Skip to main content
opinion

illustration by Hanna Barczyk

It’s been more than 50 years since Crosby Stills Nash & Young recorded their fine protest music, but now they’re back, protesting again. Except this time it’s not the war in Vietnam that they’re upset about. It’s the war on truth.

Earlier this week, Graham Nash condemned anti-vaccine advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for using part of his song Chicago to promote a rally that spread misinformation about COVID prevention measures. “I do not support his anti-vaccination position as the history of the efficacy of the Covid19 vaccines is well documented,” Mr. Nash wrote in a statement. He said he’d launch legal action to protect the integrity of his song, and his rights as a songwriter.

A few days later, his old bandmate Neil Young said: Hold my guitar. Mr. Young knows something about illness and vaccines, having lived through polio as a boy. When he wrote The Needle and the Damage Done, he was talking about heroin – which had killed his friends – not medication that would one day save people’s lives.

Mr. Young took a stand against vaccine misinformation, and it’s one that will cost him money in the long run. He insisted that streaming service Spotify choose between his music and The Joe Rogan Experience, an extremely popular podcast that has promoted garbage talk about vaccines and COVID in general.

The money is important here. Spotify chose its golden goose, Mr. Rogan, over Mr. Young’s music. As I’m writing this, Spotify is taking one of the greatest song catalogues in modern music off its servers. Why? Because it paid $100-million for the Rogan podcast, which attracts 11 million listeners to every episode. An army of young bros venerates their hero as a fearless quester after hidden truth, rather than what he appears to the rest of us: A guy who became accidentally famous because he knows a lot about mixed martial arts and not much else.

Mr. Rogan likes to frame his conversations with controversial figures as exercises in “just asking questions.” This is a neat way to sidestep responsibility and accountability. Who could possibly object? Well, it depends on who’s being interviewed.

When his guest is a scientist who proposes that the COVID response is an example of mass psychosis – that we’re all sheeple being led by the big, bad shepherd of authoritarian power – then the host deserves to be called out. (More than 200 scientists and doctors did exactly this, writing a letter to protest the repeated spreading of “misleading and false claims” by Mr. Rogan’s podcast.)

Mr. Young has also written a post on his own site, widening his criticism to Spotify’s content in general: “Most of the listeners hearing the unfactual, misleading, and false COVID information on Spotify are 24 years old, impressionable, and easy to swing to the wrong side of truth.” And then he brings the hammer down: “Spotify has become the home of life-threatening COVID misinformation. Lies [are] being sold for money.”

Trust a great lyricist to get to the heart of the matter. Lies are being sold for money. The anti-vaccine, anti-science brigade is working a very profitable grift.

Over the years, protest music has taken power and its abuses as central themes: Who is being harmed, and by what forces? Anti-war, racial justice, apartheid, the rights of women and gay people – all those protesters marched to a beat. The culture wars have flipped things on their heads. Who is The Man in this case? Who profits off people’s fear?

Today, behaving selfishly and destructively is suddenly framed as a bold and rebellious move. Anti-establishment music once questioned the legitimacy of authority, in order to protect the most vulnerable. We’ve ended up in a place where the grifters harm the most vulnerable.

When Eric Clapton talked about “mass hypnosis formation” and compared his anti-lockdown protest music to the legendary work of Curtis Mayfield, he was trying to take the space of an outsider – a maverick (while conveniently forgetting the shockingly racist things he’s said in the past).

He teamed up with another COVID skeptic, Van Morrison, to write a song about how people’s freedoms were being taken away by the pandemic police. Their song Stand and Deliver asks, “Do you wanna be a free man / Or do you wanna be a slave?” With this, they echoed one of the most famous protest songs of all, the pro-worker ballad Which Side Are You On? which asks “Will you be a lousy scab, or will you be a man?”

It’s a topsy-turvy world indeed when two great songwriters did not, for some odd reason, consider writing about the freedom to continue living without being attached to a mechanical respirator.

We’ve come to one of the weirdest passages in this weird time. Former heroes show their true stripes (although I’m going to continue to listen to Van Morrison’s old songs because he’s a genius) and surprising ones arise. Who would have expected that Gene Simmons’s tongue would be useful for something outside of backup vocals on I Was Made For Lovin’ You? The Kiss bassist provided one of the best slapdowns of anti-vaccine advocates: “This whole idea – this delusional, evil idea that you get to do whatever you want and the rest of the world be damned – is really terrible.”

These divisions, unfortunately, aren’t going anywhere. Some people are going to follow the grift, and some are going to follow their principles. We know which road Neil Young took: the high one.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.