As the saying goes, we have all been cursed to live in very interesting times. I can remember a period not too long ago when politics was still the sole province of the chattering classes, when the workings of government and political society were seen as unimpressive, unimportant and essentially uninteresting. Of course, that was a long time ago now, and as petty and puerile as it was, its hard not to feel nostalgic for the days of Monica Lewinsky in light of our current and continuing humiliation in Washington and abroad.
We are living in an odd period where politics have become important again, and against all odds, political art has become popular as well. Farenheit 9/11 sold a lot of movie tickets, and while as of this writing I can’t say for certain, it is poised to sell a lot of DVDs as well. Your local Barnes & Noble currently has 10 metric tons of politically-themed books on display right near the door, and you can find something for everyone in these stacks—from the staunchest right-winger to the reddest bleeding-heart liberal. Green Day achieved a number one record with a concept album built around explicitly political themes. And, wonder of wonders, a lefty-punk group like Killradio was able to get a major label contract with a multinational corporation like Sony. It’s an odd time, to be sure.
It’s a damn shame Rage Against the Machine broke up when they did. They rocked, and they rocked hard, but keeping in mind everything that has happened in these last four years following their break-up, their actual career seems soaked in naivete. Liberals may have complained about Clinton while he was in office, but all but the most unreconstructed Naderite can now easily appreciate that Clinton’s major contribution to American society was keeping the people who are currently running the show sitting out in the cold for eight wonderful years. If Rage had survived to see the administration of George W. Bush, they would have finally found a cause commensurate with their extraordinary power to protest.
If pure unbounded energy could unseat a sitting president, then Raised on Whipped-Cream could single-handedly send G. W. packing back to Crawford. They’ve got the chops and they’ve got a slick pop-punk sound that hits like a sledgehammer. Although they may wear their influences—the Clash, the aforementioned Rage—on their sleeves, they’ve also got the youthful propulsion to allow them to pull of their pilfering with relative ease.
There’s a part of me that almost hesitates to criticize the group based on any aesthetic qualms, because the fact is that I do find their politics and convictions admirable. My problem has more to do with the fact that they seem too young to convincingly sell these convictions as anything more than callow sloganeering. Making political music is probably the hardest challenge in all of pop music. Not just anyone can sit down and write a song about, say, Third world debt relief without sounding a like a pompous ass. Most political songs are either hopelessly pedantic or uselessly exhortative. Not even the Clash was able to pull it off convincingly every time, and Lord knows they succeeded more than most.
Its easy to get caught up in the group’s enthusiasm, but if you stop and pay attention to their lyrics they have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Take this bit from the first song, the masterfully catchy but inarticulate “A.M.E.R.I.K.A.”:
“A Martial law soon taken effect, They stole the right to be defiant, While we’re turning our heads.
The informed citizen became un-American,
For reading a book instead of watching the television.
Supporting peace and not the president.
Rather die on the cross than for a fucking Republican.”
As a liberal, I find the sentiment admirable, but as a music critic, I am cringing at the awkward, overly-literal and hopelessly pedantic diction and syntax. This isn’t a problem unique to this group: there are many like-minded politically active groups in the underground and semi-underground punk scene who carry on similarly. Again, while I agree with their sentiment I find their lyrics to be almost insultingly banal.
Take this verse, from the album’s title track:
“Politicians wasted our money for too long,
And religious leaders are raping our children.
So where are the poets?
They’re all at their slams,
And where are the leaders?
Taken out by The Man!”
I don’t think its been possible to unironically name-check The Man since around 1972. It’s a shame, too, because they certainly have the ferocity and skill to sell their convictions. It’s a shame their convictions have to be so uninspiring.
Killradio are a precociously talented group of young musicians whose music plainly broadcasts the fact that they have a boatload of exciting potential, but their ostentatiously stilted lyrics place an unfortunate limit on their appeal. Here’s the test: groups like Killradio are having their moments in the sun right now with our current supercharged political scene. But on November 3rd, after (hopefully) all the ballots have been counted and there’s nothing left to do but take a breather for the next four years, is there anything that’s going to make you want to go back to their music? Raised on Whipped-Cream probably isn’t going to age very well, and unless the group can sharpen their lyrical acuity, they are poised to become nothing more than an artifact of these strange times.