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PopFront Marxists Sure Can Dance

By Harriet Staff

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PopFront inaugurates its “Marxist Mixtape” series with Allen Ginsberg’s “The Ballad of the Skeletons.” PopFront writes, “The goal of Marxist Mixtape is to cover individual songs from any era or genre that could constitute a contemporary popular front; that is, music that contains some progressive or leftist content, even if it’s just a blip or a few lyrics.” Allen Ginsberg, Paul McCartney, Gus Van Sant, Lenny Kaye, and Philip Glass created the music video, “The Ballad of the Skeletons” in 1995, as a response to an increasingly conservative America—championing not just liberal, but radical causes.

In 1995, two years prior to his death, poet Allen Ginsberg published “Ballad of the Skeletons” in The Nation magazine. The poem, a scathing condemnation of Newt Gingrich’s America, received attention from other aging artists, including Philip Glass, Paul McCartney, Lenny Kaye and the considerably younger filmmaker Gus Van Sant. With rallying, Ginsberg was able to convince the four of them to work on producing a song and eventually even a music video to accompany.

In general, the nineties were not a good time for political music. Punk’s heyday had come and gone, and the third- and fourth-generation punk scene was considerably less barbed than its explicitly anarchist and anti-racist predecessors. Meanwhile, grunge, along with cynical cultural critics like Beavis and Butthead, epitomized the apathy and ennui of Generation X, enervated in the fight against the neoliberal politics of the Clinton administration. Then there were the boy bands: synthetic, producer-assembled troupes backed by industry cash, who reflected the consolidation of corporate power in the American culture machine.

These conditions, along with the video’s avant-garde tinge, make the song’s 1996 rotation on MTV truly unusual. The corporate-industrial music complex was reputedly miffed by the network’s decision to put it in heavy rotation; unlike most of the corporate cash-infused artists of the mid-nineties, “Ballad of the Skeletons” had no bottom line to feed; it was pure poetry, and perhaps the last of its kind. In some Western countries, including Australia, the song ended 1996 as one of the most requested. [...]

Read more—and watch their music video—at PopFront.

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Posted in Poetry News on Friday, February 21st, 2014 by Harriet Staff.