Living With War
Morons dump Neil Young for politics; their loss
©2008 Andrea Barsanti, used under a Creative Commons license
Regular readers know I’ve long held a strong position on the Zhdanovism of the right. For conservatives culture war is a war on culture; they hate and fear the power of art, and reflexively try to claim for themselves, not by creating any of their own (that would be undignified, not to mention difficult) but by claiming art that makes them uncomfortable is not art — you know, just like history that makes them uncomfortable isn’t history — and art that does make them comfortable is conservative.
That’s really what’s behind this stupid thing going on now where, because Neil Young, an undisputed cultural treasure, decided to pull his own music off Spotify rather than share a platform with the COVID vaccine denialist Joe Rogan, conservatives have decided not only that this is censorship (yes, the free market and the First Amendment both remain mysterious to the right) but also that Young’s music is shit and the really good music is… Kid Rock.
I don’t even hate Kid Rock, but I have to say that even if some contrarian music critic tried to make such a case just for fun (and I can think of some who would!), even those of us who take joy in perverse pop readings would have to say, nah, that ain’t it.
Of course the target is not people with discernment but the rightwing base, which is apparently stocked with people who would prefer to listen to a stoned moron yammer for hours about how COVID vaccinations are Deep State. And if that’s really how they feel, chacun à son gout. But I gotta be honest: I don’t believe them.
Sure, maybe some of them have brain chemistry issues that prevent them from discerning a difference between quality and garbage, but it’s much more likely they’re just obeying a tribal imperative to side with their own people, even on matters of individual taste, and doing what rightwing Twitter nihilists often do: eschewing the very concept of quality and claiming that the longtime affection of millions of pop music fans for Young’s music is like the 2020 election — rigged, fake news, irrelevant. They declare the things they like (maybe “endorse” is a better word, as “like” suggests visceral enjoyment, which I think they only get from violence and fart jokes), such as Kid Rock and “Let’s Go Brandon,” are more recent and more popular (with the only audience that matters, which is them), and therefore better.
That’s why rightwing outlets like Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire are feverishly posting stories like “‘Cherry Picked Bullsh**’: Twitter Users Responds To Claims Spotify Lost $2 Billion Following Neil Young Exit” -- if you offer a comparison between, for example, “The Loner” and any Kid Rock joint, they can just stick their fingers in their ears and go You Suck, but financial numbers, like votes, drive them insane.
But there’s no point in getting mad; anti-arguments are unanswerable. Like when some yahoo makes fun of the one-note solo in “Cinnamon Girl,” something those of us who love Neil Young, and that solo, have been laughing about for decades — how can you even react to that? It’s like some kid saying, that Edvard Munch painting doesn’t look like a photograph or an NFT so how can it be good. Except the kid might ask why you like it; he might be that curious. The Roganites just know someone disagreed with them — worse, much worse, withdrew their financial support — and it makes them seethe.
The funny thing is, Young has a few things in common with the people who listen to stoned internet conspiracy crackpots. He’s been fascinated with the Inca and the Maya and the Native Americans for years — so fascinated that, back before most white people worried about cultural insensitivities, he wrote songs that were respectful of those people — really weird, sometimes, like stoner look-at-this-mandala weird, but he pulled it off because he knew that when he sang about Cortez and Montezuma he was really singing about his own feelings, not delivering an ill-informed history lesson.
Young’s fascinated with a lot of other things, too — the environment, alternative fuels, classic cars, the model trains his kid loved. But unlike the people blasting him, he’s done more than talk about them. When he was worried the toy train company his kid liked might go under, he bought it to make sure it didn't. He loves classic cars but doesn’t like what they do to the environment, so he fitted them for electric power. He thought digital music standards were crap so he made his own. And he keeps producing what once upon a time were called protest songs, including a whole album that’s basically a fuck you to Monsanto, whether the market wants them or not.
What the people who think he’s just some old fart don’t allow themselves to get is that Neil Young has always been crazier than they’ll ever be. He doesn’t care what you think. He does what he feels like doing — country, electronic, blues, le noise. You know David Geffen sued him for not repeating his own music formula, right? What makes you think you’re more radical than that?
So here he is, 77 years old, telling Spotify to get fucked. Good. Which reminds me of a more fruitful subject: Last month Young put out an album, Barn, with Crazy Horse, his “garage band” that’s as idiosyncratic as he is. Sometimes there’s a dynamic shift in their playing that sounds at first like they’re being sloppy, but then it turns out to be exactly in the pocket. They’re the polar opposite of a click track.
One of the album’s themes is age, understandably, but another is legacy, and what will be in the world when you’re not. Young sounds at the beginning, in the mellow, accordion-salted “Song of the Seasons,” like some codger they hauled out of the woods for a Folkways Records project to preserve the demotic music of some isolated community (Laurel Canyon?). “Looking through a wavy glass window,” he strains, “In this old place by the lake…” Later he mirrors that, speaking from an airplane: “Looking through this clear vinyl window/ At the city and its lights…” As a lyricist the old boy doesn’t miss a trick.
His voice bucks up considerably on the more up-tempo tunes. He’s still protesting, but having been at it a long time he seems to weigh the hope and the hopelessness together: “Change ain't never gonna come/They sang that togеther and they rose as onе.” And: “The human race is on/We're all lined up at the starting gun/The crowd is rising to its feet.” He also has a love life, and I like to think “The Shape of You” is his answer to the old girl’s doubts about her figure: “It's just that I'm still dreaming/ And my dreams all have/ The shape of you.”
The one that grabbed me, though, is “They Might Be Lost.” It’s as simple as a blues. The singer is worried about some boys coming with a truck “to come get the goods… I wonder if they might be lost.” He frets about it, idly but persistently. They say they’re coming but he can’t see them. (One imagines this happening at the Colorado hilltop studio where it was recorded.) There’s a lot of harmonica on the song, very breathy and wet; the lead playing, such as it is, is acoustic and half lost in the rhythm. In his waiting the singer thinks about the old days, and says:
Well, the jury is out on the old days, you know
The judgement is soon comin’ down
I can't quite remember what it was that I knew
Even before we were born people were making songs like this, where in the middle of what seems like nothing sorrow, doubt and fear rush in like a cold wind. And this is his 41st studio album. Politics is always trauma, but when it comes to the arts anyone open to receive it can have treasure.