Rock the Vote?

Liberal Art

This week, I picked up a new album by Dave Matthews, prophet of the carefree joy of my high school years. But unlike the cheerful strains of late-nineties-Dave, the solo project Some Devil is a sober, even grim reflection of how much the world has changed in a few short years. The man who brought us the playful riffs of “Too Much” and “Everyday” is now promoting the album’s first single, “Gravedigger.” Matthews is not the only one undergoing a tonal shift; if you’ve paid attention to Radiohead this year, you know that they have grown not only darker, but more explicitly political. In titling their new project, for example, they replaced the cryptic inclinations that brought us previous efforts like or Kid A, and called this one Hail to the Thief.

Music is always regarded as an index of the times, so a glance at what’s changed in our short student lifetimes could tell us a thing or two. And indeed, there are some lessons in even a casual overview of what has happened to campus music trends just in the last few years.

When the class of ’04 arrived at Harvard, it was all about Dave Matthews Band. And that fit pretty well. Bill Clinton was president, Saddam was a joke and Anthrax was a metal band. Afghanistan was a place where, in commercials, shepherds were using the Internet to improve business. The government was running an unheard-of surplus, and we were too well-off and peaceful to know what to do with ourselves. And Dave was there, with his stringy, barefoot exhortations to “eat, drink, and be merry” and to make the most of our “One Sweet World.” A new record appeared in February of 2001—it must have been one of the last albums recorded during the Clinton administration—focusing on the importance of the “Everyday” as a possible route to progress. Lyrics like “pick me up love…everyday” seemed to offer a formula for advancing ourselves now that the country was, broadly speaking, in order. It was the new millennium, time to get cracking on personal and spiritual growth.

You may also remember that Sting had a big year then, with a similarly millennium-conscious album, its title heralding the world’s Brand New Day. A video of his hit song “Desert Rose” (the last collaboration anyone can remember between American and Arab pop culture icons) featured the singer, some malaise on his face, fiddling with a digital camera in the back seat of a slick black car, driving through the desert on his way to a gig in a hopping and vaguely Arab dance club with his collaborator, Cheb Mami. This said it all: we were globalized, technological, well-funded and figuring out what to do with the rest of the world.

Then all hell broke loose. Just as we were adjusting to the fact that our country could function even if the president didn’t completely know what he was doing, a team of Saudis with box cutters torpedoed our innocence. Right then, like our cell phones, our culture stopped working for a minute. What sense could the old Dave Matthews make when Dave Letterman was weeping on air? For one long winter, no one knew what the hell to do, except to vow that we would never be the same.

It’s at this point, when we swore to ourselves that we were changed, and it seemed the culture of irony had been replaced by a newfound sincerity, that we might have expected to see musical expressions of our new national solidarity and purpose. As America paused to trust the leadership it was accustomed to mocking, we might have seen a rebirth of faith in our music to tell us that what nearly killed us had made us stronger. But our startled leaders draped us in flags and led us into our history’s first war against an abstract idea, and our musicians captured our unredeemed state by summer.


The anthem of our new life came on an arresting new album from Eminem. Tossing expletives at Dick Cheney and Tipper Gore, Eminem was, as he put it, “dumping it on White America,” building a new narrative—aggressively American, abused, angry and alarming. He warned young Americans to think about a draft, joked about Dick Cheney’s cardiac health, and lashed out at the “Divided States of Embarrassment” for abandoning free speech. The national rhetoric of redemption began to ring hollow as this spokesperson of the Midwestern underclass resonated all the way to Harvard; sales tripled those of his previous release.

One summer later, it seemed everyone on campus was listening to Radiohead. The band’s tone of alienation and danger—more than one reviewer has found the word “unwell” an apt term for their feel—touched a nerve in America, which speaks volumes about how quickly things changed. The band’s frontman, Thom Yorke, admits puzzlement at why they continue to catch on, telling a reporter he’s “never been able to understand why so many people get it.” But given the temperature of the times, it should surprise no one that their dyspeptic experimentation is popular. We, too, are nationally unwell.

Reading music in this way is, of course, an imprecise science. There are other ways to interpret our favorite bands shifting from bright to dark, or from abstract to political, other ways to read the rise of angry white rap; and there are, obviously, counterexamples. Marilyn Manson’s shock-rock, after all, peaked at about the same time as the internet boom. But Marilyn Manson is a countercultural figure, not a figure of the modern American Zeitgeist. Manson will be remembered as a diversion, but our memories of 2002 may well be soundtracked by Eminem, who tapped something in the national psyche and lay claim to the national tone.

This brings us back to the question of leadership. Our political leaders are responsible for setting that tone and supporting that psyche, and music is not a bad way to look at how they’re doing with our country. Jimi Hendrix’s famous and tortured rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” in 1969 would have been as meaningless to a country reassured by and enamored of President Kennedy as it was necessary for a nation under Nixon. So one year from now, when the notoriously apathetic youth of America is asked to participate in the choosing of our national leadership, we’ll owe ourselves a few thoughts about how and why our national voice changed so quickly from a hopeful Dave Matthews telling us that “All you need is everyday” to an unwell Radiohead wondering why “two plus two always makes five.”

Peter P.M. Buttiegig ’04 is an history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.