Mark Vallen - September 2004

Let's not confuse "being rebellious" with being a political radical. There are many examples of "rebels" who also happened to be politically conservative, and the world of contemporary music contains its share of such personalities from Elvis Presley and Alice Cooper to Marilyn Manson.

I think it's important for people to separate an artist's work from an artist's private life. Ultimately what matters is the artist's creative output. One should judge an artwork solely on its merits, and avoid judging it based on whether or not we like the artwork's creator. When applying a political critique to an artwork, one should ask whether the work promotes conformity and complacency or inspires action? Does it shore up the status quo or subvert it? Does it act as a tranquilizing or liberating force?

Much has been said about Johnny Cash being a musician that stood with and for working people. But how many know that he also performed at Billy Graham revivals? Cash embraced Christianity and even recorded himself reading the complete New Testament (the CD box set of those readings are a popular item in Christian fundamentalist bookstores). None of that cancels out the fact that Cash's songs drew attention to the plight of working people, or that his artistic aim was true.

Much the same can be said of Johnny Ramone. Like the other members of the Ramones, he was raised in a working class neighborhood. While he personally turned to conservative politics as a way of understanding reality, in no way does that cancel out the fact that he remained true to his roots. Close friends of Johnny noted that his professed conservatism was at odds with his entire lifestyle. No one seemed to take his rightwing politics very seriously... especially since he was steeped in the world of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. If it is true that he admired Bush, it's a certainty the feeling was not mutual.

More importantly the Ramones existed as a cohesive unit, and an examination of the music produced by the band does NOT reveal an outfit driven by a rightwing agenda... quite the opposite. The lead singer of the band, Joey, was in fact a leftwing Jew who gave his time and energies to liberal causes. Dee Dee Ramone, the band's bassist and chief songwriter, wrote quintessential American pop songs about the country's dark social realities. But it was Johnny who held the band together with his rigid discipline and business smarts. Tragically all three are now gone, leaving former drummer Tommy as the last surviving member of the original band.

As I've stated, what matters in the end is an artist's creative output. Johnny's personal politics become irrelevant when compared to his artistic achievements and their social repercussions. In effect, Johnny and his fellow Ramones might as well have placed dynamite beneath the corporate rock machine. The band's three cord wall of sound detonated a social movement that is still with us today, and that is the legacy by which Johnny Ramone will be remembered.

Essay by Mark Vallen All rights reserved.

Essay on the 2004 US presidential elections
The Situationists and the banalization culture
What is "political art" and who defines it?

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