It’s getting to the stage where there practically isn’t a heartland rocker left whose songs haven’t been egregiously misused for conservative political ends. In America, it’s Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Neil Young. Now, in Australia, it’s Jimmy Barnes, who has been forced to distance himself from anti-immigration groups Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front, after Cold Chisel’s classic Khe Sanh was used in rallies over the weekend.
Don’t they know Barnes’ wife was born in Thailand? Did they never listen to Don Walker’s superb lyrics, which would have made it plain that Khe Sanh – about a burned-out Vietnam veteran – was not exactly a call to arms for an ethnically pure Australia?
Of course not, but let’s face it, we aren’t exactly dealing with Mensa candidates here.
“The aussie spirit is what you stood for in so many” (sic), bemoaned the Australian Defence League in reply to Barnes. “You have just showed the world and every Australian that grew up loving your music that you are nothing but a political correct fold at your knees idiot.” (sic, sic, sic.)
In America, the Republican Party has made a pastime of co-opting the songs of its heartland rockers. Only a few weeks ago, Donald Trump tried to get away with using Neil Young’s Rockin’ In The Free World. Trump’s no Mensa candidate either, but as he likes to remind everybody on a regular basis, he’s really, really rich.
Back in 2000, Petty’s song I Won’t Back Down was used by George W Bush. Bush was the one to back down after the inevitable cease-and-desist, but not before his lawyers claimed that merely playing the song didn’t actually amount to any kind of endorsement – either by Petty of Bush, or vice versa.
Petty is a serial victim of this sort of thing: in 2011, Michele Bachmann used American Girl, which lasted one whole day on the hustings. Springsteen’s Born In The USA, about another Vietnam veteran suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, is surely the most misunderstood and misappropriated song of all time.
One suspects that the Republican Party is fully aware that it will never be granted the necessary permissions by liberals like Springsteen and Petty, and simply doesn’t care. Once a candidate has been introduced to a rabid flag-waving crowd to the strains of an American anthem, the point has been made, as much as it’s been missed.
As the LA Weekly puts it, the problem with being a conservative and co-opting rock and roll is being really, really square at heart, as well as having terrible taste in music. If only the late Johnny Ramone, an infamous punk conservative, had written some songs! Too bad that all da bruddas’ best tunes, including the brilliant Reagan-baiting Bonzo Goes To Bitburg, were written by Joey and Dee Dee.
The reason the likes of Springsteen, Petty, Young and Barnes find themselves vulnerable to being hijacked by right-wingers is because these heartland rockers all play no-frills music with big choruses that amplify the concerns of small-town, blue-collar citizens. All while wearing denim.
And it’s exactly those voters, far more than the music, that conservatives are really interested in co-opting. In the USA, it was the so-called Reagan Democrats. In Australia, it was former prime minister John Howard’s Battlers, those all-important aspirational voters of the largely white working class, who live on the fringes of our capital cities and in our regional centres.
These are the working-class men and women who feel they’ve been left behind: their jobs downsized, done better by robots or simply shipped offshore; veterans left to suffer after returning home; and facing an uncertain future after a lifetime of hard labour. As Jimmy Barnes sings in Khe Sahn: “I’ve travelled round the world from year to year. And each one found me aimless, one more year the worse for wear.”
The trick has been to convince these voters that what they really should be angry about are the trendy concerns of an inner-city elite – and anyone who could be a convenient scapegoat for their problems. Hence the unending culture war that – like all phoney wars – works best when it instils fear and loathing.
In Australia, Muslims and asylum seekers are only the easiest targets for that loathing. They’re also the best friends of a conservative movement that relies on an ageing and afraid white base. And the songs? Against their composers’ best intentions, suddenly they whisper: we’re just like you. We’re on your side. And we won’t back down.
First published in The Guardian, 22 July 2015