Ted Nugent has recently been under fire, no joke intended, for making racially charged remarks about President Barack Obama – the term “subhuman mongrel” was spoken, which is difficult not to interpret as anything but sheer white bigotry. But aside from that minor affair of a mid-level celebrity’s inflammatory soundbite is the deeper peculiarity of politically conservative rock musicians, and rock music being used for conservative causes.
Nugent has some no-shit music in his repertoire: “Free For All,” “Cat Scratch Fever,” “Just What the Doctor Ordered,” the libertarian “Stormtroopin’,” and the feminist anthem “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.” I saw Nugent in concert when he was a member of the Damn Yankees supergroup – he shot a cardboard cutout of Saddam Hussein with a bow and arrow. But while the Motor City Madman is an entertaining showman, a sincere advocate of drug- and alcohol-free living, and a fine electric guitarist, as a right-wing pundit he’s an embarrassment. You know American conservatism is in trouble when it recruits an aging, second-tier, three-quarters-deafened rock star as a spokesman.
For most of its history, rock ‘n’ roll was generally identified with the political left. The Founding Fathers, including Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, seemed to imply a risky hybridizing of black and white musical styles – who knew where that might end? Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and other classic rockers often sounded unmistakably in favor of sex, drugs, peace, and social change (“Blowin’ In the Wind,” “Imagine,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Ohio,” “Everyday People,” etc., etc.), while punk acts like the Clash espoused defiantly socialist ideals. Today Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and numerous other old and new stars have been heard playing for progressive causes or campaigning for liberal candidates.
But rock has become so influential that even right-wingers have claimed the music for themselves. Ted Nugent is only the most audible rock musician to broadcast the Fox News philosophy; Gene Simmons of Kiss has done shows for US servicemen, Rush Limbaugh has used the Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone” as a theme for his radio show, and post-9/11, even Neil Young and Paul McCartney sang vaguely martial ditties like Young’s “Let’s Roll” and Macca’s “Freedom.” Skinhead and neo-Nazi factions have come up with their own punkish songs about white power and keeping immigrants out. In general-interest threads on the official Led Zeppelin online forum, I’ve been surprised to read vehement attacks on gun control, big government, and Obamacare; apparently the posters see no contradiction between their Tea Party rhetoric and their love of English Satan-worshipping, groupie-defiling drug addicts.
The contradiction is there, though. The roots of rock ‘n’ roll are the songs of poor and disenfranchised people – minorities, misfits, and adolescents – expressing their psycho-sexual lawlessness. Right-wing fans may protest otherwise, but long-haired teenage boogie music falls pretty firmly in the left-of-center camp, and for all his racial demagoguery, Ted Nugent’s guitar-based arena rock is basically an amplified version of African-American blues – any slurs he levels at Obama amount to the pot calling the kettle black. The irony is that during the Cold War, young people in Iron Curtain countries took comfort from the liberation implied by western rock, and what sounded subversive to US Republicans was equally subversive to Soviet Communists, except for the opposite reasons.
Many years back I read a Nation article about rock appropriated by the right, and a representative of Depeche Mode (of all people) summed it up: “We don’t share the politics, but music’s for everybody.” I’m stretching it a bit here, but the conservative conceits of Nugent, Simmons, et al are an inverted version of how the late Pete Seeger was heard by his base. During his life and after his recent death, a few listeners complained that the populist Seeger was actually a son of privilege who romanticized Soviet-style collectivism, and that his rendition of “Little Boxes” was a smug condemnation of suburban conformity that got the audience singing along in harmony, i.e. conforming. Seeger was a better man than (and a very different musician from) Nugent, but the followers of both artists projected a political piety on them which wasn’t always warranted by their work. Pete Seeger was humble enough not to believe his own reputation. Ted Nugent isn’t.