LOOK, I DON'T want to spoil the party, but damned if I'm about to sing along to "The Times They Are A-Changin'." As soon as that acoustic guitar appeared onstage at the Green Party's Nader-LaDuke rally this summer, I got queasy. Everything had been going well until then. More of us than the auditorium could contain had crouched, kneeled, squatted, and waited for some time, and, as a result of this shared experience, had begun to coalesce into a group called Us. But suddenly, those cheerily participating in the chorus subdivided into Them, a visible and audible cliché of the Old Left.
Sure I've got the usual (and debatable) aesthetic quibbles: The song is Dylan at his most flatly programmatic. Then there's the guilt-by-association angle: How relevant can a tune remain after it has been appropriated by both Billy Joel and the Knack? But the determining factor is both the least honorable and hardest to shrug off--a lot of that Sixties protest crap just seems plain corny nowadays. Because if a well-meaning (albeit severely lapsed) lefty like me, primed to man the barricades (okay, at least in theory), thinks your shtick is corny, what do you think the...well, you know, the people are going to think?
So I was thrilled when a recent First Avenue mailer announced the Justice Jam, a benefit for the Greens, which will use not just electricity but actual rock bands. Concert organizer Jennifer Liebenow has assembled a solid show, ranging from the straightforward power pop of the Pushbacks and the Beatifics to the industrial flame-throwing of Savage Aural Hotbed. In this context, both Paul Metsa and Fodé Bangoura's drum circle lends a bit too much of a folkie air, and it all but abstains from hip hop, relying upon club DJ Francisco to supply all the beats. But it strikes me as a hand reached out to lumpen bohemia, a foolish yet vital demographic that I'm just getting around to admitting describes me. And maybe you, too.
No one likes to think or talk of themselves as "bohemians" anymore, a word that smacks of beatnik jive or smugly deliberate outside posing. The underground generally seems to be ruled by an irrelevant hip-ocracy wearing silly glasses and elected upon a platform of rampant irony. And books like Ann Powers's confused scenester hagiography Weird Like Us: My Bohemia don't help either. But the fact remains: The Twin Cities music scene isn't apolitical, any more than I am apolitical. But a large chunk of it isn't politically active, any more than I am politically active. There's a gap between political sensibility and political action, and with boom-time grabonomics trickling down into issues like gentrification and temp-pool indenture--issues that affect the slacker next door--maybe it's time to reconnect the two.
I started thinking this way after breezing through the recently published American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (Metropolitan). Christine Stansell's indispensable history of turn-of-the-century Greenwich Village rests on two heartening and convincing assumptions. The first is that bohemia was implicitly political--demanding to choose whom you work with and whom you sleep with and whom you live with is a radically democratic proposition. The second is that bohemians in the period she discusses had a profound impact on the "lifestyles" of ordinary Americans--an impact anyone who lives with roommates into their 30s or uses birth control takes for granted. Bohemia wasn't just a ghetto of cool, but a reservoir of alternative energy.
These "lifestyle choices" were naturally the subject of struggles where bohemia intersected with the world, and with political movements. Stansell dedicates a chapter to "writer friends," those shamelessly partisan journalists who successfully courted popular sympathy with their coverage of Wobbly strikes and abuses of power. (This is before the ideology of journalistic "objectivity" was instituted to protect guess whose interests.)
Nader is hardly the ideal candidate to spearhead such a fusion. His somewhat puritanical take on popular culture would be damning and reactionary in a year in which our "liberal" ticket didn't include defender-of-decency Joe Lieberman and the husband of the nation's most celebrated censor. But just as I can't imagine casting a ballot for the continued plutocracy, I can't imagine participating in a grassroots movement that overlooks the vitality of pleasure. Populists must come to terms with popular culture; bohemia has to admit to its political myopia. Events like the Justice Jam could be the first step in reconnecting popular art and populist politics.