November 16, 2003 by AK
Rock ‘n’ Roll by Diana West has a quote from the ambassador of Hungary to the US:
When we were listening to the radio, we were part of the Free World, if only for a few moments, whether the system we lived under liked it or not.
The author, clearly a cultural conservative, gapes in disbelief and concludes:
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon or Janis Joplin — a few of Mr. Simonyi’s old faves — relishing a supposed role in helping the military-industrial-complex, assorted capitalist pigs and the rest of “Amerika” win one for the Gipper.
Not that they did, really. While rock music has been a strangely alluring symbol of Western culture, its narcissistic and destructive hedonism was never enough to destroy communism. That took democratic ideals and will — simple, enduring and universal.
I’m a cultural conservative myself to a reasonable degree, but this time, I’m afraid the author just doesn’t get it. It wasn’t by chance that Vaclav Havel, shortly after being elected President, invited Mick Jagger to his residence, and continues to keep in touch with the aging rocker. What those stars relished is not important now; what they accomplished is.
They did what Reagan could have never done. For all his anti-Communist policies, Reagan had no chance at winning the hearts of Eastern Europeans, especially Russians. First of all, he couldn’t speak to them directly, while pop records did make it to the other side of the curtain. Second, Reagan looked like a real hawk; his appearance matched the image made up by the Soviet propaganda — a bloodthirsty imperialist; he seemed to exude authoritarian power. On the contrary, much of the rock music was about freedom as distrust of authority and rebellion. Janis Joplin, I believe, had rebellion in her veins, much in the old Texan spirit. Moreover, the fact that US and British rock bands could not only openly play their anti-establishment songs but were immensely popular, made those countries more attractive to young Russians than all Reagan’s speeches. Those bands were living proof the West equaled the free world. While cultural and political conflicts (especially Vietnam and the hippie movement) seemed to be rending apart American society, they also bore witness that the country was living a full life, while the Soviet Union was stagnating.
That rock ‘n’ roll charmed so many educated, well-read young people in Eastern Europe is a mighty argument for its artistic value. Moreover, the The Beatles, Janice Joplin, Creedence C.R., Pink Floyd did not, as a rule, produce songs full of “narcissistic and destructive hedonism”. Even early rock ‘n’ roll — stuff like Long Tall Sally, Sweet Little Sixteen, or I’ve Got a Woman — is full of raw, but basically healthy sex energy.
(To be continued)
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