A few years ago the song “Fortunate Son” was used in a commercial for Wrangler Jeans. To many this seemed yet another belated obituary for the 60’s, yet another testament to the casual victory of the Establishment. After all, here was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s rumbling indictment of Vietnam-era patriotism, hypocrisy, and militarism being used to sell processed cotton pants to teenagers in the way of some peppy all-American anthem. The mordant jab of the phrase “fortunate son” had been creatively misinterpreted by this commercial into a celebration of the status quo and the abundant felicity of a society capable of bestowing stylish attire upon thriving cohorts of attractive young people. The revolutionary energy of the original – the sharp discontent, the nascent defiance, the acutely felt injustice of the thing – was not so much dissipated by this latest televisual incarnation as recuperated back into the system in the form of a restlessness to conform and consume and wear neat-looking jeans.
To interpret the appropriation of “Fortunate Son” in melodramatic terms – as a midnight crime perpetrated against music itself or as an irrevocable lapsus to be endlessly bemoaned by the elitist keepers of high culture – is to miss the point for the sake of romanticizing an authenticity that likely never was. After all, despite the Delta locale so richly figured and evoked in songs like “Born on the Bayou,” all the members of Creedence Clearwater Revival hailed from a California milieu closer to something out of John Steinbeck than Robert Penn Warren. Truth be told, the “Wrangler Affair” was not really a decisive moment or historic event. Rather, it was just another instance of price mystification and correspondent political complacency, staid hallmarks of capitalism itself.
But what about the music? “Fortunate Son” starts up with a restive thudding beat and a leering intro riff – a development of two-fret slides and lingering twangs – before the second guitar kicks in with a thrumming sequence of chords that seems to power John Fogerty’s lead vocals onward like one animal chasing another. John Fogerty’s lead vocals. Fogerty’s voice is gloriously ragged, luxuriantly coarse. He sings like he spent his childhood chewing on broken glass. And when he sings “Fortunate Son,” he sings a bitter confession of dejection and recalcitrance; he seems to belt out the dissatisfaction of an entire population with the way of things. The specifically political content of the song deals with the Vietnam draft and those who secured exemption from it – namely, the scions of the powerful: the “military son,” the “millionaire’s son,” the “senator’s son.” Not only does the song call out the gamings of the draft system enjoyed by the fortunate class, but also it takes to task the national mood which could countenance such a war. Fogerty sings,
“Some folks are born made to wave the flag,
ooh, they’re red, white and blue.
And when the band plays “Hail To The Chief”,
oh, they point the cannon at you, Lord,”
“Fortunate Son” elucidates the lines running from public rituals of patriotism to casualty figures; it reveals the environment of hysterical patriotism and “star spangled eyes” as so much pro patria bullshit. The song closes with two rounds of the following chorus:
“It ain’t me, it ain’t me,
I ain’t no fortunate one, no no no,
It ain’t me, it ain’t me,
I ain’t no fortunate son, son son son”
Fogerty gives voice to no less than 18 expressions of denial over these final two rounds. The atmosphere is thick with negativity and disavowal. That magical word “ain’t” – a deliberate solecism growled out 24 times over the song – synechdochizes the singer’s whole relationship of basic antagonism to the prevailing social order: he’s someone who won’t go along with it, won’t believe it, won’t buy it – where ‘it’ constitutes the whole package of belief in America as a society founded on just, democratic, and equitable lines full of happy, hard-working citizen-patriots with heaps of gumption.
This kind of dissonance with the master narrative of American life, as well as an embrace of the ‘unfortunate class,’ was typical of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s music. Songs such as “Down on the Corner,” “Lodi,” and “Proud Mary” partook of a down-and-out ethos at odds with the stock normative ideology of salvific labor, property acquisition, upwardly-fixated mobility, and Babbitt-esque conformity. Through vignettes of country heartbreak and odes to good-time rural misadventure, CCR presented instead a vision of life happily on-the-skids, infusing blues resignation with folk bonhomie. For example, “Down on the Corner,” a buoyant number that practically invites you up to dance, is a song about spontaneous street-corner music made by “Four kids on the corner just tryin’ to bring you up.” The lead and rhythm guitars loop the same carefree let’s-go melody over and over again in a quick patter of electric-guitar dance-steps. Fogerty sings,
“You don’t need a penny just to hang around,
But if you’ve got a nickel, won’t you lay your money down?”
The song presents an informal economics of communal sharing and mutual enjoyment. The mood is convivial and joyful, welcoming, warm and charitable – the scene evoked offers a respite from the rat race and vacation from the performance-principle.
“Bad Moon Rising” is a cheerful little ditty about the end of the world. (For my money, the title has got to be a reference to the “blood moon” described in Acts.) The bright, energetic chords, rollicking rhythm, and warm, folksy vocals of this song belie a lyrical content portending grave catastrophe. The lyrics themselves – comprised of sinister observations of apocalyptic progress along with casually uttered warnings to maybe stay home tonight – hark back to the Old Testament with its measure-for-measure justice and fantasy of retribution meted out to a decadent and wayward civilization:
“I hear hurricanes ablowing.
I know the end is coming soon.
I fear rivers over flowing.
I hear the voice of rage and ruin.
Hope you got your things together.
Hope you are quite prepared to die.
Looks like we’re in for nasty weather.
One eye is taken for an eye”
There is a kind of social criticism lurking in any apocalyptic forecast, and one can’t miss the all too obvious irony of wedding an ostensibly optimistic tune to decidedly pessimistic lyrics. The song subsumes the frightening prospect of world-destruction under the breezy phrase, “nasty weather,” and uneasily calls attention to the nonchalance and recklessness with which our society courted the possibility of extinction during the nuclear age.
Yet by far the most sophisticated political song produced by Creedence Clearwater Revival is “Don’t Look Now.” Like “Bad Moon Rising,” the ambling, jaunty sound of the song contrasts ironically with its unsettling lyrics. It takes the form of an anaphoric series of questions:
“Who will take the coal from the mine?
Who will take the salt from the earth?
Who’ll take a leaf and grow it to a tree?
Don’t look now, it ain’t you or me.”
Chances are it won’t be you or me who personally exploits illegal immigrants in some Nebraska slaughterhouse, and chances are it won’t be you or me who personally props up an oppressive regime in order to keep those diamond mines running, but we’ve all been to McDonald’s and we’ve all bought jewelry for a loved one. We daily reap the benefit of unsavory practices at which we have the luxury of not having to look. The factors of production are mystified through the opacity of price. We don’t have to know how our shoes are made, and we don’t have to care about it.
In contrast to more traditional political songs like Neil Young’s “Ohio,” penned in the aftermath of the Kent State massacre, or Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” a violent exercise in guitar-shredding and anguished howling in the name of revolution – both of which address themselves to some specific group in some specific context, e.g., anti-war protestors in the aftermath of Kent State – “Don’t Look Now” delivers its payload on the systemic level: it takes to task not some egregious malefactor (e.g., Nixon) but the average person, and it finds fault not with some extraordinary crime but with the ethical compromises of modern, everyday citizenship.
The Wrangler Affair was simply a new instance of the mystification of the factors of production: in this case, the very meaning of the song was sacrificed to the economic imperative of selling jeans. Political content, historical context, cultural specificity – all of these things pale before an upbeat song that’s a hit with the kids. The idea of lyrics itself is antiquated. Look no further than the strange and frightening anecdote that Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign adopted Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” as its unofficial campaign song.
“Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
“Born in the u.s.a., I was born in the u.s.a.
I was born in the u.s.a., born in the u.s.a.”
Four more years!