What Michele Bachmann could learn in a Fishbone moshpit

When Questlove of The Roots chose to introduce Michele Bachmann’s appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon with a few chords from punk band Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch,” he was going for an easy joke. But true Fishbone fans, while elated that the fading, three-decade-old band was experiencing a pop cultural revival (and new dowloads) were also aware that “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” was one of the less political songs of an extremely political band.

Born in the late seventies when its members were still in high school in the San Fernando Valley, Fishbone always crossed boundaries. They were a black punk band that incorporated rock, funk, reggae, and ska. Many have noted the irony that an African American band that influenced white musicians like Gwen Stefani, Flea, and even Kurt Cobain is now virtually unknown, while its proteges have surpassed it. (This is the topic of a new documentary on the band called Everyday Sunshine that I plan on seeing.) Fishbone was alt rock before the term existed. Questlove and his bandmates would be among the first to acknowledge the debt they owe to Fishbone, with whom they have toured.

“Lyin’ Ass Bitch” is about a girl who was cheating on Fishbone frontman Angelo Moore when they were both in high school. Though extremely entertaining, catchy, and really fun to skank to, the song demands less of its listeners than some of the other songs on the same album, their self-titled 1985 EP.

The band has said that the opening track, “Ugly,” was meant as a criticism of Ronald Reagan, who Bachmann and her ilk lionize. It is a takedown of a manipulative dissembler who has power. “Boy you’ve got no reason and you’ve got no sense/Your stupid lies, it just makes me wince/Your face is twisted and your mind is warped/You scare me sick ‘cuz I just want to get out/All the children’s suffering lies in your hands/Unless the commies are gonna heed your demands.”

Take away the “boy” and the “commies” references and the band could be singing to Bachmann. “Another Generation” is an optimistic plea for a brighter future and a world in which we all take responsibility for social ills: “Another generation, another forward state of mind/It’s somewhere deep within our consciousness/Problems of the aged, problems of the kids/Problems are the mistakes of the past we’ve made/It’s time to look forward to a third generation.” It’s a foreshadowing of the same anger (and hope) that fuel the OWS movement today.

Fishbone’s second full-length album, Truth and Soul (1990) was their most political. Responding to racial and economic tensions of the Reagan era, it was protest rock — angry, pulsing, electric, and of the moment. And much of it was about being black and disenfranchised in America. “Subliminal Fascism” would have made an excellent intro to a Bachmann segment: “And the hate grows more each day/So when the infected try to affect you/Don’t listen to them when they say/Follow the rules and forget the bomb/Communistical patriotic/The plan is subtle but it’s in the open/Kingpins Nazi scheme getting under your skin/So you better wake up US/Subliminal Fascism.”

If you want to understand the roots of the anger young Americans are feeling today, the anger that has led to Occupy Wall Street and protests in other American cities and on college campuses, a good place to start is to listen to all of Fishbone’s music. If you want to understand the rage of the poor and disenfranchised, try listening to “Ghetto Soundwave,” more prescient today than ever: “There’s a ghetto soundwave/Gets to me everyday/There’s a ghetto soundwave/Gets to me everyday/Another bourgeois politician/Hears our pleas but does not listen/Never, never, never sees the need/But caters only to his greed/Can’t he see there’s no use in lying/And don’t he know all our hope is dying?” Are you listening, Rep. Bachmann?

After the news came out that the Bachmann intro music was “LAB” and she expressed her displeasure, Questlove gave a non-apologetic apology. “The performance was a tongue-in-cheek and spur of the moment decision.” (Not possible when it surely had to be cleared for rights purposes.) “The show was not aware of it and I feel bad if her feelings were hurt. That was not my intention.”

Fallon and an NBC vice president apologized to Bachmann, recognizing that the B-word, even used to describe an abhorrent woman, won’t fly on network television in 2011 -even though the word was never sung. Now there is talk that Bachmann will return to the show – delighted, I am sure, to get another fifteen minutes out of a controversy she was totally unaware of until after her appearance.

I’m glad NBC didn’t fire Questlove and the band, not just because I love their music but because those guys have kids and need the health insurance they get from AFTRA. Health insurance she will surely try to eliminate should she ever be elected.

As a woman I am not offended at the choice of song because as a progressive I am offended and disgusted by Bachmann and I do not see her as a sister. Add in the many layers of the critique – the only lyrics actually sung were “she’s just a . . .” and the only people who got the joke were those who already knew the song – and the insult becomes even more oblique, and more genius.

Asked for a reaction to the Bachmann brouhaha, Fishbone’s bassist and co-founder John “Norwood” Fisher told the Bay Citizen CultureFeed, “When you’re running for president, you become a target for all manner of things. I honestly think, in that context, if you want to be a presidential candidate, you better be able to take a joke.” Is the word “bitch” low-hanging fruit? Absolutely. Should it be off-limits when used in the context of political protest? Unlike some of my younger feminist sisters, I say no.

Just as Fishbone called Reagan “Ugly” to get at darker, bigger truths about power and its abuses, Questlove’s decision to play “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” gets at darker, bigger truths about Bachmann. She misrepresents the truth. She is a self-aggrandizing power-monger who does not care about poor people, women, or people of color. She lacks empathy for anyone who doesn’t share her enraptured worldview, she is a self-interested manipulator, and she is already doing her best to ruin America.

Bachmann was, not surprisingly, outraged by the event, telling Fox News, “[I]f that song had been played for Michelle Obama, I have no doubt that NBC would have apologized to her and likely they would have fired the drummer, or at least suspended him. . . . This is clearly a form of bias on the part of the Hollywood entertainment elite but it’s also sexism as well.”

Let’s parse that for a second. Would The Roots have played “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” to introduce the First Lady if she made an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon? Of course not. Questlove is an Obama supporter who has performed at an Obama benefit, donated to his campaign, and has a Twitter profile picture of him and the President. But Bachmann surely didn’t believe her own stupid analogy even as she uttered it.

What she was trying to say was that a black band would never employ a misogynistic word to describe a black woman. Only about seven million hip-hop and rap lyrics prove her wrong. Have liberal entertainers used misogynistic words to describe one of their own – read liberal women – in the past? Of course! Remember Tina Fey’s “Bitch is the new black” routine about Hillary Clinton on Weekend Update?

But the most intriguing thing Bachmann said in response to the incident was that it was “bias on the part of the Hollywood entertainment elite.” This obvious coding for “bias on the part of Jews against people like me” was classic Fox News shtick, tired, empty, and old. And the “elite,” of course, is an echo of many of the critiques that have been made about our President – that he’s too intellectual, out of touch, snobby, Harvard-educated, and arugula-eating, even if he was raised by a single mother and is black. In Bachmannworld, Questlove and the all-black Roots are Hollywood elitists and she, an elected politician and former IRS tax lawyer, is a persecuted minority. She’s saying black is white and white is black. That means she is lyin’.

If only The Roots had played the song to the end. No, I don’t mean the spoken-word plea that includes the phrase “slut trashcan scummest dirtbag” but the lyric that best applies to Michele Bachmann and all that her party represents: “You know she says she loves you but you know she doesn’t.”

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