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Rage Against the Elites
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Rage Against the Elites

Political controversies about music are boring.

Jason Aldean performs on July 22, 2023, in Twin Lakes, Wisconsin. (Photo by Joshua Applegate/Getty Images)

However huge I might be in other regards, both literal and figurative, I am not a huge music guy. This is a great disappointment to my wife, and a bit of a mystery to many of my friends who are passionate about music in ways I’ll never be. That doesn’t mean I don’t like music. For those curious, my tastes are mostly conventional early Gen X and late baby boomer—classic rock with some ’80s alternative thrown in for good measure. I also had a ska phase, and in recent years I’ve listened to an enormous amount of Johnny Cash. As a teenager, I was into classic Motown for a while, and I even went on a New Model Army kick. Of course, I had the required Pink Floyd moment, listening to The Wall from beginning to end over and over. Virtually all of the rap and hip-hop I listened to was the direct result of my brother refusing to turn down his stereo. Once you get past the Sugarhill Gang and Run D.M.C. my fluency plummets rapidly. 

I could go on, but you know what? This is incredibly boring. 

You know what else is incredibly boring? Arguments about music. 

I don’t mean arguments between music lovers about music. I’m not invested in those arguments for the same reason I’m not interested in arguments between car nerds about cars or wine dorks about wine. But I totally get that if music is your passion, you’ll think arguments about music are really interesting. And because I love listening to experts argue about stuff I know nothing about, I can listen to aficionados debate all manner of things I’m ignorant about and be entertained. True story: I once spent an hour in a hotel bar eavesdropping on three luxury pen sales reps arguing about fountain pens. It was awesome. 

But I do know something about politics. And I find most political controversies about music to be incredibly boring. And when they’re not boring, they’re usually pretty stupid. 

Rage against the insipidity.

For instance, in 2012, Paul Ryan said he loved the band Rage Against the Machine. This made a lot of people very angry, particularly members of Rage Against the Machine. Tom Morello, the band’s guitarist, told Rolling Stone, “Paul Ryan is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.” 

I’m always amused by this sort of thing. For understandable reasons, many artists tend to have the most romantic, dramatic, and self-important understanding of their art, and I don’t blame them for it. Of course, some artists are also very, very interested in their royalty statements and ticket sales, and it seems to me they convince themselves that’s okay because they’re speaking truth to power. 

And some—again, just my impression—see their more radical public personas as simply part of the act. What they really care about is whether the checks clear. I remember reading that when Madonna’s Truth or Dare documentary came out, she was happy to have the cameras on her for all of her slattern chic and transgressive nonsense, but the cameras stayed out of the room when she talked business. It says something about our dysfunctional culture that Madonna is seen as a hero of female empowerment for pantomiming oral sex on a bottle, but she is scared to be seen signing paychecks. 

By the way, you can purchase a 1-ounce bottle of Madonna’s Truth or Dare perfume for the low, low price of $138. What you do with the bottle is your own business.

Anyway, I have no doubt that the members of Rage Against the Machine believe all the stuff they wrote in their lyrics. I’m also sure that the band’s leader Zack de la Rocha, an avowed communist—whom the internet says is worth $25 million—sleeps comfortably in his $3.7-million Silver Lake house, when he’s not staying at his Malibu pad. 

But that doesn’t mean I have to take his lyrics seriously—and neither does Paul Ryan. I mean, if he can’t be relied upon to live down to his communist anthems, why should we hold his fans to that standard?

Which brings me to the stupid. 

Here’s the opening paragraph from a very typical Washington Post piece from 2012:

At some point during Paul Ryan’s almost 20-year tenure in Congress, it emerged that the House Speaker liked the rock band Rage Against the Machine — a surprising choice for a conservative politician championing the power of the free market, given that the band’s leftist lyrics rail against capitalism and corporate America.

I’d wager that very few of the journalists and pundits who mocked Ryan would call themselves communists. And if some Republican politician attacked a Democrat—or a reporter!—as a “communist” for liking Rage Against the Machine, they’d be the first to point out how stupid the claim was. But somehow when a conservative likes the band, it’s proof of their hilarious know-nothing hypocrisy. Similarly, very few devotees of gangster rap are gangsters themselves; that doesn’t make them hypocrites or fools. It just means they like the stuff. You can be a foreign policy hawk and still like anti-war folk music. You can be a devout Christian and still like John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I love Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (the Banana Boat Song),” and I feel no reluctance to say his politics were awful. I’ve long thought Oliver Stone is a hypocritical left-wing crank, but I like some of his movies. 

And while I can understand how people who really like a band are offended or annoyed when people they profoundly disagree with about politics also like the band, I find any attempt to bully them out of liking it incredibly, palpably, embarrassingly lame. Likewise, I find any attempt to bully people into liking an artist or song for political purposes equally ridiculous and pathetic. If you want to harangue someone into agreeing that Eric Clapton was a better guitarist than Jeff Beck, have at it. But don’t even try convincing me that I have to support or oppose, love or hate, some song because of its political message.

