“Old Age Pension Check” (Roy Acuff)

The invention of social security “turned this country upside down.” All forms of needless striving dissolve: “drug stores will go bankrupt,” because people will feel well, and women will no longer need “cosmetics” to lure a husband. The attempt, today, to privatize the system is premised on our interest to “own” our own future; concerning this, Bush Redux says: “we’ve got to understand the power of compounding interest, the importance of savings, and the beauty of ownership in the American society” (3/1/02). But Acuff had hoped for a “second childhood” in which responsibility wasn’t premised on possession.  Otherwise, we’re all just going back to work (on our leisure).

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“Sheep” (Pink Floyd)

Produced by Roger Waters, Animals (1977) sounds like dry ice. There’s no place or space in this mix for a psychedelic communion of instruments. Instead, voices are constantly modulating toward machines, and the guitar delivers its message in biting, often atonal shards. This revolution is serious business. Translating capitalism into the terms of the animal fable, Roger Waters discovers three relevant categories: pigs (the one percent), dogs (aspirants, or those aggressively playing the “game”), and sheep (perfect victims). Religion, invented by the system in order to produce quiescent meat, is skewered; Waters rewrites Psalm 23 as preparation for the abattoir, and proposes, in its place, a rather unlikely but decidedly low-tech alternative: karate training. Karate, however, is deeply intertwined with the history of buddhisms. It is in no sense a secular practice, and its spiritual dimensions have provided platforms for both state rule and capitalist accumulation. (Indeed, Žižek says that if Max Weber were alive today, he’d likely write a book on the “buddhist ethic and the spirit of global capitalism”). Meanwhile, the sheep, who have become martial arts masters, achieve a Pyrrhic victory: “the dogs are dead,” but the pigs are still overhead, ready to carpet bomb. Even if your kicks are fast as lightning, you can’t defeat aerial bombardment by those who preside over the garrison state, with their cloven hooves on the triggers. So how do we read the sign “karate”? As hope from the East? As a weapon of the weak? As always already defeated and coopted? Whatever karate brings to the table, it still cannot execute a pork chop.


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“Kawa-Liga” (Hank Williams)

It’s all about a tree that has been cut, modified and commodified—turned into a red, cigar-store Indian. On the one hand, the tree, in the form of the brave warrior, aspires to human status. It wants to “show” something to the world—to speak and interact, for example, with the wooden Indian maiden across the street, peeking out from the antique store. But it also remembers a time before commodification, “when he was still an old pine tree,” communing in the forest. Perhaps this is the whole of the problem of the stereotype. It necessarily tends toward hardened inertia, and yet there is no clear alternative. Yes, one can fight stereotypes, and replace nasty, old types with seemingly benign and corrected new ones. But no matter how proud one is of these achievements, petrification begins again with representation and the market. A kind of reverse-Pinocchio strategy remains strangely plausible, however, and it starts by pining for the unformed.


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“I Don’t Like” (Chief Keef)

In his 2014 State of the Union address, President Obama declared that a “defining project of our generation is to restore [the] promise” of “the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead” despite the “accident of [your] birth.” With the introduction of the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, however, we’re encouraged to think structurally, from increased pre-school (“public savings” and a return on investment!) to “fair discipline practices” in schools and criminal court systems. Lest we think he’s appealing to crusty Baby Boomers in the former and white liberals/wonks in the latter, keep in mind that young men of color are a “drag on State and Federal budgets” that should be salvaged in order to “unlock their full potential.” (But as Michelle Obama points out, if her parents “did everything right,” their children would just “have a chance.” Slim odds, slimmer hopes.) Enter Chief Keef, avatar of Chicago lawlessness. There’s a whiff of racial discipline all around. Reviewers called his album everything from “irresponsible, unforgiving, and often infectious” to a representation of African American culture. How can young black and brown men account for themselves given these odds? Here, the trax flounders: snitches, whiners, pregnant women, wanna-be drug kingpins are all objects of derision. Then again, it’s also about cuckolding you. A monetization of the outlaw—both ways. Isn’t this what the whole conversation is about?

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“Golden Country” (R.E.O. Speedwagon)

According to this trax, there’s a certain kind of joy associated with being an embarrassed American. R.E.O. Speedwagon’s statement song—released two years before Nixon’s resignation and in the midst of continuing domestic/Vietnam violence—lyrically shifts the sheepishness over to those in power, momentarily. Your faces must be “so red,” we hear, given the race riots and “cryin’” of the anti-war left. And America’s general neglect of the poor, the starving, and the vulnerable will lead to only one result if there isn’t a day of (self-)reckoning: “your country will burn.” Shaming the powerful, the people will “put an end” to “all this ugliness.” But there’s a note of abandonment here as well. “Before we leave,” we’ll have to “make a stand.” Wait. Where are we going? Maybe more importantly, where’s the band going? Ending before a beginning, while everything’s started already. What looks like the verge is a monetization of protest—astroturfed, as well. An inadvertent antecedent to FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity, and Trumpism more generally. When standing up also means ponying up.


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“Something for Nothing” (The O’Jays)

Both Rush and Joni Mitchell are worried that others, who have done nothing, desire to have “something” or “everything.” These are the takers, and they aspire to grab it from the song makers. Dire Straights wrote about these folks, too, but with a hint of masculinist satire: laboring men want “money for nothing,” just like the “little faggot” on MTV. But let’s step back a moment and remember that once upon a time all property came from nothing. One day everything was held in common, and the next–poof!–there was stuff. “Something from nothing,” as the Foo Fighters say. And once there was stuff, property became “theft” as Proudhon’s famous, “perfect” maxim reminds. Anyone who had anything was now a robber. Yet the O’Jays remind us that the capitalists still dream of “something for nothing” like Twain’s Tom Sawyer at the whitewashed fence, producing pure surplus value. We might say of this stack of trax that they finally have little in common. But they do have “nothing” in common, which in all these cases stands in for the communal–both missing and forgotten.


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