Music of Autumn
Fall’s here, and the time is right for…hibernating. Despite having spent my entire life in the Midwest, I found myself in mid-September not believing that in a few weeks there would be cold weather, yellowed leaves and early sunsets. Sure enough, though, all of those circumstances arrived in early October.
When we had one of our first bona fide fall evenings here in Illinois a few weeks ago, it brought back memories for me of 1992. That was my last year of high school, and a harsh fall it was, although my moods seem alternately humorous and ludicrously self-indulgent in retrospect. (You’re only young once, I guess.) That summer had been fun, but the cold temperatures of October brought with them a feeling that the pleasures of that time were gone and wouldn’t be back for some time. (As one of my college professors announced with grim humor a couple years later, "Autumn in Ohio is here. You can expect to see the sun again in April.")
Around the same time temperatures started plummeting, R.E.M.‘s Automatic For The People arrived. The spring of the previous year, Out Of Time arrived after three uncertain years where I’d worried that Green signaled a retreat into mainstream nothingness, and that album was not only a return to form but a step beyond their previous work. Both the artwork and the music had their melancholic side but ultimately were bright and hopeful. On Automatic, though, the music was as gray as the cover, and it seemed another nail in the coffin of the good times. Thing was, though, the songs were still compelling, and I luxuriated in it as much as I did in my teenaged moods.
Alongside all of this, fall ’92 was also an election season. I’d been introduced to political dissent in 1984 when I saw my grandmother boo Ronald Reagan when he appeared in a TV commercial, something I didn’t think you were supposed to do when I was that age. Various things changed my views, though, and a fair amount of them had to do with music: looking for information on songs that moved me as much as R.E.M.‘s did, I also found political rhetoric from rock critics such as Dave Marsh and artists such as Frank Zappa. This wasn’t my only influence: my parents’ views and all of the other things that shape a young person’s mind played a part. But it was a strong one, and when Zappa commented in ’92 that the idea of having the party that harbored Pat Buchanan in power was enough to make him forgive the Democrats for having Tipper Gore as their Second Lady, I had already arrived at similar sentiments before he voiced them.
That year, the chance had materialized to take the country in a new direction after twelve years of Republican power. And when Clinton won, I remember that most of my teachers were dancing in the streets even though many of my classmates, a well-moneyed bunch with politics to match, were not.
R.E.M. had addressed this a bit on Automatic with "Ignoreland," and I noticed Michael Stipe making an even more daring, perhaps foolhardy, move four years earlier by stumping for Dukakis in the Rolling Stone classifieds. Flash forward 12 years, though, and the stakes seem even higher despite only four years with the Democrats out of power. These days, Zappa is gone and I’m not sure where Marsh is, but two of his musical favorites, Bruce Springsteen and John Fogerty, have taken to the road along with R.E.M. to make their political views explicit.
Some have questioned the validity of these artists taking this action and "telling people how to vote." Perhaps the conservative types are aware of how music’s power over the emotions can drive rhetoric home faster than mere verbal facility. They should know, since the right-wingers have tried to present Springsteen’s "born in the U.S.A." and Fogerty’s "hooray for the red, white and blue" exclamations as assertions of unthinking patriotism, although they’re entirely different things in context. R.E.M. haven’t made themselves easy prey for this sort of thing (maybe Bush Sr. could have made a play on "stand in the place where you live"?), but it is not justifiable to deny any of them the right to use their work to promote the ideas they choose, especially when there are many on the country end of the dial using their equally emotional work to support an entirely different set of notions.
I’m not sure whether political events will leave me celebrating or fleeing deeper into hibernation after November 2. It is certain, though, that 12 years from now music will still hold sway over the emotions of many, and politics may matter as much then as well. And I’ll probably still be in the Midwest, and the sunsets will still be arriving early in the fall.