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    Is this my most incoherent post ever? I think it might be.

    Eric writes about who’s intimidating whom lately:

    President Barack Obama has told the Republicans to “stop trying to frighten the American people.”

    Surely he jests.

    There are a lot of things that might be said about the Republicans, but right now they are no position to frighten the American people. They couldn’t frighten their way out of a paper bag.

    No kidding. And I don’t think it’s just lately. I bought the Rolling Stone decade wrap-up issue, more out of habit than anything, to read on a train ride I had this past week. I perversely enjoy reading overwritten rock reviews. Occasionally, I’m even prompted to buy an album that has songs I’d always liked but that I was never moved to buy when it was released. And this round of nostalgizing was especially entertaining, since the re-flowering of U2’s and Bruce Springsteen’s careers gave the geezer bloc at RS a chance to heap them with the same accolades they used two or three decades ago. Naturally, I disagree with the rankings, but who cares?

    This is all related to what Eric wrote because, on the 2004 page in the year-by-year retrospective, there was a sidebar headlined “Rockers Speak Out Against Bush.” The subhead was “Hard-fought John Kerry campaign sows the seeds for 2008’s unprecedented rock activism.” Wow. What sort of hard fighting did our valorous rock stars participate in? Well, you probably remember most of it: the Vote for Change tour, Green Day’s American Idiot album, the Dixie Chicks’ shame at being from the same state as W, and Kanye West’s claim, after Hurricane Katrina, that Bush didn’t care about black people. RS called that last outburst “awesomely off-script,” but while that may be true in literal terms, it isn’t in any larger sense. All these were standard-issue flip-offs by multi-millionaires who faced no punishment for their political candor beyond the alienation of part of the market, which makes it somewhat strange to call what they do “speaking out.” For decades, but especially since the advent of the Internet—which predated the Bush administration, of course—famous musicians have eagerly told us what they think about child-rearing, plastic surgery, dieting, Our Environment, spirituality, exercise fads, making relationships work, and plenty else on which Kindness itself must conclude that their expertise is, to judge based on empirical data, shaky. That those who add politics to their roster of natter-about-in-front-of-a-microphone topics should be credited with boldly “speaking out” is not obvious, at least to me. Thrilling as it may have been to pretend to be all scared by Karl Rove, none of these people risked anything close to the midnight knock at the door.

    And as for “activism”—baloney. I’ll never agree with leftist policies, but I respect those who get down in the dirt and do the patient work of reasoning with the opposition one person at a time, which is how minds get changed. The day a rock star counts as an activist is the day Natalie Maines goes door to door through a town in north Texas to explain to citizens why they should vote for Big Government.

    Of course, all this would be easier to forgive if so much superstar output weren’t so lame. Mark has some thoughts on that—not new, but very succinctly put:

    There was a reason that music overtook the consciousness of so many people in the ’60s and it didn’t have anything to do with hippie ways or political movements. It had to do with who was running the record companies and their outlook toward their “product.” In fact, I would peg the start of the decline in the industry that we see the other end of today to the period in time when use of the term “product” to describe music became current and acceptable.

    I think those who approach music-making as professionals can produce really good stuff. Kylie, for example, has never deluded herself that she’s an artiste; she’s an entertainer, and in an odd way, that allows her to pour herself into everything she does in a way that makes it persuasive. She’s a girl who enjoys playing dress-up for concerts and acting in videos and being the diva in front of a microphone. She genuinely seems to love being a star, in a straightforward, un-ironic, princess-fantasy way. When her first album after her recovery from breast cancer didn’t consist entirely of songs about her new-found love of life and living each moment as it comes and finding inner strength, some people complained. I cheered. Good on her for not milking a private matter for sympathy downloads, I say. A woman who has just faced death and says, “What I really want to do now is get back on the dance floor and make my fans happy!” is an international treasure.

    In the main, though, I think Mark’s right. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the best-selling act in the world, but when it’s obvious even in the music that your highest priority is raw numbers, the magic is lost.

    And it’s not just the music that seems manufactured. Just take a gander at this post about Kylie’s and Madonna’s elder sister in divadom, Olivia Newton-John. Olivia has great bones and a fair complexion, a combination that usually ages to a moving, lovely, crinkled-kidskin softness when nature takes its course. But Olivia is a rich woman, and it’s 2009, so nature is not taking its course.

    olivia_lips4

    And let’s not even talk about Madge, who until five or six years ago was doing us all proud by keeping the procedures discreet and unnoticeable. At least, to this point, Kylie’s only excess in that area is with Botox. I’m sure the blatant face-yank is coming, though. She may end up looking even scarier than a Republican, though the American mass audience is unlikely to see enough of her to decide. At least, given precedent, we can probably count on her not boring us all by becoming an “activist.”

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