Does ‘People Have the Power’ Actually Mean Anything?

Patti Smith's protest anthem may have lost its meaning over time.

May 15, 2018 5:00 am
Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Michael Stipe perform during "Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band" - 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at Beacon Theatre on April 23, 2018 in New York City.  (Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Michael Stipe perform during "Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band" - 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at Beacon Theatre on April 23, 2018 in New York City. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

A protest song is a song that’s so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullsh*t. — Phil Ochs

 Tweets were all atwitter, Facebook frantic, Instagram instantly gratified.

Three heroes — no, legends — no, gods — of the classic radio and college rock resistance, Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen and Michael Stipe, joined together on stage at the Beacon Theatre in New York City to sing Smith’s rousing anthem, “People Have the Power.”

Social media rejoiced. “Finally, our great liberal rock icons speak! Everything is going to be all right! There, together, are Patti, Michael and omigod Bruce, grinning and swaying and telling us ‘People Have The Power’! Why, that Orange Foolius in the White House is as good as gone!”

Only it was completely and utterly meaningless, as it always is.

Was there a single voter registration table in the room? While Patti, Michael, and Bruce raised their fists and raised the roof with the inspiring song, was the audience bombarded by flyers listing the Democratic candidates running in the midterms, and instructions on how ‘the people’ could support the campaigns? Were patrons directed to websites where they would find the names of people running for state and local assemblies which could advance Freedom’s Agenda?


Slogans were dispensed, thousands of backs were patted and self-patted, then patted and re-patted; shortly thereafter, images and video from four hundred and eighty-eight phones were loaded up into the tripe soup of social media, leading to the firm patting of even more backs; but not a single iota, not an eighth of a gram, of useful information, was dispensed.

Think about it: Was one single solitary mind or vote changed by this entire all-star empowerment tableau? Did one person watching in the theatre or one person seeing the clips on social media (or reading about the event in a Facebook feed) think, “Ah! I get it! What was I thinking? I will now vote differently in the midterms, and in the 2020 general election!”

In fact, this action – I mean non-action – was worse than nothing, because it provided the illusion of action: It left people thinking something had happened that would positively alter the fate of the Republic when, in fact, absolutely nothing had happened at all.

True, some people will say it wasn’t an “actual” Patti Smith concert – it was a mini-concert, following the premiere of a documentary about Smith, in an event connected to the Tribeca Film Festival. But I’m not buying that as an excuse. Smith’s performance (and the guest appearances) was a planned and scheduled aspect of the event. These are truly dangerous times, and I don’t need to detail why, do I? Our assumptions about the inevitable forward progress of humanism and freedom have been seriously disrupted, let’s just say that. A slogan shouted on stage without any tools to support it is worthless, and worse than worthless, it’s collaboration. If the arts don’t step up to the plate, we are all quislings.

I know you may be thinking, heck, it’s just a song. And that’s true. It is “just a song,” and a damn good one, too. But a collection of sharp, catchy statements set to memorable music is one thing during relatively placid times, and quite another thing when the nation is agitated, afraid, uncertain, and when intelligent activism is more important than ever. During dark times, an anthem without action is mocking, not rousing. It virtually underlines and bold-types our cowardice, complacency, and ineffectuality.

I do believe everyone on stage had his or her head and heart in the right place, I really do. I would be remiss if I didn’t note that Patti Smith is one of the very, very few authentic geniuses the medium of rock’n’roll has ever produced; Michael Stipe was, more than any one artist, the figure around whom an entire generation of outsiders gathered, an army of the artsy and the bookish and the bullied; and Bruce Springsteen, well, he’s Bruce Springsteen, that’s for sure.

Which is all to say that Smith, Stipe, and Springsteen all stand for something, at least that’s what we have believed for a generation. This belief is part and parcel with our artistic, emotional, and intellectual connection with these artists. And that’s why it is devastating that they stand for nothing when it matters, when they really need to take a stand.

In times like this, Bruce, Patti, and Stipe could have, should have, and must say to themselves: If I am going to sing that song, let me actually invest it with meaning by providing resources for change, and not just a pile of lyrics y’all will cheer to. And if I am not going to back the words up with instructions, resources, and action, well, then I’ll take that song out of the set and just sing “Mustang Sally.”

I see this all as yet another example of the false empowerment narrative of rock’n’roll, another example of how rock and pop have helped us win the culture wars, but contributed virtually nothing to the crucial fight for democracy.

Have you looked at the news recently? Winning the culture wars was a Pyrrhic victory, it is worse than meaningless, because it has lulled you into complacency. Oh, so your kids like the Beatles and Big Star, too! And you can wear Yoga Pants in public! And weed is legal!  Everything must be okay, because we can get all the tattoos we want, and there is so much nudity on those HBO shows!

Not one of those things assists, even remotely, in the fight for your children and grandchildren to experience democracy and freedom of thought, worship, and choice the way you did.

I remember how beautiful it was to believe in rock’n’roll.  Do you remember that gorgeous illusion? But without attaching action to talk, rock’n’roll is the self-righteous leading the gutless, the self-congratulating using activist optics not to bring about change, but to gather likes on Facebook.

The best way to save rock’n’roll is to use it to save.

One more quote from the great Phil Ochs: If there’s any hope for America, it lies in a revolution, and if there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Ché Guevara.

 Listen, friends, I do not expect Patti Smith, Michael Stipe or Bruce Springsteen to pick up a gun and lead a revolution.  I truly don’t. But if they are going to sing songs of revolution, the least I expect is that they’ll provide us with some tools to take to the polls in the midterm elections.

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