Rich pundits north of Richmond.

With that indefensibly long preamble out of the way, let’s talk about two recent brouhahas about music. A little while ago, Jason Aldean released the song “Try That in a Small Town,” and people lost their minds over it. And just in the last week or so, a song by Oliver Anthony, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” has ignited a huge controversy. 

Both songs, but especially Anthony’s, were embraced by some folks on the populist right. I didn’t follow the timeline too closely, but my impression is that “Try That in a Small Town” took off because of the Streisand effect. Our self-styled cultural betters were outraged by the implicit threats of white violence of the song. These people are rarely particularly concerned by the explicit violence of rap music, but since this song felt MAGA-y it must be cleansed from the public square. The purging effort sent it straight up the charts for the same reason that books that claim to be “Banned in Boston” flew off the shelves. 

“Rich Men North of Richmond” is different. It’s been hailed as a light in the darkness, a plaintive cri de coeur of the deep pain and anguish of the forgotten man, some would say the forgotten white man. 

Now, if the claims of the song were an op-ed, I’d agree pretty much entirely with National Review’s Mark Antonio Wright, who apparently has caught holy hell for daring to disagree with, for want of a better term, the policy substance of a frick’n song. But I find this sort of grading of songs pretty tedious. Give me an hour and I can give you 1,000 words explaining why Lennon’s “Imagine” is otherworldly, romantic claptrap. But why bother? I can give you another 1,000 words on why Edwin Starr’s “War (What Is it Good For)?” would not be well-received by Holocaust victims, American slaves, or Ukrainians resisting Russian genocide. But songs are typically terrible arguments, so it’s better to spend time debating actual, you know, arguments not set to music. 

This isn’t a criticism of Wright, who was responding to all of the people hailing “Rich Men North of Richmond” as some bold truth-telling anthem. It is for some people, and that’s fine. That doesn’t mean the people who take the song literally are right about their preferred policies—or that they’re wrong. Just as many fans of hip-hop don’t live like the people described in those songs, I am sure that many of the folks who love “Rich Men North of Richmond” don’t actually work for “bullsh-t pay,” never mind sell their souls for it. (Nor does the fact that Anthony is reportedly into weird conspiracy theories mean that everyone who likes this song is into them too.)

What many of them do believe is that such people are their constituency. For instance, Laura Ingraham, a very rich person from Connecticut who has spent most of her adult life living in wealthy neighborhoods and hobnobbing with elites—when not on TV or clerking at the Supreme Court—has taken up the song. Lord knows it doesn’t speak to her lived experience, but she thinks it does speak to the audience she wants to cultivate. The same goes for many of the song’s various New Right boosters. 

You are what you covet.

And that’s what I think is actually interesting about all of this, to the extent it’s interesting at all. For years, the right has craved its own celebrities. The problem is that the bench has always been so thin. Once you get past Clint Eastwood and a few others the pickings are pretty meager.  There are a handful of Hollywood conservatives who aren’t has-beens or never-weres, but they tend to be more circumspect than the populists want. The only ones, beyond Jon Voight, who are really willing to lean in to populist pandering are mostly answers to trivia questions or subjects for “Where Are They Now?” segments. Dean Cain* is a conservative! Scott Baio loves Trump! That guy who played one of the FBI agents in Die Hard is MAGA! 

I see the rush to celebrate these songs as a manifestation of the same thirsty thirstiness. So many right-wingers spend an enormous amount of time and energy explaining how little they care about the opinion of “elites”—who are always defined as “not us” by very rich and famous right-wingers in positions of considerable influence. If they really didn’t care, they wouldn’t talk about them so much. I mean, how many times have you heard people enraged over something some idiot said on The View also insist that The View doesn’t matter? If it doesn’t matter, why are you constantly whining about it? 

Laura Ingraham wrote a whole book, Shut Up and Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America. Back then, she thought Hollywood elites should stick to their day jobs (an argument I mostly agreed with). I’m sure she still believes this, or claims to. But I’d bet she never said that to Scott Baio. Then again, I’m not sure he has a day job.

These right-wingers aren’t indifferent to elites—in Hollywood or anywhere else—they’re obsessed with them. They’re as convincing in their claims of not caring as a stalker who says, “I don’t care if you ignore me!”

Indifference and envy are not synonyms. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the same people craving their own celebrities and their own populist troubadours are also the people most enthusiastic for things like right-wing industrial policy and economic planning. They’re envious of those with the power—real or perceived—to run, cajole, direct, and manipulate the public. They hate libertarians and “freedom conservatives” for many of the same reasons the left long has—they despise the idea they can’t be in charge. If offered the chance to switch places with the left-wing elites they claim not to care about, I think most of them would do it in a heartbeat. 

*Correction, August 16: This article originally misspelled Deann Cain’s surname.

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Jonah Goldberg

Editor in chief & co-founder of The Dispatch and Remnant podcast host. A scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, an L.A. Times columnist, CNN commentator, and author of three NYT bestsellers. Goldberg worked at National Review for two decades.