What the words mean

August 20, 2012

In rock ’n’ roll today, the words mean absolutely nothing. Except, of course, when they are no less vital than life and death itself.

This dichotomy exists among audiences worldwide—and, indeed, sometimes within the same listener, depending on the circumstances. There can be no better illustration of this bizarre divide than the contrast between two recent stories, one from the former Soviet Union and the other much closer to home.

The tale of Pussy Riot is, by now, old news. Heck, no less a tired old authority on calculated outrage than Madonna has even weighed in.

On Friday, the three young Russian women—two of them mothers of toddlers, all of them better described as members of a performance-art collective than as the more frequently used “punk band”—were sentenced to two years in a penal colony for staging a piece they called “Punk Prayer” at Moscow’s main orthodox cathedral in protest of the policies of dictator-in-all-but-name Vladimir Putin. (The official charge: “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”)

The lyrics of “Punk Prayer” read in part (a full translation can be found here)

Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin,
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!
Congregations genuflect,
Black robes brag gilt epaulettes,
Freedom's phantom's gone to heaven,
Gay Pride's chained and in detention.
KGB's chief saint descends
To guide the punks to prison vans.
Don't upset His Saintship, ladies,
Stick to making love and babies.
Crap, crap, this godliness crap!
Crap, crap, this holiness crap!


Punk rockers or performance artists, the goal of either is to be noticed, and Pussy Riot certainly accomplished that. As The New York Times noted, in the wake of the verdict, “Rallies in support of them were held in dozens of cities around the world on Friday, including Paris, New York and London.” You could say the group got exactly what it wanted. But that doesn’t mean it was treated justly for what was essentially a misdemeanor.

No less a skeptical source than American Thinker, a bastion of anti-Obama conservatism, noted some glaring omissions in the coverage by America’s newspaper of record: “The Times didn't mention that the trio was forced to wear handcuffs as they sat inside a locked cage-like enclosure within the courtroom and that they were menaced repeatedly by attack dogs as they moved to and from court. It never mentioned the fact that they did not receive a jury trial or the opportunity to post reasonable bail pending trial.  It didn't mention that a vast number of reporters were excluded from being in the courtroom during the sentencing, nor did it even make clear whether any Times reporter got inside.  The paper had no comment from the defendants, nor any comment from anyone they allegedly wronged.”

The Soviet Union may have crumbled, but that old repressive mindset clearly is alive and well in Putin’s Russia. The words in Pussy Riot’s tune obviously mattered to him—enough to risk worldwide condemnation to silence the women.

In contrast, consider our Wisconsin neighbor Rep. Paul Ryan—Janesville native, poster boy for Tea Partiers and slash-and-burn fiscal conservatives, proudly self-professed acolyte of Ayn Rand, Republican vice-presidential candidate… and major fan of Rage Against the Machine.

Guitarist and always eloquent homeboy Tom Morello lashes out at Ryan as only he can in an Op-Ed in Rolling Stone, writing in part:

“Ryan claims that he likes Rage’s sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don’t care for Paul Ryan’s sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage.

“I wonder what Ryan’s favorite Rage song is? Is it the one where we condemn the genocide of Native Americans? The one lambasting American imperialism? Our cover of ‘F--- the Police?’ Or is it the one where we call on the people to seize the means of production? So many excellent choices to jam out to at Young Republican meetings!

“Don’t mistake me, I clearly see that Ryan has a whole lotta ‘rage’ in him: A rage against women, a rage against immigrants, a rage against workers, a rage against gays, a rage against the poor, a rage against the environment. Basically the only thing he’s not raging against is the privileged elite he’s groveling in front of for campaign contributions.”

Yeah, sure, my old pal Tom can be a bit self-righteous and oblivious to his own contradictions; we have a longstanding debate, for example, about his band’s support for Peru’s Shining Path insurgency. But he is spot-on in his criticism of Ryan’s embrace of his music, even if he leaves a few things out of his argument.

As we all now know, Wade Page, the man who killed six worshippers and wounded twenty others at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek a little more than an hour’s drive from Janesville, once led a group called End Apathy. Consistently described in press accounts as a white-power band, Page said his music actually was about “how the value of human life has been degraded by tyranny,” according to The New York Times.

Who couldn’t get behind that? Nevertheless, it is impossible to imagine Ryan or anyone else saying that they loved the music of End Apathy but “didn’t care for” the lyrics. Why is Rage Against the Machine any different?

The Los Angeles band’s most famous lyric, is, of course, “F--- you, I won’t do what you tell me.” But less often quoted are the other lines from “Killing in the Name”

Some of those that work forces
Are the same that burn crosses
And now you do what they told ya
Those who died
Are justified
For wearing the badge and your chosen white
And now you do what they told ya, now you’re under control

Beyond the hypocrisy of the representative from Wisconsin’s love for Rage Against the Machine is evidence of an even more troubling problem, however. Portrayed as the new driving force of the Republican party, intellectually and philosophically (and here, The New Yorker’s recent pre-announcement profile was amazingly prescient and full of insight), you have to question the actual analytical acumen of an alleged deep thinker who can so blithely ignore the very core of Rage Against the Machine. If he can’t get that right, why should we trust him about the budget?

Morello’s group is many things, some good and some bad, but subtle is not one of them. The group is laser-focused almost to a flaw, and saying that you like its music but not its lyrics is like saying that you love everything about chocolate ice cream except for that pesky chocolate taste.

Then again, Ryan also champions everything about the philosophies of self-reliance and social Darwinism espoused by Rand—except for the fact that it all stems from and is inextricably intertwined with her committed and pervasive atheism.

In literature, as in rock ’n’ roll, the words apparently mean nothing at all… except when they mean everything.