First, can I note that in order to best describe the musical aspect of this abomination Bruce Springsteen calls an anti-Trump protest song, I actually Googled “sounds Bison make” in order to find suitable adjectives?
Now, let’s get this straight:
If Joe Grushecky and Bruce Springsteen released a bellowing, grunting, snorting cover of “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love,” or if they shat out another one of their Kevin Smith-via-Eddie in Rocky Horror originals about workin’ at the plant on the dark side o’ town or whatnot, I would not give a gram of a damn about what they were doing, nor how they distributed any gelt made from the proceeds.
But they didn’t do that. They’ve gone and released a protest song.
Certain corners of the internet—the kind that mistake quantity for quality, slogans for action, and breathless aerobics for emotion, i.e. the Bruce Springsteen fans of America—lit up earlier this week because Joe Grushecky (a veteran Pittsburgh-based ersatz-Springsteen who occasionally performs and collaborates with the authentic Springsteen) released a so-called “protest” song, “That’s What Makes Us Great,” featuring guest vocals by Springsteen himself.
And there was joyful shouting throughout the land.
Here it is, Bruce’s long-awaited protest song! We knew Bruce would come to save the Republic! After all, he’s the friend of the workingman!
However, unless Mr. Springsteen shows up in Georgia’s 6th district and campaigns for Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff, don’t try to tell me he’s really protesting anything.
(And if Mr. Springsteen or Mr. Grushecky don’t know how important the 6th district special election is, they have no right to be writing a protest song in the first place.)
Do you want to change things, or just give the appearance of changing things? Do you want to get patted on the back for the slogans you write, or do you feel like actually rolling up your sleeves and working for change?
It’s really that simple.
For generations, white protest music—indeed, the entire faux rebel soul of rock ’n’ roll—has been built on our willingness, heck, our eagerness, to mistake slogans for action.
“That’s What Makes Us Great” gives the appearance of being something “important,” but it will not change one mind or one vote, it will not defend one immigrant or protect one women’s health clinic, it will not provide a dime for PBS, it will not prevent one act of voter suppression, it will not combat one unnecessary and ill-considered act of war. That’s because it’s a pile of slogans, completely disconnected from any action, at least as of today.
It is worse than nothing; it emits the foul, sulfurous stink of the carny, because slogans without action or instruction, disconnected even from charity, are pure fakery.
Dear Mr. Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen:
You have added your vocals to a not completely offensive track by this Grushecky fellow, causing hundreds of thousands of people to rejoice that their muscled messiah has shown his true activist colors; but will you go to Georgia to insure that this Jon Ossoff wins his congressional seat on June 20, and makes a vital and essential statement about the potential for the Democrats to win back the House?
Will you commit to using your considerable—make that massive—authority, credibility and presence to influence voters and public thinking in the 2018 midterms, as you failed to do in the 2016 general election?
True, Mr. Springsteen, it’s not the responsibility of musicians or public figures to engage in political advocacy; but when you assume the role of a public advocate, that is, when you attach your name to a “statement” and when you shout the slogans, you better be willing to actually use your power; otherwise, I can only come to the conclusion that you are just making “protest songs” to buff up your public image.
Also, Mr. Grushecky: I am going to believe that this is a loud gesture to promote your career, unless you commit right now to give a significant portion of the proceeds from the sales and downloads of your little protest song—and by “significant,” I mean “all”—to Jon Ossoff’s campaign, or to organizations working directly to flip the House in the 2018 midterms. Alternately, you can also give the money to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Otherwise, Mr. Grushecky—and this is a perfectly O.K. option, too—please post this on your site: “I released ‘That’s What Makes Us Great’ to get myself publicity and I really don’t give a damn if it changes anything. I have succeeded in getting my picture on the web alongside Bruce, and I have gotten my song on the radio, and that was my intention. I am very happy this song reminds people that I exist, because that’s clearly the bottom line here.”
If you want to admit that, Mr. Grushecky, I will respect you. I mean that.
Perhaps you think that just getting the slogan out there will change things. Well, friends, that’s the “Just Say No” theory of activism. Was one single drug addict’s life positively redirected because they saw those three words?
Today, somewhere in America, some 22-year-old is going to stop studying for the LSATs long enough to contribute $18 to Jon Ossoff’s campaign. Someone else, perhaps finishing up their sophomore year at Wake Forrest, is going to go online and ask their local Democratic Party if they can volunteer this summer to help candidates work towards the 2018 midterms. Each of these people is going to do something vastly more meaningful toward affecting positive change in America than either Grushecky or Springsteen did by releasing that song. You know why?
Because dissent is not a band T-shirt.
