Rock and Roll and American Power


The United States of America, we are told, must be made “great again.” Missing from the discussion, however, has been a sense of what already makes America great. But, we already know at least part of the answer — America rocks! The soundtrack and ethic of rock and roll has advanced American values and interests at home and abroad. Rock and roll — and the arts broadly speaking — has been a fundamentally important source of American influence in the world. And yet, we are putting this element of American power at risk.

Over the last several years, I have been interviewing American and international rock and roll artists, producers, songwriters, managers, and activists for my recently published book Rockin’ the Free World! How the Rock and Roll Revolution Changed America and the World. Taken together, they explain how rock and roll is more than just a music form. It is an ethic. And it has served to reinforce the best of what America stands for — freedom, equality, human rights, and peace. Artists have advanced progress in these areas via education and non-profit activism. America’s modern troubadours amplify the power of ideas while at the same time connecting people across barriers and borders through their music. As Joan Jett said on her induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015:

Rock and roll is political. It is a meaningful way to express dissent, upset the status quo, stir up revolution, and fight for human rights. Think I’m making it sound more important and serious than it is? “It’s only rock and roll,” right? Rock and roll is an idea, and an ideal…There are Pussy Riots wherever there is political agitation.

Rock and roll has been used to advance freedom. It helped spark change during the Cold War. For instance, early reform movements in Czechoslovakia were inspired by the arrest of members of the Plastic People of the Universe, a Velvet Underground-inspired rock group. This contributed to the “Charter 77” movement, which challenged the Soviet-backed Czech government to respect human rights. In 1988, Bruce Springsteen rocked out in East Berlin. Springsteen told the audience (which clearly knew the words to his songs): “I’m not here for any government. I’ve come to play rock and roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down.” In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, Crosby, Stills and Nash bolted for Berlin where they performed “Chipping Away” at the wall. David Crosby told me:

That was a champion deal — ideas went over the wall. It wasn’t a squadron of tanks, it wasn’t artillery, it wasn’t an army that knocked that wall down. It was ideas going over the wall…and the people, on the other side, seeing how it was on this side. That information knocked that wall down. Information destroyed that wall. That was a triumph. We won that one.

Today, Iranian rocker Rasoo, of the underground band the Muckers, sees Iranian rock and roll as a bridge for his country: “There are people in Iran, who would love that to happen.”

Elsewhere, rockers have been involved in advancing human rights. Amnesty International, for example, arranged concerts for global rights in the 1980s. Jack Healey organized these tours with legendary promoter Bill Graham (himself a holocaust survivor who fled to America). Healey recalls their Chilean concerts:

Don’t forget, when Sting writes, “You Dance Alone,” when he got to sing that song in a stadium where those people were killed. No stadium’s ever been turned back to the people with death and disappearances and torture in it.  That stadium is still used by the Chilean people because Sting re-baptized that place with his music.

Meanwhile, U2 proved key to last-minute support of the Good Friday peace accord referendum in Northern Ireland, while Sinead O’Connor struck an alarm bell — albeit controversially — about the abuse of children in the Catholic Church. Today, Pussy Riot directly challenges Vladimir Putin’s dictatorial rule in Russia.

Some rock and rollers give voice to the sources of conflict — as Irish rocker Damien Dempsey told me:

At the height of the British Empire, when England was the richest country in the world, the people there were hungry, and dirty and poor — the ordinary people of England…So where was all this money going? It wasn’t trickling down, because colonialism favors the few.

Journalist Jonathan Landay described the comfort music can provide during war, performing with Kemo Monteno during the Bosnian war in the 1990s:

At night, when the bombs were raining down from the Bosnian Serb forces on the mountains around Sarajevo, we sat in the basement exchanging songs. I remember when he sang “Sarajevo My Love” everybody was reduced to tears, in this basement.

Of his reporting on the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Landay recalled:

One of the first things they [average Afghans] did was start playing music and getting Pakistani videos and making satellite dishes. They’d bang Coke cans flat and they’d make these satellite receivers. It was forbidden. So that’s a case where a military liberation actually helped liberate people’s ability to listen to music. I don’t know of another case in history where that’s the case.

Paul Rieckhoff, who heads the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), served as a platoon leader in Iraq. He recalls:

I’ll never forget about the time I was at a checkpoint and an Iraqi kid came up and started citing Eminem lyrics. I mean, that was how we knew Saddam was gone — because a 14-year-old kid just spittin’ Eminem lyrics at a checkpoint, that’s a whole new world.

Michael Franti went to Iraq in 2004 to interview U.S. soldiers and local Iraqis. He recalls: “I met so many people who just said: ‘We know about how dark war is, and how it affects people for generations. What we really want is music that helps us to get through each day — and to get through life and to give voice to that pain, that sadness, but also finds a place to celebrate and to laugh and dance and sing, despite all the chaos that we see around.’”

Few artists have impacted thinking about war issues more than Country Joe McDonald — a veteran himself — whose song “Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag” became an anthem for the Vietnam War. McDonald told me:

War songs before that time were patriotic, in other words “my country right or wrong.” Or, they were anti-soldier in that they said, “It’s your fault for blaming war, universal soldier.” My song didn’t say anything about being bad being [a] soldier. It just expressed the opinion of a soldier having to do a job that he or she did not want to do. And it did it in a teenage way, in a sarcastic G.I. way. And it validated what they were feeling — and liberated them in that case. Many people told me that when they were flying into Vietnam in a plane full of soldiers, the whole plane would start singing “Fixing to Die Rag” which really upset the older leadership of the military.

