Tihs Is Mee; Revenue Rock

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Massachusetts ? By last weekend, Democrats were just beginning to realize that the corporate corruption scandals were not going to result in an automatic electoral windfall. Republicans have a structural advantage, thanks to the recent census that adds congressional seats to the Southern states. So if Democrats are going to take the House back in the fall, they're going to have to energize the electorate themselves?by "nationalizing" the elections, much as Newt did in 1994.

And Republicans are tying themselves in knots trying to stop them. All over town last week was a memo sent by Mitch Bainwol, director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the longtime political brains of Florida Sen. Connie Mack and now among the smartest of the Bushies' political operatives. Democrats, Bainwol says, "believe they can convince Americans that, because Republicans have received campaign contributions from certain corporations, Republicans are responsible for the criminal activities of people within those corporations."

Bainwol goes on to lay out a Republican interpretation of the corporate-corruption scandals?put less grandiosely, a list of talking points. He notes that Democratic CEOs?like Gary Winnick of the notorious, bankrupt Global Crossing?have bankrolled favorite pols every bit as assiduously as their Republican counterparts at Enron. Samuel Waksal of ImClone (Martha Stewart's alleged tipster) is far more a problem for Democrats than for Republicans. It's also true that corporate corruption is not the only corruption, and that Dems are more than competitive in other fields of graft. (Although the "letter of admonition" that New Jersey Democrat Bob Torricelli received last week from the Senate Ethics Committee is a blow to Republicans. It constitutes a slap on the wrist and a green light for the fall election. As Torch's Virginia Republican colleague George Allen says, it's a verdict of Not-guilty-but-you-have-to-return-the-horse.)

In general, Bainwol misses the boat, because Democrats are going to run the upcoming congressional elections against George W. Bush's biography?even though, as it is easy to forget, Bush himself isn't running this fall. This strategy falls under the category of cheap-but-legitimate. It's the political equivalent of the hidden-ball trick. For whatever party holds the presidency, the president is always like a stick drawing a kindergartner makes that reads Tihs Is Mee. And the picture Bush's biography draws of Republicans is that of coddled corporate hangers-on. It doesn't matter if Bush never put an Enron dollar in his pocket, just as it didn't matter in 1994 that Bill Clinton had no plans to burn the country down in the name of Flower (or Black or Solar) Power. Clinton was a hippie whatever he did, and Bush will be a Fat Cat likewise.

It's not that Bush's life is filled with illegalities. It's that it's now interesting to people who aren't sure how they'll vote. When the Daily News broke a story last week that Harken Energy had "an offshore subsidiary in the Cayman Islands," it looked like Bush's company had engaged in the very tax avoidance that the White House has condemned in recent press conferences. Which, of course, it had. Such tax flight is not necessarily economically un-virtuous. But what makes it particularly irresistible for the Dems to mention is that the Bush press operation seems to have a gift for making its own predicament worse. So you watch NBC Nightly News and one of their reporters intones that "The White House insists what Harken did was far different than companies like Enron that moved major operations there to specifically avoid paying taxes." (Oh, do tell me another! says Mr. Swing Voter. The Cayman Islands banking system exists to help people avoid paying taxes. What do you think attracted Harken there? The free toaster and personalized checks?)

In Any Event

Hanging around on a breezy beach in Massachusetts since arriving last week, I've got to listen to more rock than I usually do. (This is kind of a forced trip we're on. As my wife says, what's the point of marrying someone from Massachusetts?and having to endure all the Bay State sanctimony, superstition, dipsomania, snobbery and stinginess?if you don't get to go to the beach there in the summer?)

One staple on the family boombox has been the children's album No! that They Might Be Giants just made. I started the week plunged in Strausbaughian speculation about whether this is a great next step for TMBG, or whether they'd've been better off just fading into the sunset. But my doubts have passed. First, because the album is so terrific?a mix of actual new children's songs ("In The Middle, In The Middle, In The Middle") and weirdly beautiful vintage TMBG tunes of the "Ana Ng" variety ("The House at the Top of the Tree"). It leaves me wondering whether the band's appeal to me hasn't been a children's-music one all along ("I've been leaving on my things/So in the morning when the morning bird sings/There's still dinner on my dinner jacket/Till the dinner bell rings").

But second, the exploitative behavior of rockers past their prime exceeds even the power of a Strausbaugh to keep up with. Doing a kids' album seems like the zenith of dignity by comparison. In recent weeks, Smash Mouth has prematurely rendered "Walking on the Sun" an easy-listenin' tune by peddling it to GM for use on the company's Chevrolet summer-sale ads. What's particularly galling about this particular campaign is the way it uses the song's lyrics. There are only two vocal outtakes: "You might as well be walking on the sun" at the start of the commercial. That's okay?it kind of "brands" the ad campaign, even if it makes no sense in context, other than that the sun (geddit?) is shining on the tanned shoulders of the bikini babes walking (geddit?) around Chevy trucks throughout the ad.

But also in the commercial are the lyrics: "So don't delay?act now?supplies are running out." In the original song, that lyric was meant to sneer at people who say things like, "Don't delay, act now, supplies are running out." Whoever produced the ad for GM, though, heard the lyrics and understood them in a universe in which irony does not exist. "Hey, guys," he must have said at a board meeting. "These guys are speaking our language! They are admirers of the soulless multinational corporation!" Not that the original song is any masterpiece of social protest, and not that it takes any great depth of intellect to stand against the capitalist hard sell?but isn't there something vulgar about selling a work of art to someone who will use it to convey a message that is the exact opposite of the one you intended?

My next encounter with revenue rock came when I heard the scronky beat of the guitar at the beginning of London Calling. "Hey, the Clash," I thought. But then a woman with a plummy English accent began a voiceover invoking the "Call of London." What London was calling us to do, apparently, was buy a hugely expensive car. London was inviting us to the summer sale (which the announcer called an "event") for Jaguar (which she called "Jegyuwa"). It turns out you can take your "surprisingly affordable" Jegyuwa and drive it all the way to Nicaregyuwa.

But weren't the Clash, not to put too fine a point on it, communists? Weren't most of their songs?including "London Calling"?about class war in one way or another? Doesn't the name "The Clash" refer to that class war? Didn't Marx say that that clash was a clash of absolutes? And in that clash of absolutes, didn't the Clash purport to take up the cause of the side that did not drive a Jegyuwa?

Without ever embracing that politics myself, I did love the Clash's music, and the politics was part of the music. It's okay in my book to change your mind about things, or even to license out your creative work for others to enjoy. But it seems quite another thing altogether to present a song that was written to say one thing as if it were written to say the polar opposite.

"Oh, well," the band seems to be telling those of us who loved their music. "Never mind!"

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