Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Them Against Us

Kerry's ragtag musical conglomeration begins the fatiguing job of mobilizing its base

We knew Bush had no intention of bringing America together. What we didn't see at first was his plan to divide America almost exactly in half. Red states against blue states. 51 against 49. Them against us. Bush has energized a few large, interlocking, homogeneous "we"'s--the ruling class, suburban haves, white born-againers, Middle American cultural conservatives, white male haters whose irrational resentments trump their material interests. Opposing him is a patchwork-to-ragtag rainbow that includes fragmented and alienated young music fans as well as groups they/we share little with--the elderly poor, black born-againers, most union members, maybe Howard Stern's army. If enough of all of us vote, maybe we beat Bush in the electoral college, as progressive optimists always dream. But more likely we also need some undecideds, with whom we share even less. So the anti-Bush conglomeration has two distinct challenges: convincing the middle and mobilizing its base. Gratifyingly, its musical contingent cares more about this election than about any in memory; unsurprisingly, mobilization is more its speed than reaching out.

Thus I found myself in Williamsburg's cavernous Volume July 15 at "Democracy Is Like Sex--It's Only Good if You Participate," a hip-hop benefit for the League of Pissed-Off Voters' (see Musicology sidebar). Despite some lefty excess--a few too many speakers (though several rocked) and an organizer belting a Baezesque "Another Man Done Gone" avec cello--this was a potent event that engaged a racially mixed house of respectable size. Its tone was set by MC U.S. (a/k/a Uncircumcized Samson, Unabomber Suspect), who figured the last four years had taught us something. "We had to go through the motherfucker to get off our bullshit," he theorized, but now: "We all the same motherfuckers." Its achievement was summed up by back-to-back headliners. First DIY radical Immortal Technique told us the feds brought down Flight 800 and the WTC and nevertheless advised, "Vote just so you can complain." Then pop-rap pioneer Kurtis Blow proved "old school is about having a good time" with a crew of aging break-dancers, whom he nevertheless dubbed "B-boys against Bush." Within hip-hop, this was a radical polarity--swallowed up in a shared goal everyone knew was nationwide. As rapper Dionysus put it, "Call your relatives in Ohio and the states that really matter."

Nine days later I attended this newspaper's Siren Festival on Coney Island--first to ascertain whether these perfectly decent indie bands were as inconsequential as I suspected, and second to find out how political they'd get without coaxing. Sadly, only the shamelessly childish Ponys held me for a full set, which is one reason I left at 8 believing that--aside from the voter registration tables, where three groups claimed about 200 sign-ups total, some from as far away as Massachusetts!--only Mission of Burma gave us a Moveon.Org T-shirt, or a prediction of Bush's defeat, or a "Please vote in the fall." But informants report that TV on the Radio "got all anti-Bush about" their climactic "Bomb Yourself," that And You Will Know Us Etc. called for their carpetbagging fellow Texan's death with a jaunty thumbs-up, that Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie implored, "If there is anyone in the crowd who is not registered to vote, please visit the Music for America booth. We're not even gonna tell you who to vote for, because you already know."

An acceptable showing. But Walla's discreet refusal to utter our candidate's name is troubling. Not so much that naive Death Cab fans may select the lying Bush, although no "we" is a monolith, as the single cry of "Four more years" that greeted Mission of Burma's vote plea was there to remind us; not even that they'll select the lying Nader, or the well-meaning guy the Greens nominated. More that victory this fall is likely to require not just dump-Bush anger but actual positive energy--that a goodly portion of activated Bush haters are going to have to learn to love John Kerry, or at least be proud of him. It seemed natural that the hardcore prison activists at the indyvoter affair should adduce Kerry rarely and suspiciously, and healthy that they emphasized the "accountability" of the new president they were so sure their swing-state efforts would get us. White suburban alt-rockers have less to be righteous about--and more in common with Kerry. As I biked to the first two of a week of Concerts for Kerry at the Living Room--July 20's an all-star showcase of local singer-songwriters, July 21's dominated by Losers Loungers--I reflected that surely these mature Manhattanites would get the point.

Musically, the first was better than I'd expected, the second worse. Organizer and de facto emcee David Poe has always been funnier and looser than your average brooder, and Duncan Sheik, a talent like him or not, featured his dark new "White Limousine," about winning the war: "America America this is your reward/Everyone is boring and everyone is bored." The brief sets went down easy. But even when Poe began by saying "We're here to help change our country's leadership" and that he loved Ralph Nader only not this year, he did not mention our new leader's name, and with one exception neither did anyone else--not even reedlike Morgan Taylor, who had a golden opportunity when some wag yelled, "Morgan Taylor for president." The sets next night were endless--never again will I wonder why Connie Petruk isn't a star. But give it up for bejeaned Joe McGinty, even preening Craig Wedren, both of whom named our hope. Spell it: J-O-H-N K-E-R-R-Y.

Nada Surfer Morgan Caws had the best songs July 21, and warned against premature benefit fatigue to boot. But tops either night was Moby, who as is his wont gave a speech. First he described Bush-the-cowboy's "inbred WASP" Connecticut upbringing near the Melville clan. In contrast, he boasted, Kerry was "erudite," "experienced," "self-effacing." At a benefit last September, Kerry had joined Moby to sing and strum "Ring of Fire." Reprising that moment, Moby humanized our candidate. Who is human, you know. And ours.

Village Voice, Aug. 10, 2004