Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
A few weeks ago, I received an incredible piece of hate mail. It was in response to a column I’d written back in November about the election and why it was probably a good idea to vote for Obama because Ted Nugent and Dave Mustaine are so blatantly bat-shit crazy.
Here’s the letter, which I’ve reproduced below without any editing or grammatical revisions:
I just wandered into your blog and read your stupid musicians article interestingly you did NOT mention all of the stupid remarks by socialist musicians, I wonder why? Could it be that as a so called writer you are ill-suited and incapable of unbiased critical analysis of ALL stupid musicians remarks? Your Agenda is clear and poignant, may god strike me down if I ever became like YOU! One day you will see more of my work and when you have become the speck in a roosters terd my work will live in infamy! My wish to you is to enjoy the view of your colon.
My brain just about exploded with joy.
So many questions spring to mind. Why was “Agenda” capitalized but not “god”? Why would I be enjoying a view of my own colon? (Was he suggesting that the shame of never producing work that’d live in infamy would cause me to eat my own eyeballs, which would in turn provide me with a guided tour of my own digestive system?) And most troubling, who were these socialist musicians that I somehow failed to mock?
I immediately responded:
Thank you for the letter. Although on most counts we may have to agree to disagree, you are correct that I didn’t mention any stupid remarks by socialist musicians. This is mostly because I am unaware of any socialist musicians. Would you be kind enough to point me in the Right direction? Just a few names would suffice. Who do you consider a socialist musician?
Personally, I thought it was a gift. I was giving him an opportunity to create his own McCarthy list. Isn’t that what every radical conservative dreams of? “Tell me who’s wronged you and your values? Who hates America?” But he never responded. Not a peep. I was disappointed. Not because I wanted to become email pen pals with a crazy person, but because, for all my snarkiness, I was legitimately curious. Is there such a thing as socialist musicians? I always assumed that when somebody called a person they disagreed with a socialist, it was like when I called conservatives “Nazis.” Obviously they’re not Nazis. It’s hyperbole. I’m not seriously suggesting they’re fascist xenophobes who want to send their enemies to death camps and are failed artists/closeted homosexuals with rage issues who blame the rest of the world for their personal failures.
I mean … mostly I don’t believe that.
I made a political audit of my music collection, trying to identify the artists who might’ve been whispering socialist messages into my earbuds without me realizing it. Rage Against the Machine, everybody knows they’re huge commies. And MC5 I’m pretty sure were into Maoism, but I’ve never paid enough attention to their lyrics to know for sure. R.E.M. and Pearl Jam were and are pro-Noam Chomsky, but I don’t know if that’s enough to make you a socialist. Billy Bragg, he’s definitely a socialist. Ditto Pete Seeger. Steve Earle is so socialist he practically wants a percentage of your paycheck.
Was this the best that socialism had to offer? Surely I had to be missing a few names. Since my pen pal refused to write back, I tried contacting other socialist-identifying watchdogs. I sent imploring emails to Vision To America, a division of Christian Worldview Communications (whose website featured the recent headline “Obama Crushing Media as the Soviet Union Did”), and Gulag Bound, a blog devoted to “expos(ing) the Marxist, fascist, and globalist ideologies and ideologues that would destroy the authentic, constitutional America of its Sovereign Citizens.” All I asked for was a short enemies list of the most dangerous, lie-spewing, socialist pop artists of the new millennium. None of them responded.
Since I had no luck starting a dialogue with the people who hate socialists, I went for the next best thing. An actual socialist.
I called Mimi Soltysik, the Vice-Chair of the Socialist Party USA and the State Chair for the Socialist Party of California. Also, did I mention that his name is Mimi Soltysik? Mimi Soltysik! It sounds like a Russian spy character that Severn Darden would’ve played in the ’60s. Soltysik said exactly what you’d think a socialist would say about right-wing nutjobs throwing around words like socialist. “The two party system and corporate America has such a strong stranglehold over the media that it’s largely Democrats and Republicans who are framing this conversation about socialists and socialism. As more socialists get an opportunity to speak for themselves, then I think we might be able to see the tenor change a little bit.”
You read it here first (or second if you watch a lot of Fox News.) The Red Menace is trying to infiltrate the media!
Soltysik was more than happy to name names. He told me exactly where to find the most notorious, unapologetic, freedom-hating, card-carrying socialists working in music today. “Steve Walker is in a punk rock band called Stay Alert,” he said. “He’s a socialist. We also have a guy in Memphis, his name is Bennett Foster and he’s in a band called the Magic Kids. Actually, the National Secretary of the Socialist Party, Greg Pason, works for a club in New York City called ABC No Rio. They put on a lot of punk and indie shows.”
He just laughed. “I wouldn’t describe any of them as socialists.”
Soltysik knows the inner workings of the socialist music cartel because he was once a member. For 15 years, he toured with bands like Pill Shovel and Chach, who were shockingly … not in any way obviously socialist. Having never heard of either band before, I did some online fact-checking and found a 1999 story about Pill Shovel published in the Pennsylvania paper Reading Eagle. In it, a young Soltysik, already a socialist double agent assigned to infiltrate youth culture (I’m just going to assume), described his band’s aesthetic as “like old Van Halen or something. We’re into partying, having a lot of fun — just craziness.”
I asked Soltysik to explain. Where was the socialist dogma? Why wasn’t he yammering about class warfare and Karl Marx and “Freedom is Slavery” and “Ignorance is Strength” or whatever it is that socialists believe? Where, for the love of everything he stands for, were the Che Guevara t-shirts?
