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Thursday, September 4, 2008

Rage Against the Machine in Minnesota and the state of political pop

I regret not making it to the Twin Cities to see Rage Against the Machine play the Target Center in Minneapolis tonight, sending its mighty roar over the Mississippi River toward Sarah Palin. But we do have the Internet, letting us in on other people's once-in-a-lifetime moments. Here's one:

That's Rage, getting down with a megaphone after being denied access to the stage at the Ripple Effect festival, a day-long event held Tuesday on the Minnesota State Capitol's Upper Mall to promote non-partisan progressive politics in the shadow of the Republican convention.

The band was supposed to be the fest's surprise closer, but according to the Ripple Effect blog, capitol staff and state law enforcement agents shut down the concert because Rage was starting too late -- a half hour before the event's scheduled 7 p.m. curfew.

Rage's megaphone set ended with the band inspiring thousands of protesters to march toward the Xcel Energy Center, site of the convention. The music fans joined a larger march before being dispersed by police.

In light of this protest, which Zack de la Rocha predicted in an interview with me a few weeks ago, it's interesting to consider the position Rage currently occupies. These guys are elders now, nearing or past 40; many of the activists who came out to see them are likely from the next generation. This isn't the usual way musical-political moments unfold.

Shifting paradigms usually require new voices to express what's happening. But (aside from the celebrity candidates themselves) this year's political campaign hasn't produced any new pop stars. Instead, it's caused already established figures from to Sheryl Crow to new heights of creativity and optimism.

It's not surprising that lifetime progressives like Crow have stepped out to provide their support -- or that John McCain's found a stumper in country star John Rich. Barack Obama's effect on the hip-hop scene has been well-documented; most recently, veteran producer Jermaine Dupri has posted his admiration on the Huffington Post, and Spike Lee has predicted that the senator's candidacy could lead to a new golden moment in the African American arts.

Yet no young voice has emerged to embody this surge, the way Bob Dylan did in the countercultural 1960s or Rage did in the street-activist 1990s. Right now, the story seems to be of midcareer artists finding a new spark and stepping out to lead again.

After hearing of the Ripple Effect protest, I happened upon a telling quote from David Berman, the poet who records music under the moniker Silver Jews. In an e-mail chat with the Toronto-based critic Carl Wilson, Berman reflected upon the relationship between "slackers" -- i.e., fortysomethings -- and their youngers (warning to Republicans reading this post: Berman is an unapologetic leftist):

My generation doesn't have 'following' skills. The younger generations, growing up in a more enlightened world perhaps, are team thinkers. My belief is that the next twenty years will be the story of what the adults (us) and the young adults (people born after 1980) do to recover from the damage that this exceptionally stupid and selfish generation of Republicans, businessmen and God-botherers has inflicted.

There is no doubt in my mind that the 40-year-old guys out there who think life has passed them by, the slackers who kept slacking while their peers sold out, will have a very active second half of their lives.

What happened with Rage Tuesday night in the Twin Cities seems to enforce Berman's view. The other headliners on the bill for Ripple Effect -- Michael Franti, Dead Prez, Anti-Flag -- are also in their mid-30s to 40s. None of them could be called slackers; but neither has any lived through a moment when their often radical progressive views connected with the politics of the mainstream. Until, perhaps, now.

There's still time for a new Rage (or Dylan, or the Clash, or Mavis Staples) to emerge with a fresh musical vision. For now, though, it seems enough to enjoy the midlife renewal of so many.

Meanwhile, I'd love to know who your visionaries are. Who's best capturing the rhythms of this political season in guitar chords, samples and beats?

-- Ann Powers