Not A-MUSE-d: Some Thoughts on Revolutionary Chic in Music

For well over a year now, I have been thinking about the British rock band Muse and their album The Resistance, particularly the song “Uprising.”  I’ve offered quick critiques and analyses whenever I hear someone suggest Muse as a political band, and after hearing “Uprising” on the radio this morning, it seemed like high time to write out a longer analysis and explanation of why I have been so dismissive of a song that encourages us to “rise up and take the power back.”

You’d think that lyrics such as those would appeal to someone who openly advocates revolution and militant struggle, identifies as an anarchist, and has been listening to music like Rage Against the Machine, Dead Kennedys, Dead Prez, The Coup, Bob Dylan, David Rovics, and so on since the eighth grade.  But it’s politics is deeper than just pronouncing the same buzzwords as others who are political; and, as I intend to argue, Muse attempts to do little more than engage in aesthetic pseudopolitics and revolutionary chic, whereas the other bands and musicians I mention have demonstrably attempted to actually engage in politicization processes, if not directly aid liberation struggles.

My fascination with Muse goes back to their performance at the 2011 Grammy’s, held on February 13, 2011, in Los Angeles, as British students were amidst a wave of mobilization that included the occupation and vandalism of 30 Millbank, the Conservative Party headquarters, with even a bonfire set at the building.  During this performance, as Muse gave lip service to the difficult task of revolution, dancers dressed as riot police and black blockers performed a choreographed police riot on stage—or, at least, a mass media-induced caricature of one:

(for some reason, the video is mirrored)

It’s also worth looking at the lyrics:

Paranoia is in bloom
The PR transmissions will resume
They’ll try to push drugs that keep us all dumbed down
And hope that we will never see the truth around
Another promise, another scene
Another packaged lie to keep us trapped in greed
And all the green belts wrapped around our minds
And endless red tape to keep the truth confined

They will not force us
They will stop degrading us
They will not control us
We will be victorious

Interchanging mind control
Come let the revolution take its toll
If you could flick a switch and open your third eye
You’d see that we should never be afraid to die
Rise up and take the power back
It’s time the fat cats had a heart attack
You know that their time’s coming to an end
We have to unify and watch our flag ascend

Everything in the song seems to refer first to revolutionary imagery, and less to revolution itself.  It also seems to take a very superficial approach to politics that can be best termed either pseudopolitics or revolutionary chic.  “Pseudopolitics” is a term utilized by Christian Bay (and likely others before, albeit perhaps differently) in his critique of the field of Political Science, “Politics and Pseudopolitics” [1], to mean “activity that resembles political activity but is exclusively concerned with either the alleviation of personal neuroses or with promotion of private or private interest group advantage, deterred by no articulate or disinterested conception of what would be just or fair to other groups.”  Bay also describes pseudopolitics as “the counterfeit of politics.”  Conversely, Bay describes “politics” as “an instrument of reason, legitimately dedicated to the improvement of social conditions,” existing “for the purpose of progressively removing the most stultifying obstacles to free human development.”  For our purposes, I will hold to Bay’s conception of politics, amending his definition of pseudopolitics to include a feigning of politics for individual status purposes.

Radical chic, then, is a nuancing of pseudopolitics, taken to its narcissistic limits.  Coined by Tom Wolfe in his essay, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s” (later published in Wolfe’s 1970 book, Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers), described later by Michael Bracewell in his review of Wolfe’s essay as “an exercise in double-tracking one’s public image: on the one hand, defining oneself through committed allegiance to a radical cause, but on the other, vitally, demonstrating this allegiance because it is the fashionable, au courant way to be seen in moneyed, name-conscious Society.”  Bracewell also writes, “and while the cultural dynamics of the early 21st century are more confusingly elastic than were those of 1970, there remains an attraction for artists and curators in appropriating the mythic impact of political or counter-cultural extremism – often selecting the agency of those causes or personalities that come fully embossed with the glamour of sub-cultural ‘chic’.”  There’s even an emerging trend of “militant chic” or “terrorist chic” fashion that extends well beyond the stereotypical Che Guevara t-shirt, to include keffiyahs, combat boots, military caps and jackets, even bandanas.  The brand names you can find in a department store themselves indicate a pseudopolitics: 7 For All Mankind, Citizens of Humanity, Free People, Theory (just to sample Nordstrom).

Muse is hardly the first musical act to skirt radical chic; from Alicia Keys coming out as an anarchist to Rage Against the Machine to any other number of music videos or lyrics incorporating radical or dissident imagery, music has been closely intertwined with the political and the pseudopolitical.  Looking at the great political songwriters casts a sharp divide between political music and the pseudopolitical music of Muse’s The Resistance, but we can bring in other bands to show the stark contrast even in politics.

