Thursday, August 26, 2010

The song goes on

One of my favorite songs of 2007 was Mary Chapin Carpenter's "On With The Song." It was the first song in the Best of 2007 year-end list and together with Debbie Harry's "Two Times Blue" was probably the co-song of the year for me that year. "On With The Song" is an example of something that rarely works - an angry political rant wrapped up in melody and lyrics. However, just because it rarely works doesn't mean that it hasn't been tried time and again, usually with embarrassing results. But as I said in 2007, leave it to Chapin to find just the right way to combine her anger at the Bush administration with her ace songwriting skills and a killer country-pop hook.

The song was written in response to the Dixie Chicks debacle in which Natalie Maines said at a London concert how they were "embarrassed that the President of the United States was from Texas." This seemingly off-hand statement infuriated many of their fans and country radio as a whole. I always applauded Maines' courage but was left scratching my head by it. Had she stroked out and momentarily forgotten who their main demographic was? The response was predictable. The Chicks were banned from country radio, their CDs piled up in parking lots and run over by payloaders in much the same way that disco records were burned at the end of the 70s. All this and the resulting fallout is documented in the highly recommended documentary Shut Up & Sing.

In "On With The Song" Chapin sings about all the people this song ISN'T for. It's not for people who blindly follow jingoistic bumper stickers telling you to "love it of leave it" and "you better love Jesus" and "get out of the way of the Red, White & Blue." It's not for the ones who gladly swallow everything their leader would have them know. It's not for the ones with their radio signals calling for bonfires and boycotts. In amongst all this, she manages to distill the frustration many of us felt during the Bush years, when it felt almost dangerous to espouse liberal ideas for fear of being called unpatriotic or a traitor to the country. It was a time when I watched with stunning disbelief as we went to war in two countries, cut taxes for the most wealthy of Americans and an American city was left to drown. Fortunately for us, this song was not just for the Dixie Chicks. It was for us as well - "this is for the ones who stand their ground when the lines in the sand get deeper/And the whole world seems to be upside down/And the shots being taken get cheaper."

I always wondered how this song would play in the post-Bush years. When Barack Obama was elected on a wave of progressive hope in 2008, I wasn't sure it would resonate like it did in 2007 when I first heard it. I felt that it might feel a little anachronistic and dated now that it seemed like we were heading into a time when it was no longer scary to be a liberal.

Boy, was I wrong.

I heard this song while sitting in flood traffic here in Ames a couple weeks back. Listening to it, I was reminded that, if anything, this song is even more relevant now than it was when it was released. We're living in a time when FOX News and conservative ideology attempts to drive the national conversation away from real issues and toward inflammatory nontroversies. Birthers, death panels, Ground Zero mosques - make no mistake, all these things divert attention from the real issues. They are dressed up in sexy, scary language so as to dominate the news cycle for weeks. The mainstream media seems to have consumed the Kool-Aid as well. They would have you believe that Obama is a left-wing extremist. All you need do is ask people who really ARE on the left-wing fringe and they'll tell you he's nowhere near lefty enough. Even someone like me who identifies as liberal but not wildly so is at times infuriated with his willingness to compromise his principles. Even with a Democratic president, it's a scary time to be a liberal. Again.

As long as the Sarah Palins, Newt Gingrichs and the Tea Party have control of the airwaves, this song will never lose its relevance. Why is it not surprising to me that Carpenter would write an angry political song that transcends its own time period?

And even though it's still not easy being a liberal, I take comfort in the final lyrics of the song - they apply to so many situations in life.

This isn't for you and you know who you are
So just do what you want 'cuz I know that you can

But I gotta be true to myself and to you

So on with the song, I don't give a damn.

She's that good, folks.


John said...

Isn't it amazing how you gravitate toward a singer, and then later in their career they enforce the attraction with something like this?

Dan said...

No kidding! If she had turned out to be some right-wing crazy, I would have had a terrible time reconciling my love of her music with how much I would have hated her politics!

But seriously, she probably doesn't have a Republican bone in her body.