Some critics tell artists to just “shut up and sing” — as some commentators told Bruce Springsteen after he sang John Fogerty’s song “Fortunate Son” at an event to honor veterans on the Washington Mall in November 2014. Of course, the song was actually about elites who avoided service, and not a critique of the military. But Joe McDonald reflects on the song’s author: “John Fogerty was in the military, so he’s entitled.” McDonald adds that this was a “…special, not normal event. It was a special, not normal thing that happened, in that special, not normal event. It was not an everyday occurrence.” For veterans, McDonald concludes, “every day is Veteran’s Day.”

Reflecting on their contemplative song “Goodnight Saigon,” long-time Billy Joel Band drummer Liberty DeVitto says:

I think “Goodnight Saigon” was written more out of — it was written as a tribute to them. But it was also written out of guilt that we didn’t go. Why were we so lucky and why did so many die? And why were they treated the way they were treated when they came home? They were just doing their duty.

Today, many artists participate in music for veterans programs, including helping veterans get instruments through organizations like “Guitars for Vets.” They have also used music as a means to address Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Groups like Kiss have held contests to hire veterans as roadies on national tours while Roger Waters,  the Doobie Brothers, Linkin Park and OAR use their music and tours to advance public information about and support for veterans. Paul Rieckhoff adds of IAVA: “We’ve got, essentially, a music program that involves artists and veterans in local events that helps us connect with people that probably wouldn’t be tuned onto our issues otherwise.”

Among today’s artists, Serj Tankian of the band System of a Down has consistently challenged assumptions behind war while also advancing recognition of the Armenian genocide carried out by Turkey between 1915 and 1917. Tankian has experienced the tension between patriotic speech via art and national security: “It’s very easy to support public opinion, and speak out against injustice when public opinion is on your side,” Tankian told me, adding: “Try doing it when it’s not.” Tankian combines thinking about geopolitics with reframing priorities:

Ultimately, you can call things as they are — be they realpolitik, realist, and whatnot, and in the end, depress everyone to death. But, without telling them, “Look, this is a choice” — that’s very important — giving them the optimism to make that choice and saying that, ”…it doesn’t have to be this way: War is Over!”

Of course, rock and roll did not, for example, end communism. As Thomas Shanker, a leading journalist who covered the end of the Soviet Union reflects:

When the Soviet state collapsed, it collapsed because it collapsed. It was Gorbachev, it was the failed coup, it was the internal economic contradictions — economic failure that did it. But, all these other movements put in the minds of a broad section of the populace, “Is there another way? Can we do it differently?”

How to sustain that creative freedom is now a matter of urgency. Corporate radio makes it harder for artists who challenge assumptions to get heard. High concert ticket prices make it difficult for middle class fans to hear music live, and yet the average musician in America only earns about $34,455 a year. We have lost much of our sustainable “middle class” of artists, who so often give voice to the grassroots level of democracy.

If the United States fails to create a sustainable environment for artistic careers, the impact of rock and roll — and all of our art that advances American values — could be put at risk. David Wish, who heads Little Kids Rock — a program providing curriculum and instruments using rock and roll in under-resourced public schools around the United States — says:

With the shifting world order, the United States still has what I would say is almost uncontested primacy in the field of culture and innovation…China is trying to get their minds around, “Why do they [the Americans] get all the good ideas?” Well, a lot of it has to do with the culture and — what is the soundtrack of planet Earth right now? If there were a dominant soundtrack — it’s still American popular music, uncontested.

And yet, our ethos now appears to seek to cut the very foundations of this vital aspect of American innovation, creativity, and human capital — including the Trump Administration’s apparent plan to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. This is coming despite the fact that federal arts spending totals less than the costs of two long-range bombers. Meanwhile, a report from the University of Chicago tells us that in recent decades (1982-2008), the percentage of students receiving any arts education in public schools fell from 65 to 50 percent. The number of African American children who received any exposure to arts education fell from 51 percent to 26 percent and for Hispanics from 47 percent to 28 percent. These trends are currently at risk of becoming even worse, eroding what has made America great.

As America debates how it will be “great again,” it is worth recalling it has been the nation’s core values and creativity that have helped make it exceptional and our artists have been crucial to advancing these aspects of American power. There are things we each can do to sustain the rock and roll revolution at home and abroad. For example, paying for music to ensure fair compensation relative to new streaming technology. This can be done by Congress advancing legislation that would guarantee fair compensation for recording artists, songwriters and performers. Average listeners too need to invest in a sustainable music ecosystem — paying for subscription services and finding other ways to support artist compensation. As a nation, we will diminish our power and undermine our role in the world if we fail to support artists who are at the foundation of our creativity and hold a mirror to society. As Graham Nash said to me:

I have children, I have grandchildren. I’ve got to remain positive. I’ve got to think that I can help make the world a better place for myself and my family and my friends. Everything starts inside doesn’t it? How far can the ripples go once you throw that stone into the pool?


Sean Kay is Robson Professor of Politics and Government, and Director of International Studies, at Ohio Wesleyan University. The interview quotes appear in his new book Rockin’ the Free World! How the Rock & Roll Revolution Changed America and the World (2017).

Image: CC, adapted