Maybe it’s the lull before the party conventions or just slow news dog days, but it seems like the stew pot of music and politics has been pulled to the front burner and turned up a notch. The regime in Russia has sentenced punk band Pussy Riot to two years in prison for a disruptive protest performance and further tarnished its own reputation at home and abroad with its authoritarian over-reaction. On our shores, Tom Morello raged against GOP Vice Presidential hopeful Paul Ryan’s reported affection for Rage Against The Machine, in what seems to be the latest in a long line of conservatives flagrantly missing the points made by their favorite pop and rock songwriters.
Then, to kick off the weekend, Hank Williams Jr. launched this verbal hand grenade out over an audience of more than 8,000 people at the Iowa State Fair on Friday night:
“We’ve got a Muslim president who hates farming, hates the military, hates the U.S., and we hate him!”
Let’s unpack this a little to fully appreciate its awfulness.
Hank Jr. of course was in the news for this kind of thing last fall when his clumsy words likening Obama to Hitler got him pulled from the opening of Monday Night Football. But that was really only a confused and weird analogy from a man whose political wisdom could be measured by his support for Herman Cain. Then in a recent Rolling Stone interview, we learned the depths of Hank Jr.’s deluded picture of the president, as someone who “does a call to the Quran or Mecca.” And now it seems he’s got his story down pat. The Iowa statement is by far his most concise and coherent so far, as well as his most repellant.
I think it’s understandable and socially healthy that country music has outspoken conservatives in its midst, and I support their right to speak up on stage, in print or on blogs. They often embarrass themselves intellectually, but whatever. The world’s not going to remember John Rich anyway. But here we have a prominent figure in country music history - son of the most influential and revered country singer/songwriter of all time - making a statement that is by any reckoning untrue, cruel, gratuitous and chillingly seditious. It was, in a nutshell, the wingnut brief against Obama. Williams may buy into the darkest of right-wing talk radio garbage, but it’s his job as an entertainer, a temporary trustee of the Iowa State Fair and an emissary of country music to choose his words more carefully and to spend all of an hour and a half being professional. Letting your audience know how you feel about the president on stage is boring, but who cares?Cheering for America is swell, especially if you can manage to do it thoughtfully and inclusively. Telling four crowd-agitating lies in the space of 20 words crosses every bright line of respect, civility and dignity.
The obvious analog to this case of president abuse from a country music stage is the Dixie Chicks, nearly ten years ago now. Some will accuse me of hypocrisy for defending them while excoriating Hank Jr. Two points. There’s a world of difference between Natalie Maines’s snarky disclaimer (“we’re ashamed President Bush is from Texas”) and Hank’s direct call to “hate.” Maines didn’t accuse the president of anything at all and didn’t perpetuate any paranoid conspiracy theories about him. But more to the point, the country music business HAMMERED the Dixie Chicks for the remark in an unprecedented excommunication. No point in going over it again, but after a few days of hysteria, their career at country radio – the most successful for a band during that period of time – was over. Hank Jr. hasn’t enjoyed significant airplay at country radio for many years, so there’s no down to go there. But will any Hank Jr. constituents and professional team act in the public interest and let him know that spreading offensive lies from the stage is intolerable?
(I sent request for clarification of the incident and comment to his publicist Webster & Associates. Its receipt was acknowledged but there’s been no reply so far.)
More important context for these remarks is that the Country Music Hall of Fame recently wound down a huge, beautifully done, three-year special exhibit dedicated to the Williams family legacy, focused largely on the career of Hank Jr. They lent his southern rock meets lovesick blues shtick more credit than it deserved, but as a panoramic view from a flesh and blood Hank Williams Sr. (a great, imperfect man) to Hank Jr.’s musical children, it was vital and remarkable history. My point is that many good people worked really hard to put that together. With this escalating series of tirades against Obama, based not on facts and opinion but on birther-caliber paranoia, Williams disgraces that effort, even as he disgraces himself.
I do not believe in arbitrary separation of music and politics. I believe music should be a place where creative people debate ideas and make art that provokes. But social protest takes some artfulness and cleverness to justify the shock, not to mention information and a desire to clarify reality rather than distort it. And to his credit, Hank Jr. has written songs about what a drag he thinks Obama is; he's sung one just before this inicident. But his "Muslim" remarks should not be laughed off or dismissed as just the new normal of political discourse. They were vile and McCarthy-esque. And while he’ll remember the cheers he got for them, I can only think of the individuals in the crowd who felt shocked, offended and scared by the wave of alcohol-enabled aggression awakened around them.
Hank’s father was fired from the Grand Ole Opry when his drinking made him too unpredictable and obnoxious to book. There’s not much left to fire Hank Jr. from, but whatever there is, I hope they do so.