The Boss Rocks the Boat

Some of you may remember the slight stink that was kicked up a few weeks ago when federal Treasurer Wayne Swan paid tribute to Bruce Springsteen as a primary source of his political ideals. Mr Swan copped a surprising amount of flak for these comments. There were two main responses: Clive Palmer said that he didn’t need to look beyond Australian music for inspiration, and Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey argued that music is entertainment and not a legitimate source of political values. Great: a xenophobe and a philistine.

In response to the speech, Mr Hockey remarked: “It says everything about this government that it is guided by the principles of a rock singer,” and “If that’s the right benchmark we may as well have Glenn A. Baker and Molly Meldrum running the country.” Mr Hockey stated that to him music was simply “entertainment” and pointed instead to thinkers and politicians of the past, such as J. S. Mill, Adam Smith and Robert Menzies as his sources of inspiration.

Interestingly, it wasn’t Springsteen’s political values themselves that were derided (for example, he supports marriage equality while the coalition does not). Nor were they the arguments put forward by Mr Swan, who condemned Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer for using their wealth to influence politics beyond the means of an ordinary citizen, while championing a rock star who arguably does the same thing. In fact what was targeted was the very idea that music is anything more than just entertainment.

Leaving aside the snobbish undertone of Mr Hockey’s comments (as though someone would need to read Mill in order to form real values), they are frightfully dull, and demonstrative of the coalition’s attitude towards culture and the arts. It seems rather strange that in a country that prides itself on its relative lack of class boundaries and a strong working people’s culture, a politician would be ridiculed for deriving his values from the lyrics of a rock musician. It also shows a striking ignorance of the fact that great thinkers from Plato to Nietzsche and beyond have seen music as fundamentally important to human affairs. It’s a part of what makes us human and what makes life bearable, and is therefore essentially connected with politics.

Rock and obviously other genres have been almost inseparably linked with political struggles from the civil rights movement in sixties America, through Rock Against Racism in seventies Britain to Live 8 in more recent years. Think of the frequent attempts by governments worldwide to censor or downplay the role of music, because it was seen as a threat. And of course there’s the good old national anthem that, theoretically, expresses a country’s history and values in song form. Music has been used to celebrate victory or commemorate defeat, as a forum for criticism and commentary, as a manifesto, and it is particularly effective simply because it sounds good and therefore accesses our emotional side. Queue Springsteen.

He is a musician who has not shied away from activism outside of his music, but his fans will also point you towards the human quality of his songs (Bobby Jean, Born in the USA), their capacity to make ordinary life seem magical (Thunder Road, Rosalita come out tonight), not to mention demonstrating wisdom and a sense of fun (Badlands, Glory Days). In other words, he is loved for the values and principles that his music expresses. And these values stand and fall independently of who expresses them. Apart from the obvious fact that culture both reflects and informs our engagement with the world and each other, it shouldn’t matter where one finds values. It is what they are that does matter.

Regardless of whether Mr Swan’s actions in his role as a senior politician reflect the values he claims to have picked up from Springsteen, we as citizens could hardly fail to benefit from a few more musical values in politics. Once again Joe Hockey has missed the point, but if he wishes to rectify this he should probably go into the nearest record store and buy Greetings From Asbury Park NJ and find out what he’s been missing.