sounded like an outtake from Bob Dylan Live 1964. But these days his attempts to sing as a pseudo-everyman from an all-encompassing political position—the collective farms, nudity, pot, no TV, and free health care of “President”—are catchy but not convincing. The left has little power and no coherent shape; the little people of the world don’t see eye to eye even if Bern and his backup band have a good time trying to make it so. More successful are the songs that accept Bern’s place in an activist minority: “My Country II” and especially the album’s closer and masterpiece, “Bush Must Be Defeated,” which repeats the title 32 times and rhymes it with such insights as “his White House bed short-sheeted.” Here he enthusiastically encapsulates the lowest-common-denominator politics that history has thrust upon him and then bids us adieu as the track fades with “Do not take anything for granted. Do not vote your conscience. Do not trade your vote.”
Stephan Smith transports the old protest Bob onto slightly different terrain, successfully extending his established if obscure career as a spiritually grounded, politically engaged, multi-culti country boy. Smith tries to dismantle the phony cowboy president himself, which works only for those who buy into Smith as the more authentic of the two, a tough sell at best. Smith’s folkie hip-hop succeeds as a compilation of hallucinogenic details, but will ultimately convince only if taken as expressions from a real-world cultural space. It would be easy to dismiss Smith as a likable goofball, but when Gretchen “Redneck Woman” Wilson hit the Big Time and her compadres Big & Rich introduced Black Country Rapper Cowboy Troy, I felt a change inside of country. The cultural ground is shifting underneath Bush and Cheney and Rove, and young Stephan Smith’s career, with its built-in prophecy of a change that’s gonna come on songs like the militant “Taking Aim” and the protest-minded “In the Air,” has not yet been proven in vain.
For now “Bush Must Be Defeated” is the sharpest insight to be gleaned from our political troubadour tradition. But there’s something going on out there that could make it easier to push Kerry in a positive direction—if he wins.
Dan Bern plays Joe’s Pub August 28; Stephan Smith plays Crobar August 31.