By Christopher Cudworth
One must always be wary of how you read–or do not understand–the lyrics of a song, lest you get the message altogether wrong.
Recent history (the last 40 years or so) offers up so many examples of politicians who, in hopes of winning favor or at least appearing modestly hip in some way, go grab a rock song as a theme for their campaign without having the slightest idea what the song actually means. Sometimes the song grab works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Born In The USA
President Ronald Reagan’s campaign staff once claimed that he liked Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” because of its seemingly positive message about being born in America. That thought originated perhaps with conservative columnist George Will, who seemingly looked only at the surface of the song’s anthemic refrain and correspondingly lauded Springsteen’s concert audiences, who sometimes waved flags. The anthemic tone of the song and a bit of flag-waving was enough for conservatives to think that Springsteen represented their interests. They were wrong. Dead wrong.
The song Born In the USA is instead a musical protest against the many ways America chronically abuses its soldiers, especially through the death mills of Vietnam, and also Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan, if you get the metaphor. The song also criticizes the fact that America generally disavows the working class, and the overall theme of the song “Born In the USA” is a statement of bitter irony. Yet facts like those get entirely lost in the shuffle of propagandistic fervor. Born In the USA is in many ways the farthest thing possible from a conservative anthem. Yet somehow the song was nearly co-opted, and ignorantly so, for those very purposes. It makes you wonder how much else in life we are getting wrong.
Further on down the road
In the 2008 race against Barack Obama, GOP candidate John McCain tried to employ the Jackson Browne song “Running On Empty” in a campaign ad. Problem was, the McCain campaign did not have rights to use the song and Jackson Browne sued to stop McCain’s use of the song, and won his case.
The greater fact at work was that the message of the song and the purpose to which it was being used were in metaphorical opposition. The lyrics of Running On Empty are about survival in the face of difficulty, especially the emotional taxation wrought by keeping up with a world that attempts to commodify the very soul of human beings.
Granted, the idea behind “Running On Empty” is a political message of sorts, but not the vacuous sort to which McCain was imposing on it, using just the title and refrain as a slam on McCain’s opponent Barack Obama.
The lyrics of the song focus on self exploration and the search for a personal philosophy in the face of life’s pressures, and how empty that can leave you feeling. When someone is “Running On Empty” it means they are looking for emotional support. As runners and riders, we can all relate to that. Our pursuits are both a physical and an emotional challenge. It is how we both test and reward ourselves, refining character along with health. Of course life itself offers many such tests.
Here are some lyrics from the song:
Running On Empty (Jackson Browne)
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields
In sixty-five I was seventeen and running up one-on-one
I don’t know where I’m running now, I’m just running on
Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive
Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive
In sixty-nine I was twenty-one and I called the road my own
I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on
You can see why on many levels Browne protested use of the song against the grain of its message. And of course Jackson Browne has communicated clear political purpose in his own life as one of the leading advocates for liberal causes throughout his career. All that is reflected in his music, and some say he actually paid the price in terms of popularity for being too preachy along the road of his career.
Yet his 1980s music has proven prophetic in so many ways. Here are lyrics from another song that seem so predictive of what was to come for America 20 years after they were written:
Lives in the Balance
I’ve been waiting for something to happen
For a week or a month or a year
With the blood in the ink of the headlines
And the sound of the crowd in my ear
You might ask what it takes to remember
When you know that you’ve seen it before
Where a government lies to a people
And a country is drifting to war
And there’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who send the guns
To the wars that are fought in places
Where their business interest runs
On the radio talk shows and the t.v.
You hear one thing again and again
How the u.s.a. stands for freedom
And we come to the aid of a friend
But who are the ones that we call our friends–
These governments killing their own?
Or the people who finally can’t take any more
And they pick up a gun or a brick or a stone
There are lives in the balance
There are people under fire
There are children at the cannons
And there is blood on the wire.
All these lyrics were written well before the advent of a news media polarized by its own need for courting partisanship to gain audience. But you read these lyrics and realize that Jackson Browne literally read the tea leaves. He saw it all coming down the road.
We are only Running On Empty when we fail to grasp the meaning of the present in its true context, you see. That is true for us personally as well as politically. Being satisfied with the “surface” of things and turning everything profound into a cheap slogan is a dangerous habit of mind. It leads to shallow convictions that only appear deep because they are shouted loudly. We see that in the way that our religions have been reduced to political slogans. The way anti-intellectualism has been allowed to prosper across the face of a nation once proud of its intellectual resources. The way news has been compromised and commodified in favor of opinion and yes, even lies substituted for truth.
What runners and riders can, and should do
As people who seek meaning from hard effort, people who run and ride really should use their personal pursuits to consider the impact of their thoughts on the world. Many people do. Many people transform their efforts into fund raising for good causes. Others dedicate their running or riding to drive awareness for human need. Still others use their time on the road for creativity, problem solving and self actualization. All are worthy causes.
None of us is perfect in our pursuits, and all are subject to failure. But that is both the reality and the challenge of why we do what we do. One of the great paradoxes of our time is standing in our midst. Lance Armstrong used his athletic talents to conquer the world, then he did good with what he accomplished, forming the Livestrong Foundation and taking on politicians about the issues of cancer head on.
Yet he is also human, prodigiously so. He fell in love with the shallow aspects of fame over the consequences of how he got there. He is paying the price now, yet his painful journey and great accomplishments continue to divide the world over forgiveness and penance. His example is both glorious and repulsive. Just like all of us. God knows.
Avoiding the shallow
It seems funny in a way, that our political “races” and partisan divides tend to be based on such shallow premises. Perhaps what the people of America and the world really need to do more often is go out and exhaust themselves in thoughtful physical effort. Of course the so-called “working man” has always done so, as has the “working woman” and those are social causations we do need to consider. The realities of class and economics and the so-called leisure to “work out” are factors we cannot take for granted, yet neither can we marry ourselves to guilt. Many a poor Kenyan runner has raced themselves to wealth and glory, and people all over the world ride bikes as a means of transportation, not just recreation. So there are unseen connections between what we might love to do and the things we need to do to survive.
Keeping Your Love Alive–The Hudson Branch
Matt Boll, Enoch Kim, Jacob Boll, Corey Bienart, and Cobey Bienart of The Hudson Branch. (Photo courtesy of Jacob Boll.)
Gotta do what you can just to keep your love alive.
And with that thought, we conclude this Sunday blog at We Run and Ride with a link to a brand new song by a band with whom I am friends, and whom I have written about at Yahoo! The band is called The Hudson Branch and their new song is titled “Keep On Running.” The lyrics deal with keeping your love alive, for sure. The band was recently featured on Chicago’s WXRT New Music and they have a new album titled Yesterday. The LP will be followed by albums titled Today and Tomorrow.
I’ve known one of the musicians in the group for 6 or 7 years now and played in a church Praise Band with him. His voice and talent have always amazed me. His name is Matthew Boll, and his dedication to his music is every bit as inspiring as watching an athlete in deep training. In fact his brother Jared Boll is a professional hockey player for the Columbus Blue Jackets. Another brother, Jake Boll, is a guitarist with Hudson Branch.
It goes to show whether you’re running your fingers up a fretboard, running your skates over the ice or running and riding the road on your own, it really does matter. What you do matters. Keep that love alive.
As we all know, President Bill Clinton recruited the Fleetwood Mac song “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” as part of his campaign theme. The band performed performed the song live with the Clintons present, but you really have to laugh that he and many others in the audience seemed unable to clap in time with the music. Perhaps that’s a liberal trait. Lack of good timing. We’ll discuss that on another day.