Republicans vs. Twisted Sister, or the Need for Good Cultural Hermeneutics

You can enjoy whatever you want. Just don’t try and make it mean whatever you want.
Twisted Sister
Dee Snider and Twisted Sister(Epic Rights)

When it was released back in 1984, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” quickly became one of the most iconic songs of the MTV generation, due in large part to its music video. In it, Dee Snider and his bandmates terrorize an uptight, conservative dad after he scolds his rebellious son for enjoying rock n’ roll.

Despite the video’s obvious camp and slapstick, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” became the subject of controversy when the Parents Music Resource Center included it in their “Filthy Fifteen” list of objectionable songs, claiming that lyrics like “We’ll fight the powers that be, just/Don’t pick our destiny ’cause/You don’t know us/You don’t belong” promoted violence.

The song has since been used by various groups and individuals (e.g., teachers going on strike, Paul Ryan, Donald Trump) as a rallying cry, its rebellious spirit employed in support of their agenda. The latest individual to do so is Jerrod Sessler, a Navy veteran and former NASCAR driver who’s currently running for the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington State. Rather than use it for his campaign, though, Sessler instead used Twisted Sister’s song to try and score points in the sort of bizarre argument that only seems to occur on social media.

On April 8, Sessler tweeted his disappointment in Snider, who he described as “the man with the perfect song written decades ago about the attack on traditional, conservative American values.”

Sessler vs. Snider, Round 1

To which Snider replied: “You think i wrote a song in support of traditional American values’? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! You funny.”

Sessler vs. Snider, Round 2

Sessler then brought God into the mix, claiming that the Lord works in mysterious ways — even through hair metal.

Sessler vs. Snider, Round 3

Not surprisingly, Sessler quickly got dunked on, with many pointing out the obvious hilarity of claiming that a guy dressed in glammed-up drag was ever an exemplar of “traditional, conservative American values.” But one of the more interesting responses came from critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who tweeted that “Trumpers have to twist the majority of American popular culture” to fit their political stance. Otherwise, continues Seitz, “they would have to explain their love for a thing that is opposed to everything they stand for.”

Trumpers aren’t the only ones who do this, but it does seem particularly egregious coming from that side of the political spectrum if only because that side has, historically speaking, continually raised a big stink about the corrupting influences of pop culture, be it movies, Dungeons & Dragons, or Twisted Sister.

Before I go any further, though, I feel the need to make some very important disclaimers.

First, people can and should like whatever they like, for no other reason than because they like it. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t think more deeply about the culture that they allow into their lives, or that criticism and reflection have no place. But attempting to dissect and identify the reasons why somebody enjoys a particular movie, song, book, poem, etc., is tricky because oftentimes, that person may not even be able to articulate why beyond “it moved me” or “it’s cool.”

Second, art is subjective and mysterious. Which means that A) multiple people can arrive at different interpretations of the same artistic piece, and those interpretations may all be valid to some degree, and B) art can take on a life of its own beyond what the artist ever intended, and contain meanings that were completely hidden to the artist when they were creating it. (One of my favorite examples of this is the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which, unbeknownst to Steven Spielberg at the time, was actually a response to his parents’ divorce.)

Finally, art’s subjective and mysterious nature doesn’t mean that it’s open-ended or that artistic intent is meaningless. It’s true that art, once it’s released into the world, no longer “belongs” to the artist, and as a result, they can’t easily control how people interpret or use it. Even so, not all interpretations are equally valid; some can be complete and utter nonsense. Furthermore, any criticism and analysis should always take into consideration the artist’s intentions. In other words, if the artist says they meant this or they didn’t mean that, believe them.

Here’s a rather obvious example: Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, which features a dead baby and a dismembered soldier, was painted in response to the 1937 bombing of the town of Guernica by Nazis and Italian fascists. It’s since become one of the most popular and powerful anti-war paintings of all time. While you could certainly interpret Guernica as celebrating a heroic victory over deadly foes, there’s no reason for anyone to take such an interpretation seriously.

