Dem Blues

The left, turning right, was plain wrong to attack pop culture

You've been warned: This is a column about politics wherein a popular-culture critic (dunno what that is either, but says so on my tax returns) interviews a former rock journalist-turned-publicist-turned-band-manager-turned-record-label-executive about how the Democratic Party alienated everyone under the age of death. You may take this with a grain of salt; you may take it with an entire salt lick. Wouldn't blame you a bit, as all I know about politics could fit inside the head of the Green Lantern action figure sitting on my desk, and the record-label exec in question didsign Jewel to a major-label deal, which should make you immediately suspicious of anything he has to say, think, write or, for that matter, do.

All that said, Danny Goldberg is probably the perfect guy to talk Democratic politics with when all you know about Democratic politics is that Joe Lieberman's going to get his salami handed to him on a seder plate come Election Day 2004. The 52-year-old Goldberg is not only the quintessential liberal--supports higher taxes to fund national health care and better pay for teachers, has been an officer in the American Civil Liberties Union since the mid-1980s, believes labor unions should be stronger--but he's also a longtime rock-and-roll pusher man. He's worked with Led Zeppelin (as publicist and head of Swan Song, the band's label), Nirvana and Sonic Youth (as manager, when he owned Gold Mountain), Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams and R.E.M. (as the head of one of several labels for whom he's worked, including Warner Bros., Mercury and Atlantic) and now Warren Zevon and Steve Earle (as owner of his own label, Artemis Records).

Ever since Robert Plant was a golden god, Goldberg has been selling culture to kids. He has been witness to rock's occasional revolutions and a party to its intermittent downward slides (he signed Hootie and the Blowfish); he helped organize the No Nukes concert in 1980 and was on the front line of the Culture Wars long before Tipper Gore ever fired a shot. And from his vantage point, the war's going badly for his side: Used to be it was only right-wingers who hated what he was selling. Now you can't find a Democratic candidate, outside of maybe Al Sharpton, who'll own up to owning music you can move to.

As Goldberg insists in his book Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit, which arrives in stores in two weeks, Democrats can't get kids to vote anymore because they've spent the last decade, if not longer, attacking young voters and those coming of political age--especially Democrat front-runner Lieberman. It was Lieberman who, along with Hillary Clinton, introduced the Media Marketing Accountability Act of 2001, which wanted the Federal Trade Commission to go after record companies selling rock and rap records to kids under 17. Lieberman insisted, hey, he just wanted to put "ratings" on CD covers; what he really wanted was to make it a criminal act to sell Eminem and "the vile, hateful and nihilistic" Marilyn Manson to kids. Lieberman--don't kid yourself, he's Bill Bennett in a yarmulke.

As Goldberg puts it, the Democrats started alienating their core constituency around the time they began sounding like Republicans, especially when it came to attacking the entertainment industry. The Republicans have always hated rock and rock culture; Spiro Agnew said, during his vice presidency, that rock music is "threatening to destroy our national strength," while Richard Nixon tried to have that well-known "deviant" John Lennon deported. But when Tipper Gore started listening to "Darling Nikki" on the Purple Rainsoundtrack in 1984 and couldn't believe what she was hearing--apparently, no one masturbates at the Gore household--the Democrats started dancing, very awkwardly, to the right.

"What Tipper Gore started in the mid-'80s never went away," Goldberg says from the Artemis offices in Los Angeles. "Prior to that, criticism of the culture was always coming from the right, and...I think that's completely rational, because I do think the pop culture feeds progressive politics a lot more than the opposite. Nothing is 100 percent, but in aggregate I think the pop culture tends to the progressive because I think it tends toward youth, it tends toward inclusion of minorities, it tends toward rebellion against authority, which is usually a positive, progressive thing, and the history is pretty clear on that. And, for whatever reason, starting in the mid-'80s, Tipper Gore was not an anomaly. She was the first well-known person representing a philosophy that never went away and continues to be a very big part of the Democratic Party, to the point that the leading contender for president now, Joe Lieberman, is obsessed with his attacks on pop culture."

Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center served two functions: to get warning stickers put on CD covers and to help the Democrats ostracize that mythical 18- to 35-year-old with one foot in the door and the other one in the gutter. The party's leaders have so aligned themselves with Republicans who would demonize the entertainment industry it's hard to tell the two apart; it's Lieberman, after all, who wants to fine the entertainment industry for being too smutty and violent. (Of Lieberman, Jon Stewart recently said on The Daily Show, he's "the only candidate for people who want to vote for Bush but don't think he's Jewish enough.")

