Reading Into Rock Anthems

by | May 27, 2006

It doesn’t seem right, but the right likes to rock.

The New York Times reports on National Review’s top 50 conservative rock songs.

It is a primal moment in rock. In the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” Roger Daltrey sings about gladly fighting in the street for a “new revolution,” and with a virtual mushroom cloud of guitar behind him, lets out a fearless cry. But what is the political message?

Classic conservatism, says National Review, the venerable conservative magazine, which in its latest issue offers a list of the “top 50 conservative rock songs of all time.” Its No. 1 choice is “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which ends with the cynical acceptance that nothing really changes in revolution: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

“It is in my view a counterrevolutionary song,” John J. Miller, the author of the article, said in a phone interview yesterday. “It’s the notion that revolutions are often failures, like the French Revolution leading to Napoleon. The song is skeptical about revolutionary idealism in the end, and that’s a very conservative idea.”

Asked to comment on the list, Dave Marsh, the longtime rock critic and avowed lefty, saw it as a desperate effort by the right to co-opt popular culture. “What happened was, my side won the culture war, in the sense that rock and related music is the dominant musical form, not only in the U.S. but around the world,” he said. “Once you lose that battle, you lose the war, and then a different kind of battle begins: the battle over meaning.”

Sean Wilentz, the Princeton history professor, who has also written liner notes for Bob Dylan, said it was no surprise that such ideas can be traced through rock. “Of course there’s ‘conservatism’ in rock ‘n’ roll,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “There’s everything in rock ‘n’ roll, just as there’s everything in America.”