RCL Exclusive

An Open Letter to Rock Stars Staying Silent as Midterm Elections Near

RCL writer Tim Sommer has an axe to grind with so-called “Voices of the People.”

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Dear Mr. Rock Star:

We are weeks away from the most important election of our lifetime.

I have been wondering where you are. I haven’t heard a peep from you as the Midterms approach.

While I’m at it, I am also searching for all those other old-school “Voices of the People” – you know, the ones who have spent decades sincerely clutching their Telecasters and stomping their earnestly clenched fists singing on and on about the plight of the working man.

I can’t seem to find them, either.

I mean, maybe it’s okay that you’re sitting this one out.

After all, even though you make millions chronicling the plight of America’s working men and women — recounting their dreams, their tears, and their small but vital triumphs — I don’t think you have ever claimed to represent them, or promote their interests, have you? You just tell stories, right? Stories are nice. There’s a big difference between describing and advocating, and if you don’t want to cross that line, well, that’s totally up to you.

Personally, I am deeply disappointed that artists who have traditionally espoused empathy for the social and economically disenfranchised are so devastatingly quiet at such a crucial time.

In fact, it seems like awful hypocrisy to me, a sad retreat behind mansion walls and mountains of gold bars. To me, it seems ludicrous to make millions telling the stories of the beleaguered workingmen and women of America and not at least investigate how to bring that awareness into the voting booth.

True: Rock’n’roll does not have to “stand” for anything. It really doesn’t.

It does not need to condemn leaders, propose solutions, urge revolt, or serve as a salon for dissent. All good music ought to do is tickle a part of your heart, reach you in some emotional or physical way, make you feel not so alone, or say something that you can’t put into words.

But I cannot help thinking that “The Idea of Rock” should be inseparable from “The Idea of Rebellion,” and that is one of the things that makes Rock ’n’ Roll, even when it is at its silliest or most decadent, inherently political. That is a reality we should acknowledge.

Here’s what I mean: In the earliest days of the art form, parents, clergymen, politicians, and civic and social leaders truly believed that Rock ’n’ Roll fostered dissent against the authority of family and church. Many of them also believed that it encouraged drinking, drugs, race mixing/miscegenation, and premarital sex.

It didn’t matter what the lyrics were; in the late 1940s and 1950s (and for most of the 1960s), merely being a fan of rock or R&B music was seen as a rebellious act in and of itself — a genuine threat to the world of Father Knows Best and J. Edgar Hoover. Heck, advocating too loudly for Rock’n’roll could get an FBI file started in your name.

More importantly, Rock ’n’ Roll is intrinsically political because of its DNA.

Not many rock stars are doing what Willie Nelson did: Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke joins Nelson on stage during his Turn out For Texas Rally, featuring a concert by Wille Nelson, in Austin, Texas on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Almost exclusively, Rock ’n’ Roll arose from the places where those excluded from the American dream gathered: plantations, Appalachian hollows, prison yards, whorehouses, the barn dance, the fais do-do.

It was the creation of those on absolutely the lowest rung of the American economic ladder. True, the people who built the music industry were often wealthy, but the artisans (and the art) they exploited were almost exclusively born and bred of deprivation. Elvis’s father was sentenced to three years in the Mississippi State Penitentiary for forging a $14 check; what more can I say?

Rock ’n’ Roll, the art form that keeps your private jet fueled, was built out of Jim Crow, slavery, laws that limited education, housing, and employment opportunities to poor whites and poor blacks.

People defied these limitations, this cruelty, with their art long before it was lucrative to do so.

See, Mr. Rockstar, those who truly live by Rock ’n’ Roll go to sleep in a political bed and eat breakfast in a political kitchen, because they live in a house built by those who were denied opportunity. Built by those who suffered economic and social oppression and political minimization.

Now, as far as I can tell, the near-absolute silence of you and your rock star pals as we near the midterms can’t be due to laziness. I have noticed that as you guys get older, you actually seem to work harder and harder, especially now that you all realize you can charge $250 to $1000 a seat for your shows.

So if you’re not lazy, then your silence must be due to one of two reasons:

1.) You Don’t Care, or
2.) You Don’t Have the Guts.

First, let’s talk about the “You Don’t Care” option:

You and most of our rock stars came of age during in a time when we took FDR’s The Four Freedoms for granted: The freedom of speech and expression; the freedom to worship God (or not worship God) in the manner you choose; the freedom from want; and the freedom from fear. Let us also add to this list the freedom to assemble and protest peacefully, the freedom not to fear discrimination on the basis of race, nationality, political affiliation or sexual orientation, and the freedom to move about your country and seek employment as you wish.

Mr. Rock Star, you may not stop to think about it much, but the reason you are where you are now is because you were free to make the life choices that led you away from the drudgery of the hometown that you write so romantically about, and into lives in which you could afford to dedicate yourself to poetry, mischief and romance.

When a popular musician (like yourself) who has consistently allied himself with the economic underdog makes money off of this constituency, but refuses to defend their rights, when they speak of freedom but collect only mammon, I have to assume they just don’t care.

By the way, if you don’t care, that’s 100 percent your business. But if that’s the case, I can only assume that you don’t care if your children and grandchildren are able to experience the same freedoms of expression and choice that you did — the same freedoms that allowed you to become a billionaire in bikers’ clothing.

Then there’s the other possible reason: You Don’t Have The Guts.

Maybe you feel that if you choose the wrong side, your career will be punished. Maybe you think that your name will go on some list, or that your taxes will be audited, or a permit to perform refused. You might be thinking, what if my name is slandered on Fox (or MSNBC), what if my fan base turns against me? What if my guitarist (who vehemently supports the “other” side) gets mad at me, what if his wife calls my wife and makes trouble?

Well, if this is the case, Mr. Rock Star, I can only come to the conclusion that you are gutless, greedy, or you don’t care. That’s fine, that’s your business. Just stop pretending you do care. Stop singing those songs of empathy or revolution, those songs that defend the disenfranchised and ring with the spirit of ’68. Instead, just sing “Mustang Sally” and leave out all the other stuff on the setlist that makes it seem like you care more than you do.

You no longer have the moral right to sing those, “Oh it’s so hard to be a working man, and will I ever get out of this place,” type songs.

Apparently, you did get out of that place, but you clearly do not give a flying flipped pancake about anyone who didn’t.

If you did, you would, at the very least, cut those ticket prices and play a benefit for a candidate in whom you believe. Assuming you do believe in something.

Sincerely,
Tim Sommer