Goldberg insists that "the evidence is very clear that it's political suicide for the left to turn on pop culture as part of their politics," but that hasn't stopped Democrats from demonizing pop culture--and from losing ground to Republicans, who at least have as their front man a guy who takes pictures with Bono and goofs around with Ozzy Osbourne at political functions and doesn't look like the creepy uncle no one talks to at family reunions.

There's no arguing the decline in young voters: Al Gore beat George W. Bush by a mere 2 percentage points among that age group, a huge drop from Bill Clinton's 19-point margin over Bob Dole in 1996 and his 11-point win over George I in 1992. And according to several surveys and studies, the under-30 voter isn't even going to the polls anymore; since 1972, their turnout rate has fallen by more than 16 percent. At this rate, if anyone under 30 votes in 2004, it'll be because he's related to George W. Bush or is trying to score with one of his daughters.

Goldberg certainly has good timing: The bashing of Democrats, and the party's lack of a viable candidate in 2004, has become an honest-to-God trend--the stuff of magazine cover stories. Joe Klein in Timerecently suggested several ways in which the Democrats could rejuvenate the party; chief among them was "lose the frown." In the newest issue of GQ, Jeff Greenfield suggests that Democrats are getting their asses kicked by Bush and the Republicans because the party's had no real platform to stand on since, oh, 1968 or thereabouts--since LBJ's Great Society. Worse, Bill Clinton divided the party, because who wanted to stand behind that guy when someone else was kneeling in front of him? He had no legacy, so we're stuck with the 23 prospective candidates who spend every other weekend debating themselves hoarse in front of the four people tuned to C-SPAN. And just how is anyone expected to get energized about politics when you're forced to choose between the moribund (Lieberman, colder than a corpse), the nutty (the Reverend Al Sharpton, who even Def Jam founder-turned-activist Russell Simmons deems "unelectable") and the Steve Forbes-creepy (Howard Dean, who has The Joker's smile)?

You wonder how long it will take for a real rock-and-roll candidate to emerge--someone who likes Elvis Costello and doesn't pretend he's Elvis Presley. Who not only inhaled, but maybe injected during rare moments of experimentation. Who grew up idolizing Reggie Jackson, Kurtis Blow, Curtis Mayfield, Dr. J. Who barely remembers the moon landing, Watergate, Vietnam, long lines at the gas pump and sex without condoms. Who wasn't alive when Kennedy was assassinated. Who wears blue jeans without pleats. Who isn't gray and pale. Who doesn't smell like a grandmother's house. Who snuck into Saturday Night Fever, memorized Animal House and laughed at South Parkand Jackass. Who loves David Lee Roth and hates Sammy Hagar. Who thinks they should have canceled Saturday Night Liveafter Eddie Murphy left. Who doesn't like to wear a tie. Who owns one suit that's dragged out of the closet only for special occasions. Who drinks and doesn't feel the need to apologize for it. Who smokes "socially." Whose dad wasn't in the CIA.

In the end, Goldberg and other liberals will tell you, the left lost its teen spirit because allpoliticians are old, and old people mistrust young people. Politicians--both the "liberal snobs and cultural conservatives," as Goldberg breaks it down--think anything that has to do with sex is filthy, anything addressing race is politically incorrect, anything containing violent imagery is dangerous. They look at pop culture without irony, without humor, without compassion, without common sense. They would prefer to take everything out of context--and there is nothing so funny as an old white man reciting hip-hop or heavy metal lyrics to a Congressional committee--and deem it treacherous, and then damn those who would purchase it.

What I want out of a politician is pretty simple: someone who doesn't hateme, who doesn't think my music's evil, my movies are dirty, my TV's violent. In other words, someone who doesn't have to crawl over my popular culture's dead body to get someone else's vote. I suggest to Goldberg that what my generation really needs is an electrifying, charismatic, youthful candidate--a rock star, in other words, a political Kurt Cobain.

"I don't think that's required at all," he says, in a tone that suggests he strenuously disagrees. "I think a politician who can galvanize an audience the way John McCain did on the left would be a hell of an improvement. I mean, I don't think you can expect politicians to have the charisma of rock stars, and they don't need to, but they certainly need to have as much charisma and as much of a sense of connection to youth as the people they run against. Ronald Reagan had it, Clinton had it in '92, I think Jesse Ventura had it when he ran, even Ross Perot and Nader had flashes of it at certain times in the life of their campaigns. I wouldn't expect any politician to be able to do what Kurt did, and I don't think Kurt ever wanted to be a politician, but you need at least enough connective tissue to speak to that audience about what you talk to them about. And the people on the right have just done a better job."

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