More recently, Trump supporters were recorded dancing to Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” presumably because they identified Trump’s defiant rhetoric (e.g., “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters”) with the song’s defiant lyrics (e.g., “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”). And yet, doing so requires ignoring the rest of the lyrics, which heavily criticize police brutality and racism, as well as Rage’s entire ethos (and obvious antipathy for Trump).

So what does all of this have to do with Jerrod Sessler twisting (npi) the meaning behind Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It”? For starters, it’s the latest in a long history of Republicans conveniently forgetting the meanings of popular culture to fit their agendas.

Ronald Reagan famously used Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” in his 1984 re-election campaign, and in doing so, overlooked how the song — which sounds very triumphant and anthemic, just the sort of thing for presidential re-election campaigns — criticizes the ways in which Vietnam veterans were mistreated and marginalized by their own country. Or as Greg Kot puts it, the song “confronts the emptiness of the American dream.” Not exactly the sort of message that a president should want to employ, triumphant chorus notwithstanding.

Similarly, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” was played at Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign rallies. The irony here is that John Fogerty wrote the song to criticize those who used their wealth and privilege to avoid serving in Vietnam — something the former president himself has been accused of doing.

Donald Trump also used Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” on several occasions: when he announced his candidacy and for a pre-Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore. But the song was originally written as a critique of George Bush Sr.‘s presidency, and contains criticisms of American consumerism, militarism, environmental ruin, and social decline. (Bernie Sanders also used it during his 2016 presidential campaign, proving that Democrats can make questionable song choices, too.)

In these cases, as well as “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” you have politicians simply ignoring the plainest, most obvious interpretation of the song in question, and overwriting it with their own. We all do this, of course. We’re all very good at ignoring inconvenient facts that get in the way of our enjoyment of things, whether it’s a popular song’s darker meaning, a beloved artist’s troubled history, or the economic impact of streaming on musicians’ livelihoods.

However, what makes this cluelessness easier to understand — but also more frustrating — is the extent to which Republicans have demonized popular culture, and rock n’ roll in particular, for its pernicious effects on society. Instead of encouraging a thoughtful and critical engagement with pop culture, they’ve often encouraged self-righteousness, condemnation, and outright rejection.

I experienced this a lot growing up in the Church during the ’80s and ’90s. I watched videos on the evils of rock n’ roll in youth group, read books on the evils of Dungeons & Dragons, and heard parents and other authority figures consistently lament the decline of American civilization due to Hollywood — and don’t even get me started on the Satanic Panic. There was rarely, if ever, any encouragement to engage with pop culture thoughtfully or graciously. And certainly not with hair metal bands that looked like Twisted Sister.

So it’s more than just a little rich to hear staunch Republicans like Sessler turn around and claim that up is down, there are five lights, 2 + 2 = 5, we have always been at war with Eastasia… and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” has always been an anthem defending “traditional, conservative American values” — regardless of obvious evidence to the contrary.

It’s patently absurd on its face, of course. But the insidious genius here is the doubling down and affirmation of the lie. Not just quietly, but loudly and proudly, until people begin second-guessing what they know to be true, or become so exhausted and inured that they no longer care about the truth. (Trump, of course, perfected this approach with his constant stream of lies and “alternative facts.”)

Why am I spending so much time on a kerfuffle between a politician from another state and an aging rock star, a kerfuffle that has almost certainly faded from the popular discourse by now as Twitter moves on to something else?

For starters, I believe popular culture is more than just merely disposable entertainment. Popular culture says things about us as both individuals and a society, about our hopes, desires, fears, and anxieties. Cultural artifacts, even hair metal anthems from the ’80s, can tap into that ineffable something that makes us human.

Pop culture also shapes us by exposing us to new ideas and ways of thinking about the familiar. Therefore, how we think and talk about cultural artifacts, whether collectively en masse or on a case-by-case basis, matters. The Parents Music Resource Center was misguided in their analysis of songs like “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” but they were right to take their (potential) influence seriously.

But more importantly, because I’m a Christian like Sessler (and Snider, for that matter), I believe there is such a thing as objective truth, and that truth matters. And because truth matters, being honest matters. That includes being honest about why you like the things you like. Honest about why you don’t like the things you don’t like. And in this social media-fueled environment of ours, honest about why you might make patently absurd statements and gin up silly online controversies.

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