It’s hard to get more political than the folk music of the 60s and those who have followed in that tradition.  Phil Ochs’ “What Are You Fighting For”, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”, Pete Seeger’s “What Did You Learn In School,” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” and “The Death of Emmett Till” all serve as good examples of music that points to specific instances of social injustice, connects that injustice to the broader social structures of oppression, and pays attention to social and political contradictions.  They accomplish what organizers often refer to as “breaking down” how society functions, in order to educate the public on a mass scale and introduce them to liberatory politics.  “Hurricane,” about the arrest and conviction of boxer Ruben “Hurricane” Carter, drew attention to the case and was used to raise money for Carter’s defense, ultimately leading to his acquittal and freedom.

More recently, the punk scene has been built around these same principles.  The Dead Kennedys’ music takes on political issues, especially “California Über Alles” and “Holiday in Cambodia,” in a sarcastic, pull-no-punches way to attack Governor Jerry Brown and expose the brutality of the secret war in Cambodia.  Rage Against the Machine, musically innovative even apart from the political message, has played free shows outside the 2000 DNC in LA and without a permit at the 2008 RNC in St. Paul.  Even apart from the message and nature of these shows, vocalist Zack de la Rocha has been vocal defending Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal and supporting the EZLN (Zapatistas) in Chiapas and the South Central Farmers in Los Angeles, and guitarist Tom Morello is a card-carrying member of the LA Industrial Workers of the World branch and over the past year has been performing labor songs at the Wisconsin capitol and Occupy sites around the country, in addition to advocating around a number of issues and organizing benefit shows.  Even System of a Down, which lacks the political following of RATM, still has made an attempt at political music—“Deer Dance” is clearly about the police riot at the 2000 DNC in LA, while other songs have been about the Armenian Genocide.  Away from the music, vocalist Serj Tankian has teamed up with Tom Morello to found the non-profit Axis of Justice, which was formed to promote anti-racism and anti-fascism in music and bring other musicians together to support progressive causes.

Hip-hop has also had a prominent lineage of political and social messages, though Dead Prez and The Coup have stood out for both their lyrics and their off-stage activities.  In 2008, police attempted to arrest a concert-goer outside a Dead Prez show at Evergreen State College, and DP got the crowd to unarrest the person.  Boots Riley of The Coup (who also plays with Tom Morello in Street Sweeper Social Club) has been a vocal leader of Occupy Oakland.

This isn’t to say that other musicians and artists shouldn’t be criticized or commended, or that otherwise moderate or milquetoasty political lyrics don’t still reveal something important about the banality or contradictions of everyday life under our exigent political and social circumstances—I’ve long professed (to anyone that will listen) that a great dissertation would be a Marxian class analysis of Taylor Swift’s music.  Or even that music and art must have an overt political (and decidedly leftist or communist) content, though one would hope that art would have something to say about reality or cognition and not deliberately obfuscate the political or social dimension of that reality or its influence on cognition.

What the point is, then, is that there needs to be some cohesion between content and action, and revolutionary discourse needs to be genuine, grounded and meaningful.  This means that there shouldn’t be a separation between lyrics and the performer’s own action, on stage and off; if you’re going to talk the talk, back it up by walking the walk.  It also means that deliberately political music (even pseudopolitical music appropriating revolutionary imagery) needs to connect to and support relevant causes, educate listeners rather than make broad pronouncements, and above all actually seek social change rather than exhausting itself pretending to seek change.

That’s where Muse falls short.  Apart from being Glenn Beck’s favorite band, their politics don’t seem to digress much beyond a confusing existential libertarianism.  More broad pronouncements detached from real struggle continue in songs like “United States of Eurasia” and “Unnatural Selection,” which has the lines “I am hungry for some unrest / I want to push this beyond a peaceful protest / I wanna speak in a language that they’ll understand.”  While such language is joyously reminiscent of a poster at LA City College that had occupiers feeling uneasy (it read “talk to cops in a language they understand” with a picture of an assault rifle), it falls shallow, as the rest of the lyrics make it obvious that frontman Matt Bellamy has never actually been to a non-peaceful protest, but has only seen them on BBC.  Even more annoying, he has waffled on being a 9/11 conspiracist [2].  Lyrics to the song “Assassin”—”War is overdue / The time has come for you / to shoot your leaders down / Join forces underground”—make you wonder if they know the history of the Angry Brigade, the British kin to the Weather Underground or Red Army Faction.

I should be the last to tell anyone not to listen to Muse; they are, of course, very talented, and I’ve listened to them since Absolution came out.  I sing along to “Uprising” and “The Resistance” when they come on the radio.  But they’re not very good as a political band.  There’s plenty of other musicians who are both very talented but also project real politics rather than forcing pseudopolitics, some of whom are promoted in this article.  If Muse happens to contribute to class consciousness and revolutionary agency in the US or UK, great—but I’m not holding my breath.

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[1] Bay, Christian. 1965. “Politics and Pseudopolitics: A Critical Evaluation of Some Behavioral Literature.” American Political Science Review 59(1): 39-51.

[2] Fricke, David. 2009. “Global Superstars Muse Explode in America.” Rolling Stone, October 15: 13-4.