Rockin’ in the Free World

Rockin’ in the Free World

Roughly two weeks ago, Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, visited Ukraine to reassure the government there that the Biden Administration stands firmly and enduringly with the nation and its people in their war against Russia.  If I were a Ukrainian – President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for example – that might make me a little nervous, given the administration’s record of support for its “allies.”  Fortunately for any Ukrainians thusly concerned, however, Blinken demonstrated his undying allegiance as only a Baby Boomer Secretary of State could: he took the press with him to a Kyiv bar and then got up on stage to play guitar with the band as they covered Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”  Because of course he did.

Now, before you go calling Blinken an idiot and suggesting that this was, inarguably, the dumbest and least substantive gesture an American Secretary of State has made to an ally in its moment of need, I will remind you that there is precedent for such dumbassery:

In the days following the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store, the White House has come under intense criticism for not dispatching a high-level official to join last Sunday’s solidarity march in Paris. More than 40 world leaders joined French President Francois Hollande for the event, but the United States only sent along its ambassador in Paris.

On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry sought to sing his way out of the controversy. Following meetings with Hollande, Kerry — a notorious Francophile and classical guitar player — appeared at the Paris city hall alongside James Taylor, who delivered a rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend.”

Because of course he did.

To be fair, John Kerry – born December 11, 1943 – is not technically a Baby Boomer, although he has long exemplified that generation’s most prominent negative characteristics, including its propensity to favor the symbolic over the substantive.  Recall that this is the guy who, by his own account, only “pretended” to throw away his Vietnam War service medals as an act of protest against American policy in Southeast Asia.  Because of course he did.

Some of you may think it a bit strange that someone like me – who writes about music more often than he writes about anything else, save ESG – would criticize Blinken and Kerry for their use of music in foreign policy, but there’s a difference (and it’s not just that I’m some nobody sitting in his basement in his jammies, while they’re America’s top diplomats).

When I use music, I use it as a metaphor, which is precisely how it’s meant to be used.  I don’t always use it as the same metaphor or in the same context as the artists who perform the music, but that’s not the point.  Music is meant to be expressive, to convey emotions, sentiments, and ideas.  I don’t know anything at all about the finer points of musical composition or even musical performance.  All I know is how it makes me feel, what it makes me think, and where it directs my imagination.

By contrast, Kerry and Blinken used music differently.  They used it as a substitute for policy.  “We don’t know how to SHOW you that we’re your ally and are willing to help you, but here’s a song that conveys the sentiments in a way that makes us look cool.”  In so doing, they demonstrated their lack of thoughtful policy consideration, expressed their radical self-absorption, and, perhaps most importantly, perverted the music, making it just one more tool of political and cultural indoctrination.

Fittingly, this last bit is not something that Kerry and Blinken came up with on their own.  It is, in fact, the defining characteristic of many of the musicians of their generation.  Clearly, not all popular Baby Boomer music was politically charged and politically directed, but much of it was.  And as a result, much of it not only fails the test of time but also seems ridiculous in retrospect.

Look, I love Bob Dylan as much as the next guy, but his political stuff from the 1960s and ‘70s is lyrically so bad that even he has had to denounce much of it (and good on him for doing so).  That the “voice of a generation” (who was also, technically, not of the generation) wrote millenarian inanities such as the following is tragic enough.  That millions of fans bought into it and let it guide their political sensibilities is infinitely worse:

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

They are, are they?  Coulda fooled me.

Again, this is the triumph of the political over the musical and cultural, the victory of style over substance.  It is no coincidence that the best music of the era (the ‘60s and ‘70s) was either overtly non-political or was/is great IN SPITE of, not because of, its political overtones.  No one is sitting around today listening to Buffalo Springfield, thinking to themselves, “Wow! These guys really got it, man!”

Actually, now that I think about it, some people probably are sitting around thinking that.  And those people are all in “public service” – possibly at the State Department – and they all think that they too really get it, and they too can change the world just by believing and saying the right things.  They haven’t thought much about what they might need to do to actuate their political dreams, but they sure as heck know what to think and say about them.  And they probably even know what their “walk-on song” should be.

Ironically, the song that Blinken played in Kyiv – “Rockin’ in the Free World – was written and performed by a former member of Buffalo Springfield and was radically inappropriate for the occasion.  It’s Neil Young’s self-indulgent complaint about how “the free world” doesn’t live up to the hype, that it isn’t as perfect as he would like it to be.  I’m not sure why the secretary of State would want to convey that message to people fighting for their freedom, but then, he didn’t ask me.

He never does.

Stephen Soukup
Stephen Soukup
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Steve Soukup is the Vice President and Publisher of The Political Forum, an “independent research provider” that delivers research and consulting services to the institutional investment community, with an emphasis on economic, social, political, and geopolitical events that are likely to have an impact on the financial markets in the United States and abroad.