Pop's Reagan Record: Sound & Fury
Sunday, June 13, 2004
The political pundits can hash over the legacy of the late Ronald Reagan until they run out of breath, ink and newsprint. And at the rate they're going, maybe they will. But in the world of rock and hip-hop the debate about the 40th president ended a long time ago -- and the verdict was a big thumbs down.
There's no central database for this sort of stuff, but it's safe to bet that no president in history ever inspired more vitriolic pop than Reagan. Loathing for the man seemed to transcend genres and age, and his name cropped up in lyrics pretty much nonstop through his eight years in office.
Where to begin? Prince needled him on "Ronnie Talk to Russia" in 1981, begging the leader of the free world to negotiate with the leader of the communist world and stave off Armageddon. ("Don't you blow up my world," Prince pleads toward the end.) Dead Kennedys, the punk pioneers from San Francisco, adapted the melody from a scathing song they'd written about California Gov. Jerry Brown and updated the words so that they were about Reagan. The song's title: "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now."
The Ramones poked at Reagan for his much-ridiculed 1985 visit to a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where Nazi soldiers were buried. "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," like every other Ramones tune, emphasized bluntness over poetry: "Bonzo goes to Bitburg, then goes out for a cup of tea / As I watched it on TV somehow it really bothered me." The Violent Femmes sounded equally enraged on "Old Mother Reagan," which reimagines him as a senile and dangerous grandmother who won't get past the Pearly Gates.
The jam rock band Phish pitched its anti-Ronald case to the former first lady in "Dear Mrs. Reagan," a song that reads too tastelessly to quote here. Billy Joel tosses Reagan into the long list of troublemakers he compiled in "We Didn't Start the Fire," rhyming "Reagan" with "Begin," not, sadly, for the last time.
And on it goes. Sting belittles Reagan on "Russians," Glenn Frey calls him a liar and cheat on "He Took Advantage (Blues for Ronald Reagan)." Fellow Eagle Don Henley tagged him "this tired old man that we elected king" in "The End of the Innocence." Rappers like Grandmaster Melle Mel denounced him, and a dozen-plus artists sampled Reagan's own voice and pasted it onto their music. Supertramp did, as well as Def Leppard on an antiwar song called "Gods of War."
Reagan, of course, isn't the first president to raise the dander of rockers. Richard Nixon inflamed Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, who immortalized their fury on "Ohio," a fist-shaker about the Kent State shootings. LBJ was the wellspring of plenty of protest music through the Vietnam War, though etiquette, generally speaking, then stood against mentioning the commander in chief by name.
Which is part of the answer to an obvious question: Why Reagan? There's no mystery about Ford, Carter and Bush the elder getting a pass -- really, who's going to write a song about a presidential pardon or stagflation or the savings and loan scandal? And Clinton was a Democrat, running the country through a period of peace and prosperity, and nobody with a guitar and attitude will have a beef with that. But it's hard to imagine Reagan was much more reviled than Nixon, or that the late 1960s under Johnson were any less tumultuous than the Reagan days. (Arguably there was more tumult, courtesy of the civil rights fights and the draft.) So how come Reagan gets worked over more than anyone?
We're squarely in the realm of guesswork here, but let's entertain a few theories. There's that matter of etiquette: Thirty years ago, corporations, and that includes major record labels, were warier of inciting the wrath of politicians, or they were at least more reluctant to stir up a massive stink. In 1977, EMI dropped the Sex Pistols because the label didn't want to soil its pillar-of-the-establishment reputation. Today EMI is home to Slipknot, a nu-metal act that performs wearing Halloween masks and is revered by fans for puking and bleeding on stage. It's been a long slide and it got underway just as Reagan was settling into the Oval Office.
And let's not overlook the simple, seething anger that Reagan inspired. He was the first president to declare war on the counterculture, a man who stood vocally against everything that rock stars hold dear, like sex and drugs, not to mention left-leaning politics. He was the national buzz kill, an affable scold. As bad, he didn't give a fig about being liked by the scenesters. Even Nixon dropped his uptight shtick long enough to turn up on "Laugh-In." Reagan was uncool and proud of it, and he tsk-tsked his adversaries with a big, perfect smile.
The guy, in other words, was asking for it. Even President Bush has yet to provoke anything close to the same outpouring of rock-related venom. But give him time. Prince is back on a major label, and Dubya, no darling of the pop world, might just get reelected.