You remember when you were in 11th grade, and you wore a band T-shirt to school, and people said, “Oh, you like Pink Floyd too? That is so cool. I like Pink Floyd! And clearly you do, too, because you have it on your T-shirt! We should hang out sometime! Do you want to go to Friendlys after school? Wait, you have rehearsal for the spring musical? That’s so weird, you don’t look like the musical type. They’re doing Godspell again? Wow. But anyway, cool, you like Pink Floyd, too!”
And a “protest” song, like this Grushecky/Springsteen groaner, is very likely—until we are proven otherwise—the equivalent of a band T-shirt.
“You like Dissent! I like Dissent, too! That is so cool. I can tell that you really, really like Dissent because it says so on your T-shirt! Do you want to go to Friendlys after work?”
I have no problem with the song itself, at least not in purely musical terms.
Full of the clenched, throaty, marble-mouthed mumbling and churning “Badlands” chords that passes for sincerity if you’re over 45, it’s a perfect example of the kind of vigorous Springsteen imitation that somehow has gotten mistaken for “garage rock” over the last few years.
Shit, I remember when garage rock meant the Lyres or the Barracudas or all that dirty, hissy, thumping Nuggets stuff; but today, “garage rock” has come to stand for stale, bleating, grinding, Southside Johnny-esque fumes that sound like the Letterman Band on a particularly coked-up night (I blame Little Steven; I utterly despise how his little radio channel has both redefined the meaning of and monopolized the dialogue on garage rock).
Not one single vote will be changed by “That’s What Makes Us Great,” this sub-Mellencampian moose call; it will not compel one single person to make sure there isn’t voter obstruction at the polls on June 20 (or in November 2018), it will not raise one dime to bring about a Democratic majority in the Congress, it won’t coordinate any opposition to the bigots who are going to say anti-Semitic things about Ossoff…unless Springsteen and Grushecky take a stand right now and ensure that this song won’t just be a slogan, but a pathway to engagement and organization. And that pathway won’t build itself. The artists have to decide to organize, educate, and act.
At some point the community of American musicians who are genuinely interested in positive change and transforming slogans into meaningful action have to get their shit together.
There is a model for this: In the early 1980s, musicians banded together under one banner, in an intelligent and organized manner, to campaign against the sloppy proliferation of Nuclear Energy; this group, MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy), promoted concerts, events, recordings, and engaged in other useful and intelligent activism in order to insure that something like Three Mile Island would never endanger American lives again.
This was an excellent example of musicians not just wearing T-shirts or shouting slogans, but actually uniting to accomplish a goal and bring their youthful constituency, with their disposable income, with them. MUSE made the artists who participated—Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Brown, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Tom Petty, even Bruce Springsteen—look good, but it also did genuinely good work.
Organization, babies, organization. An ounce of organization is worth a ton of slogans.
There’s an even better model we should all be aware of.
In August of 1976 while on stage in Birmingham, England, a vile bigot named Eric Clapton made the following grotesque statements:
“All the fucking foreigners and wogs over here are like, just disgusting, that’s just the truth, yeah. So where are you? Well wherever you all are, I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country…I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white…This is England, this is a white country, we don’t want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man…Keep Britain white!”
(Clapton later affirmed these views in subsequent interviews; I hope to God that the next time you hear Clapton’s anemic music on the radio, you will remember his gruesome public plea to “Keep Britain White.”)
England’s musical community, just beginning to bubble with punk, felt a united response to this horror was necessary. They were inspired to create an organization where musicians’ time and talent could be directly applied and converted to meaningful activism, education, voter awareness, grassroots action and genuine movement on key issues.
This group became Rock Against Racism, and for the next 15 years, RAR (and their off-shoots) provided musicians with an efficient and evolving avenue to dispense information, suggest and organize engagement, and channel the energy of outrage into productive action (this story is told in Daniel Rachel’s essential new book, Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge).
America needs its own RAR. And it needs it right now. We don’t need a lot of voices shouting MDC-slogans in the darkness; we need people to organize, and figure out where and how the considerable resources and energy of our musical community can be best applied.
I would love nothing more than to be able to say that I’ve gotten this all wrong. Perhaps Mr. Grushecky and Mr. Springsteen will devote time, energy, and the considerable resources of their fame to remind voters about what’s at stake in the 2018 midterms.
So I say this:
Dear Mr. Springsteen and Mr. Grushecky, you seem like perfectly nice guys. I mean that. Bruce, I watched you once hug a friend of mine just because he told you how much your music had changed his life.
But If you continue to wear dissent like a band T-shirt, I will keep on coming after you.
I am Timmy Sommer, and I endorse this message.
Many thanks to Dave Arbiter, Justin Joffe, and Cole Hill for clarification and information on some key points in this rant.