“Being a socialist band doesn’t necessarily mean singing about socialist issues,” he said. “It’s about how they operate as a band. Who walks the walk? Do they practice genuine socialism?” Which, according to Soltysik, meant splitting all profits equally, and making sure that no one member is superior to any other. “It’s just about treating people decently and with respect.”
“What about Bruce Springsteen?” I asked, changing the subject before he could confuse me with more of his socialist rhetoric. “He’s a socialist, right? Doesn’t he only write songs now about how bankers are corrupt?”
“I don’t think so,” Soltysik said. “He’s a rock star who on occasion sings about issues that are worth people’s time. I guess the way things are right now in the political climate, if you have a conscience that means you’re socialist.”
That’s certainly what it means if you listen to Glenn Beck. As far as I know, Beck hasn’t ever explicitly called Springsteen a socialist. But he has accused him of being “anti-America” (ostensibly because “Born in the U.S.A.” didn’t see the bright side of Vietnam) and that’s just a nice way of saying socialist. “It is time to wake up out of our dream state,” Beck said of the Boss. “Wake up out of the propaganda. You know, this is the thing that people who come from the Soviet-bloc or Cuba, they’re all saying, ‘How do you guys not hear this? How do you not see this?’ Well, that’s ’cause we don’t ever expect it.”
I called Boots Riley, the openly socialist frontman for Oakland hip-hop terror group the Coup – they’ve got a new album, Sorry to Bother You, and an upcoming sure-to-be-historic gig in San Francisco on March 2nd — and he agreed with Beck. Not the part about Soviet propaganda being like “Born In the U.S.A.,” which would make even my two year old son wince in its wrongness. The part about Bruce Springsteen maybe being a socialist.
“The idea that the working person should get a bigger piece of the profit that’s created from their labor is classically a socialist idea,” Boots told me. “So yeah, I guess if we’re judging by his songs, there are some socialist ideas in there. And if you want to talk about what is and isn’t socialism, just the idea of the weekend is a radical socialist idea. The eight hour work day, that’s socialist. Pensions are socialist. Minimum wage and health insurance are socialist. Social Security and Medicare, both socialist ideas. When conservatives say things like ‘America is the best place to be,’ they forget that a lot of that has to do with unions.”
Well sure, I think, but that supposes that labor unions are by definition inherently socialist, and I’m not convinced that WHAT THE HELL AM I TALKING ABOUT?
See, this is how socialists get you. One minute you’re asking them a perfectly reasonable question — just explain why Springsteen wants to send god-fearing Christians to the gulags — and they lure you into conversational tangents about the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 and Roosevelt’s New Deal (both of which Riley did), and pretty soon you don’t even remember why you were supposed to be afraid of the E Street Band.
“Is the music industry riddled with socialists?” I asked Riley point blank.
“Damn, I wish that was the case,” he laughed. “That’s what I’m shooting for.”
It’s possible that Riley just has a different definition of socialism than the rest of America, the America that watches and believes Bill O’Reilly? I’d prepared for just such a likelihood. Before my Riley interview, I studied O’Reilly’s educational primer, “Are You a Socialist?” just to make sure I understood exactly what I’d be dealing with. (That’s right, I prepared for Riley with some O’Reilly. It makes a certain phonetic sense, doesn’t it?) A socialist, in O’Reilly’s words, “believes the government has a right to control and/or seize private property and regulate the distribution of goods and services.”
Riley didn’t have much to say about governments seizing property or the redistribution of wealth. At least not when we were talking politics. For him, socialism is about the economic disparity between the ruling class and the working class. (“We all know those that have the wealth and resources exert the most influence over the policies,” he said, “no matter who’s in office.”) But then our conversation veered into the music industry, and how artists are finding creative ways to make a living in an era of file-sharing and record company collapses.
“Record labels don’t like what’s happening,” Riley told me. “They used to be able to say, ‘If we spend X amount of dollars on Y number of music, we’ll get Z amount of profit.’ That was their formula.”
“And that formula is dead,” I agreed.
“It’s completely dead. A label executive actually said to me once, ‘I’m in the business of selling little plastic discs. I don’t care what’s on them, I sell plastic, I don’t sell music. You make people want to buy the plastic. That’s your job.’ But that’s over for them now. You can be an artist with no label and your music gets spread around and you develop a fan base and people pay to come to your shows.”
“The big record labels have become irrelevant,” I said.
“They definitely have,” Riley said.
“You don’t need some greedy governing body trying to make a profit from your efforts.”
“Absolutely not. For somebody like me, people can hear my music that may not be buying it. But that gives me a larger base to pull from to come to my shows.”
“You can get more profits without a record company’s help.”
“Much more,” he agreed. “We have a higher percentage of money spent on our shows than we ever did on the recordings. We don’t need the labels anymore. What are they providing?”
“Nothing. They just regulate the distribution of goods and services.”
“We don’t need that anymore,” Riley said. “The money’s shifting. It’s better for the artist, and not so good for the label.”
So there you go, angry letter writer. You wanted me to expose socialist musicians? I found an openly socialist recording artist who doesn’t think the government (i.e. the music industry) has a right to control and/or seize his property. Which by Bill O’Reilly’s own definition, is what constitutes socialism. I found a socialist that won’t even act like a socialist! That’s some ridiculous commie irony, don’t you think?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go enjoy the view of my own colon.