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Danny Goldberg’s new Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit has a great premise: that the decline in political power of the American “left” stems from its increasing alienation from the popular cultures that define the worlds of millions of young Americans. It’s an intriguing idea, worth exploring. Unfortunately, it’s presented like the sort of marketing decision Goldberg, a long-time recording industry executive, might make. Instead of tacking a hit record onto his memoirs, Miramax Books seems to have decided it needed a catchier theme and a new opening chapter.
Goldberg managed acts from Led Zeppelin to Nirvana, going on to help run seemingly every big L.A. corporate music division, about one a year, through the merger-happy ’90s, before starting his own independent label. That history serves here as a name-dropping background to Goldberg’s free speech activism (especially with the ACLU) and fundraising for Democratic candidates. The ultimate “Hollywood liberal” political memoir turns out to be a semi-monotonous 30-year narrative of electoral cycles and music censorship battles, and the meetings that love them. Zzzz.
It’s hard to judge one person’s account of such now-obscure brouhahas. (Remember 2 Live Crew?) Meanwhile, vast chunks are missing from Goldberg’s discussion of his subtitled topic. Are Democrats out of touch? His argument rests almost entirely on adult condemnation of youth culture–stop the presses!–and a stunningly unhip 2000 campaign featuring Tipper Gore and Joe “I’m more religious than you” Lieberman.
But do Democratic candidates now hate kids, or are moralistic adults bigger donors and more frequent voters? This isn’t new–Southern Dixiecrats, a major Democratic Party bloc, were among Elvis’ biggest critics, and from Spiro Agnew to Dan Quayle to Robert Dole to Bill Bennett and John Ashcroft, it’s easy to find more recent Republican counterparts.
Older societal leaders are forever clueless to the ways of the young. Including, apparently, Goldberg, who fails to tell us what “teen spirit” is, how it could be regained, or how it might be applied in politics. Youth, here, don’t have energy or ideas–only votes and disposable income. Goldberg never once quotes or cites an actual young person; in his world, unit sales and hip corporate executives, rather than politicians, speak for the young. The young themselves still don’t speak.
If they did, perhaps they’d mention other factors–like the perceived irrelevance of politicians or futility of trying to influence them. Or they’d discuss–unlike Goldberg–non-electoral, youth-led phenomena like the anti-globalization and sweatshop movements, which have been ignored by Democrats. Goldberg does discuss Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential bid, but ignores the reasons why so many 18-to-24-year-old voters found the equally wooden Nader (who, Goldberg reports, had no idea in 2000 who Austin Powers was) more compelling than Gore. (Might the young ‘uns be responding to–gasp!–the Democrats’ anemic policies? Or Nader’s accomplishments?) Goldberg can’t even tell us whether Republicans are drawing youth votes from the Democrats (what about Reagan?), or whether kids simply aren’t voting at all. And in discussing the elite left’s antipathy for rap and hip-hop, the wealthy, white Goldberg somehow forgets race and class.
Far more people are drawn to a good time than to a position paper–or to a music executive’s free speech memoir. I’ll take Emma Goldman’s revolution any day. “The left”–the traditional American voice of the disenfranchised, including youth–should absolutely sneer less at pop culture, and celebrate it more. A book on the topic would be a great idea.
MARIA TOMCHICK is co-editor and contributing writer
for Eat The State!, a biweekly anti-authoritarian newspaper of political opinion, research and humor, based in Seattle, Washington. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org