Among all the arts, music’s meaning is the most elusive. The fact that it lacks the power of unambiguous signification is both its greatest advantage and its greatest curse. This paradox explains, for example, how the unparalleled erudition, flamboyance, and pathos of Bach’s Goldberg Variations could be transformed into a cinematic symbol of calculating mass murder in the form of Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s film Silence of the Lambs. In the 19th century instrumental music became the highest form of expression precisely because, lacking words, the meaning of musical sound could not be fixed and was therefore thought capable of conjuring eternal truths. One could hear in a piece what one wanted to hear: from specific images of blonde heroes and buxom heroines to tableaux as sublime as the architecture of heaven.
But even for vocal music with a clearly conceived and delivered text, the meaning of a work can be fully mangled its abuser. When Wilhelm Furtwängler led a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday in 1942, the joyful utopian vision that erupts in the symphony’s finale with the entry of the voices had been fully disfigured long before the performance is over and Fürtwängler sealed the crime with a handshake with the Führer.
When a composer lets his or her music out into the world he relinquishes control over how it will be interpreted by those who enjoy and exploit it for purposes ranging from the humanitarian to the demonic.
Given music’s malleability, recent reports that Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan is a devotee of the rock band Rage Against the Machine should surprise no one. That Ryan can turn a selectively deaf ear to some of the band’s politically radical lyrics and to its penchant for obscenity—as in the chanting repetitions of “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” at the close of their signature tune from the early 1990s “Killing in the Name”—means that, like others, he is skilled at hearing what he wants to hear. Ryan’s gifts for ignoring angry words directed at the establishment he represents means only that his listening practice hardly deviates from the norm.
Such is the general haughtiness of most of pop culture princes that it was also unsurprising that the band’s guitarist Tony Morello rounded on Ryan in Rolling Stone, claiming that the Rage ethos is diametrically opposed to that of Romney and his running mate: “Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”
Morello acknowledges that Ryan’s affection for his band’s music can be explained by the fact that the politician has plenty of rage in him, but this anger is, in Morello’s view, wrongly directed at victims (women; immigrants; the poor) rather than the victimizers (Ryan himself and his Republican cronies).
Ryan’s enthusiasm for the band’s harmonic rants and his ability to ignore those words inimical to his own political vision shows how seductive even the most brutal of musical sound can be: love is nowhere more blind than in the realm of music. Unmasked as a Rage fan, the ear-budded Ryan may now appear foolish to many for patrolling the Capitol energized by Rage for his selective assault on government spending. But even if Morello feels justified in criticizing his most prominent fan’s taste for his creative efforts he cannot control what was purchased fairly on the open-market, especially when these raging riffs seem like the perfect aural stimulant for Ryan’s brand of mayhem.
Ryan’s musical liberty does not extend to his public appearances. The composer of another anger song, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, has demanded that Ryan desist from playing the band’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore” at his rallies. Ryan’s people promptly agreed, quipping that “We’re not Gonna Play it Anymore.” As usual these days, Snider cites ideological differences: “”There is almost nothing he stands for that I agree with” This comes in the aftermath of other artists—the Obama-ite K’Naan and the Silversun Pickups—having pulled the plug on Romney’s campaign playlist.
Long gone are the days of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” and “Keeping Cool with Coolidge”—songs written for and used by individual campaigns. Will.i.am’s maudlin “Yes I Can” of 2008 marked a wan revival of the practice. Otherwise politicians, especially Republicans, help themselves to pop’s treasures in hopes of making themselves appear young and energetic. These geezers have no qualms about plundering the work of a musician’s whose own views are dissonant with their own. The most egregious example of this was not Reagan’s co-option of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” in 1984, but his vice-president and successor in the Oval Office, George H. Bush’s use of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” a song that ends: “One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple / By the Relief Office I saw my people — / As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if / This land was made for you and me …” Bush’s team always faded out before Woody could hit that dark note, one so telling about the true colors of the Reagan-Bush era and beyond.
As for Springsteen, he merely complained—again in Rolling Stone—about Reagan’s use of his song, rather than threatening legal action as so many did against the hapless would-be hipster John McCain last time around. In that campaign Jackson Browne settled out of court with the GOP for waylaying his song “Running on Empty.”
One can understand such grumpiness, for it is true that acquiescence to a politician’s use of a song can be fatal to a rocker’s rep. The memory of the Clinton-Gore foursome—Bill, Hillary, Al, and Tipper—dancing to Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” in Little Rock on election night 1992 still causes millions of Americans to wake up in cold sweat at night when that frightful image haunts them.
Nonetheless, Morello must accept the fact that his provocative musical progeny has left the hearth and home and is out in the world consorting with the most unlikely of friends—even rabid Republicans. Would Morello and Rage Against the Machine be happier if Ryan were known to hustle into the House of Representatives listening to Beethoven’s Ninth? Let Ryan have his rage and enjoy it. Maybe it will eat him up.