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Radical Chic at the Kennedy Center

8:01 AM, Dec 31, 2013 • By ADAM J. WHITE
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One trusts that the Kennedy Center Honors' organizers and audience were completely ignorant of Morello's body of work when they invited him to perform, even if it's not the first time that Morello's graced the Kennedy Center's stage. (Last time, he managed to out-activist an entire Woody Guthrie tribute show, interrupting "This Land Is Your Land" to hector the audience with the usual revolutionary bromides.) But before the Kennedy Center invites him again, it might want to give a listen to Rage's "Tire Me," which culminates with a bizarre spoof of JFK and Jackie: I wanna be Jackie Onassis / I wanna wear a pair of dark sunglasses / I wanna be Jackie O / Oh oh oh oh please don't die!

Still, the scene of President and Mrs. Obama cheering Morello's fret work among the rest of the assembled celebrities, echoes Tom Wolfe's Radical Chic: "Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade."

One wonders what Morello himself made of the whole scene. He's spent years railing not just against Republicans like George W. Bush ("son of a drug lord") and Paul Ryan (a professed Rage fan himself), but also the Democratic Party. One of Rage's most popular songs, "Guerilla Radio," denounced Al Gore in the run-up to the 2000 election; the band later went to Los Angeles to protest the whole 2000 Democratic National Convention. More recently, he's accused President Obama of committing "drone murders" and other "war crimes," and responded to a Democratic party fundraising appeal by promising to donate money to Edward Snowden instead. The only politician that Morello actually likes may well be Ron Paul (naturally), who got Morello's thumbs-up.

And Morello's aim is leveled not just at politicians, but at elite classes more broadly. He's made this clear in songs like "Down Rodeo" (Yeah I'm rollin' down Rodeo with a shotgun / These people ain't seen a brown skin man / Since their grandparents bought one) and "Calm Like A Bomb" (These vultures rob everything / Leave nothing but chains).

So perhaps Morello's view of the Kennedy Center audience was not far from that of Panther lawyer Leon Quat in Lenny Bernstein's living room, who "knows a Radical Chic audience when he sees one." That would be fitting, given that half of Rage's lyrics seem paraphrased from Wolfe's account of the Black Panther speeches at Leonard Bernstein's cocktail party. (Not to mention the fact that both the Kennedy Center event and Wolfe's essay featured Harry Belafonte.) At the Kennedy Center, as in Wolfe's essay, "everyone in the room" drank the performance "like tiger’s milk, for the ... Soul, as it were." 

In their preface to What So Proudly We Hail, Amy and Leon Kass and Diana Schaub describe "the soul-shaping powers" of popular music. "Song—the singular combination of moving speech set to stirring music—is everywhere employed in shaping hearts and souls, and the capacity of song to inspire is part of its power." Moments like these, when we see presidents and cultural leaders on national television, applauding left-wing anarchists brought to perform in honor of long-stale pop stars, illustrate that point all too well.

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