Dem Blues

You've been warned: This is a column about politics wherein a popular-culture critic (dunno what that is either, but says so on my tax returns) interviews a former rock journalist-turned-publicist-turned-band-manager-turned-record-label-executive about how the Democratic Party alienated everyone under the age of death. You may take this with a grain of salt; you may take it with an entire salt lick. Wouldn't blame you a bit, as all I know about politics could fit inside the head of the Green Lantern action figure sitting on my desk, and the record-label exec in question did sign Jewel to a major-label deal, which should make you immediately suspicious of anything he has to say, think, write or, for that matter, do.

All that said, Danny Goldberg is probably the perfect guy to talk Democratic politics with when all you know about Democratic politics is that Joe Lieberman's going to get his salami handed to him on a seder plate come Election Day 2004. The 52-year-old Goldberg is not only the quintessential liberal--supports higher taxes to fund national health care and better pay for teachers, has been an officer in the American Civil Liberties Union since the mid-1980s, believes labor unions should be stronger--but he's also a longtime rock-and-roll pusher man. He's worked with Led Zeppelin (as publicist and head of Swan Song, the band's label), Nirvana and Sonic Youth (as manager, when he owned Gold Mountain), Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams and R.E.M. (as the head of one of several labels for whom he's worked, including Warner Bros., Mercury and Atlantic) and now Warren Zevon and Steve Earle (as owner of his own label, Artemis Records).

Ever since Robert Plant was a golden god, Goldberg has been selling culture to kids. He has been witness to rock's occasional revolutions and a party to its intermittent downward slides (he signed Hootie and the Blowfish); he helped organize the No Nukes concert in 1980 and was on the front line of the Culture Wars long before Tipper Gore ever fired a shot. And from his vantage point, the war's going badly for his side: Used to be it was only right-wingers who hated what he was selling. Now you can't find a Democratic candidate, outside of maybe Al Sharpton, who'll own up to owning music you can move to.

As Goldberg insists in his book Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit, which arrives in stores in two weeks, Democrats can't get kids to vote anymore because they've spent the last decade, if not longer, attacking young voters and those coming of political age--especially Democrat front-runner Lieberman. It was Lieberman who, along with Hillary Clinton, introduced the Media Marketing Accountability Act of 2001, which wanted the Federal Trade Commission to go after record companies selling rock and rap records to kids under 17. Lieberman insisted, hey, he just wanted to put "ratings" on CD covers; what he really wanted was to make it a criminal act to sell Eminem and "the vile, hateful and nihilistic" Marilyn Manson to kids. Lieberman--don't kid yourself, he's Bill Bennett in a yarmulke.

As Goldberg puts it, the Democrats started alienating their core constituency around the time they began sounding like Republicans, especially when it came to attacking the entertainment industry. The Republicans have always hated rock and rock culture; Spiro Agnew said, during his vice presidency, that rock music is "threatening to destroy our national strength," while Richard Nixon tried to have that well-known "deviant" John Lennon deported. But when Tipper Gore started listening to "Darling Nikki" on the Purple Rain soundtrack in 1984 and couldn't believe what she was hearing--apparently, no one masturbates at the Gore household--the Democrats started dancing, very awkwardly, to the right.

"What Tipper Gore started in the mid-'80s never went away," Goldberg says from the Artemis offices in Los Angeles. "Prior to that, criticism of the culture was always coming from the right, and...I think that's completely rational, because I do think the pop culture feeds progressive politics a lot more than the opposite. Nothing is 100 percent, but in aggregate I think the pop culture tends to the progressive because I think it tends toward youth, it tends toward inclusion of minorities, it tends toward rebellion against authority, which is usually a positive, progressive thing, and the history is pretty clear on that. And, for whatever reason, starting in the mid-'80s, Tipper Gore was not an anomaly. She was the first well-known person representing a philosophy that never went away and continues to be a very big part of the Democratic Party, to the point that the leading contender for president now, Joe Lieberman, is obsessed with his attacks on pop culture."

Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center served two functions: to get warning stickers put on CD covers and to help the Democrats ostracize that mythical 18- to 35-year-old with one foot in the door and the other one in the gutter. The party's leaders have so aligned themselves with Republicans who would demonize the entertainment industry it's hard to tell the two apart; it's Lieberman, after all, who wants to fine the entertainment industry for being too smutty and violent. (Of Lieberman, Jon Stewart recently said on The Daily Show, he's "the only candidate for people who want to vote for Bush but don't think he's Jewish enough.")

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky