Nostalgia has its uses, its benefits. But is it useful and beneficial when it obscures the reality of the past and present, usually in the service of power, prestige, and making a buck?
I had a dream wherein I'd been tasked with putting together a band for the conservative pundit and all-around blowhard Bill O'Reilly. Thirty-city tour, hands across America, all of that. O'Reilly would be the front man, presumably just singing, but no one said what kind of music he wanted to sing. There I was sitting on an Italian leather sofa in a cavernous recording studio, half the lights shut off, with the feeling that some promoter was going to come looking for me any minute—you know how nightmares work. Nobody could give me a straight answer about anything.
My knee-jerk reaction, of course, was to go find Ted Nugent.
The Nuge is a down-home conservative from Detroit, after all. In a friendly 2014 interview with O'Reilly, Nugent was given free reign to pontificate about Paul McCartney, why Jay-Z can't live up to Wilson Pickett—"I come from the original soul brothers", Nugent was allowed to say without a follow-up—and how the legalization of marijuana would lead to stoned airplane pilots. Brave guy that he is, O'Reilly didn't question the violent and stupid things Nugent had said about Barack Obama, including, during his 2013 "Black Power" tour, this gem: "One way or another I'm going to the White House and I'm going to get those cocksuckers in a stranglehold." Silence, they say, is tantamount to consent.
But it was hard to imagine O'Reilly, the man whom Stephen Colbert calls "Papa Bear", even listening to "Cat Scratch Fever", let alone singing it. Politically aligned though they may be, O'Reilly is too buttoned down and The Nuge too much of a wildcard. So I scrawled through a Rolodex someone had left behind, a collection of rock's conservative acts, your Kid Rocks and your Hank Williams Jr.'s. None seemed to fit. Michale Graves of the Misfits told The Daily Show in 2004 that he was a Bush supporter, but more recently he seems to identify as a libertarian, and anyway, there was no way O'Reilly would go for that skull-face makeup. Maybe Britney Spears? 50 Cent? Metallica? Capitalists, all, but not right for O'Reilly.
Because at heart, at the core of his politics, at the center of his on-air and in-print personality, underneath all the bluster and the "pinhead" stuff, O'Reilly emits a deep, abiding sense of nostalgia. This isn't exactly shocking; conservatism seeks to retain tradition, and nostalgia is a useful tactic for that purpose. We've seen it before, and we'll see it again.
O'Reilly's nostalgia, though, channeled through his stern persona on The O'Reilly Factor, is almost mechanical. That explained the name I already had in mind for O'Reilly's act—in my dream, mind you. Certainly it wasn't a phrase that just came to me during my waking hours, because why would I spend my valuable time thinking about such a thing, right?
Anyway, the name: Bill O'Reilly's Rock & Roll Machine.
But what did that mean? In my dream I couldn't figure it out, and from those shadowy depths of the corporate hallways, the record-exec goons were coming for me, demanding a brilliant idea. I couldn't call T. Bone Burnett or Rick Rubin. I was screwed.
Then it hit me: Elvis. I had to get Elvis Presley to play with O'Reilly. Papa Bear loves Elvis, particularly the truck driver-turned-hip shakin' sex symbol. Not the Vegas version.
For O'Reilly, Presley is the lodestone of rock 'n' roll; all things are drawn back to his magnet. He's talked about Presley many times on his show, supplying platitudes like "Elvis has been able to capture a whole new generation of fans" when discussing The King's legacy with a TV Guide editor in 2005. ("The young Elvis," she said. "That's kind of what we're celebrating… when he was young and beautiful." In other words, just the good part.) O'Reilly waxed poetic about Presley in his book A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity and more recently used him as a point of comparison forPSY's "Gangnam Style" and Lady Gaga's rise to stardom. "Today, Lady Gaga is channeling her inner Elvis as our time, in some ways, parallels the 1950s," he or one of his staffers wrote in 2011. The youngs today "value individuality and excitement, which Lady Gaga provides almost non-stop. Thus, Gaga has become a symbol as well as a entertainer." But, warned O'Reilly, she must face the same dangers Elvis faced. "The problem is that while the lady may portray herself as a tramp"—yikes!—"she cannot possibly keep up the frenetic pace."
In my dream, Elvis was holed up somewhere, working on the 11th volume of his memoirs. We just needed to track him down.
Elvis would transport O'Reilly and the rest of us from the corrupted present day back to the innocent dreamland of pre-'60s America, when music and progress were safely apolitical, just fashion, and before those liberal hippies ruined everything by cramming politics into rock music. Oh sure, that was complete bollocks. I knew that. While O'Reilly had recently nattered on about something he called "the grievance industry", he needed only look to himself for its mirror-image: the conservative industry of victimization in which good, upstanding Americans have had their paradise ruined by less worthy, not-really-Americans.
For that to be true, America had to have been a paradise at one point—and to sell that, you have to start lying. A lot. Nostalgia is an industry-standard lie, a staple of its advertising; it simplifies the past, partly by glorifying its icons, whether it's the near-holy Founding Fathers or the even holier Elvis. But in order to show how we've trashed Eden, you keep certain unlikeable parts of the past, too. You need Elvis' fall from grace to brighten the angelic glow of his early years. And your own.
But there was no way I was going to bring all that up. I was in this for the money.
A problem occurred to me then: like anyone else, O'Reilly would be in awe of Elvis. He'd freeze up. He needed a contemporary, but one who held the same beliefs and was suitably nostalgic.
Like Meat Loaf. Perfect! An avowed conservative about the same age as O'Reilly whose entire career is based on nostalgic, overblown songs.
I'd fill out the rest of the band with session guys. They'd work for peanuts. Maybe, like McDonalds, I could offer an unknown and presumably broke indie rock band the chance to coattail on O'Reilly's prestige, since you can tell the electric company you'll be paying the overdue bill "with prestige".
So I had a pretty good line-up, one that really locked in on the nostalgia thing. Just in time, too, as a nameless and faceless concert promoter swaggered in, tapping his iPad and presumably glaring at me behind his aviator shades.
He nodded as I explained my nostalgia hook, nodded at the name, nodded at Meat Loaf, shrugged at the mention of Elvis and said, "No problem."
"But this can't be some Golden Oldies tour," he added, his cheeks reddening. "It's missing the edge! Where's the damn edge? Where's the damn 'machine'?"
I had one hour, he said. No explanation of what would happen after that.
The guy was right, though, no doubt about it. I hadn't yet captured how O'Reilly blends nostalgia with provocation and automation. Papa Bear is complicated. He carries himself with such self-righteous dignity, like a block of granite that occasionally smiles. So many of the other dunderheads on FOX News seem like they're still hosting Inside Edition, but O'Reilly left that gutter a long time ago and is never going back. He's refined, like his forebear William F. Buckley, but unlike that blueblood, O'Reilly came up the hard way. He speaks with working-class brusqueness. He wants you to know he's a straight-shooter who owes allegiance to God and Country but, if necessary, will go outlaw like the popular Wild West cowboys of his youth.
That means he's not tied to those conservative schmucks, either. He said with a presumably straight face to Terry Gross during a Fresh Air interview in 2003, "I'm not a political guy in the sense that I embrace an ideology. To this day I'm an independent thinker, an independent voter, I'm a registered independent…" Then he added, "(T)here are certain fundamental things that this country was founded upon that I respect and don't want changed. That separates me from the secularists who want a complete overhaul of how the country is run." Not a shred of ideology in that, is there? Certainly we wouldn't want to call him a traditionalist.
I stirred the martini that had magically appeared in my lap. And yet, I thought, O'Reilly's so over the top. Larger than life. He combines candor with affectation until nothing seems genuine. That's the combo I was looking for.
And then it happened.
Music blasted from above, bathing me in its aura: a tight riff and power chords, distorted but never out of control, rode down on the wheels of precise drums, and then a warlock-ish voice sang: "Tonight's! The night! Everybody's at the show!"
Of course! I knew I'd heard the phrase before. Filling the room was the glory of "Rock & Roll Machine" the title track of the Canadian band Triumph's second album. With that airless quality common to so much hard rock from the late '70s, the song sounds like an outtake from Spinal Tap. You can only listen in awe as Rik Emmett takes you on a three-minute guitar solo filled with rock 'n' roll wet dreams: arpeggiation, trills, notes played as fast as possible, notes drowned in chorus or reverb or God knows what—it's a quintessential bit of Guitar Hero wankery, except Emmett can actually play a real guitar. The whole band has chops. The song is spectacular and absurd and awesome.
Even better, it holds a secret nostalgia. The song is an ode to rock 'n' roll itself, sentimentality cloaked in speed, speed, speed. Drummer Gil Moore sings the intro lines then calls up the jump blues when he shouts, "Let's rock and reel it / any way you feel it!" Yeah! It's the '50s all over again! "Rock & Roll Machine" played its small part in the great retro act of the '70s, maybe the first true retro movement in pop music, when a jaded and disappointed generation turned away from politics and looked for the supposedly apolitical magic in pre-Kennedy, nothing-but-a-good-time rock 'n' roll. And yet, despite its nostalgia, "Rock & Roll Machine" is all bombast and indulgence, the mechanical repetition of cultural motifs that by 1977, when the song was released, had become an entire industry of ahistorical fakery—just like Bill O'Reilly.
That's when, in my dream, I remembered why I'd been charged with this project: damage control. Apparently, some liberal goons at Mother Jones had accused O'Reilly of exaggerating his claims that he'd seen combat as a journalist in Argentina during the Falklands War. Apparently that combat was a protest in Buenos Aries. Apparently that protest was not terribly violent, according to a bunch of other journalists who were there. "The protest in Buenos Aires was not combat," wrote the authors. "Nor was it part of the Falklands war. It happened more than a thousand miles from the war—after the fighting was over. Yet O'Reilly has referred to his work in Argentina—and his rescue of his cameraman—as occurring in a 'war zone.' And he once told a viewer who caught his show in Argentina, 'Tell everybody down there I covered the Falklands war. They'll remember.'"
Bah! Nostalgia has no need for facts. The history you remember is the history that happened.
Since actual history is pretty complicated, nostalgia must not only be simple, it has to be direct and overwhelming in order for its version of history to win. That's how '70s hard rock cemented the nostalgic version of rock, erasing the existence of the art form's politics with sonic power, flash, and longing disguised as promises. Come to think of it, that's how FOX News operates. Watch the network, watch O'Reilly: you see a group of sad people crying behind their Botox smiles as they pine away for a '50s America that didn't actually exist; it's just a dream that can't be fulfilled or gotten back. You see, too, how that longing for home—homesickness, which is what the word "nostalgia" means—is both hidden and justified by lies.
Nostalgia has its uses, its benefits. Psychologists have pointed this out. But is it useful and beneficial when it obscures the reality of the past and present, usually in the service of power, prestige, and making a buck?
Well, that would be the method of Bill O'Reilly's Rock & Roll Machine. No, the song itself wouldn't be popular enough for Papa Bear, having only reached #36 on the Pop Singles chart. (Where I was getting this information from, I had no idea.) But we could build the show around it. "Rock & Roll Machine" even had an ode to O'Reilly built in, despite what various lyrics websites tell you: "Get set/ get ready/ Papa wants to rock 'n' roll!" The song would be the cornerstone of my approach. Seventies hard rock would supply the flamboyance, the prog-rock spectacle, the edge—I could just imagine the promoter's glee at booking Nugent after all—and at its heart would be an almost robotic brand of nostalgia. Something you could really depend on. We'd throw in some Cheap Trick, some KISS, and of course mix in Meat Loaf and Elvis. Instead of going retro on the '50s, we'd retro the retro of the '70s.
Some music fans would be flabbergasted and horrified at the suggestion that the same nostalgia underpinning O'Reilly's persona and FOX News' flamboyant disregard for truth might also be the hidden structure of so much rock 'n' roll, including hard rock. Those people would not be coming to see Bill O'Reilly's Rock & Roll Machine.
In defense of the song, though, "Rock & Roll Machine" doesn't pretend to be something it's not. We do. We make it something else.
O'Reilly does pretend, just like the network he's made so successful. He claims to be a journalist, a "fair and balanced" commentator. After all is said and done, though, he's really just an entertainer.
The problem is, too many of us pretend he's more than that.
I'd show them.
From down the hall came the hard click-click of the promoter's expensive shoes on the tile floor. I leaned back on the leather sofa, sipped from the latte that had been a martini, and remembered a time when I never would have sold out like this. I had been a young idealist who never compromised. Ah, those were the days.
Maybe, I thought, none of us can escape nostalgia. Maybe it's always in the air, waiting until we need it. Maybe we're destined to believe the tall tales and start telling our own, speaking—and rocking—loud and fast enough to avoid that moment when we realize we've been making the whole thing up.
Splash image: Still from The O'Reilly Factor.