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Photo by Megan Holmes

Bruce goes berserk

Music | Hornsby's Levitate vilely caricatures conservatives

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," Sept. 26, 2009

Pop music has served as a mouthpiece for the sentimental left for so long now that, like the alarms of the boy who cried wolf, the lyrics of most "political" hits seldom cause a stir.

Take, for instance, Bruce Hornsby's 1986 hit "The Way It Is." A boilerplate complaint against the poverty and racism that liberals liked to believe had become unacceptably prevalent during-and because of-the Reagan administrations, the song caught on less because of its anti-conservative message than because of its catchy recurring piano riff. By 2001 the song's music become detached enough from its lyrics that Sean Hannity would include it as a staple of his radio show's bumper-music rotation.

Apparently, not having his political lyrics taken seriously has finally gotten to Hornsby, who has bookended his latest album for Verve Forecast, Levitate (officially credited to Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers), with caricatures of conservatives so outrageous they could only have been conceived by a resident of the kook fringe.

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The disc-closing "In the Low Country" is the less kooky of the two. Like "The Way It Is" only more so, the song's gently bouncy piano and Hornsby's insouciantly boyish singing make it easy to overlook the lyrics at first.

Eventually, however, one notices the proliferation of anti-conservative code words and terms in the final stanza, whereupon it becomes clear that the references in previous stanzas to people who look funny in orange hats and the hunting of "our furry friends" are nothing more than Propaganda for the Ethical Treatment of Animals-and that "low country" is Hornsby-speak for "red state," a nickname apparently based upon the color of such states' residents' necks.

"We love our Bobby Labonte," he sings, "and the WWF. / We love our Swaggart and Haggard, / and we love the W., the president." NASCAR, Bible-thumping, country music, an infatuation with Republican rubes-so far, so predictable. Then, however, the going gets ugly. "There's love all around us. / Our church friends are doing well. / And the little mongoloid children, / we'll keep 'em all from hell."

Now, what can Hornsby's sarcastic mocking of those concerned with the souls of "mongoloid children" be but a clumsy, cheap, and cruel shot at pro-lifers and their ability to distinguish between animals (which they hunt and eat) and humans (who by virtue of being human possess eternal souls)?

It's a shot rendered even clumsier, cheaper, and crueler by Levitate's opening track, "The Black Rats of London," Hornsby's rodents'-eye view of the last few centuries of human history.

On one level, it's rather clever as liberal pop songs go, savoring the way that practically every stage of post-Columbus Western expansion has been accompanied by the very disease-carrying vermin that Mother Nature uses to give pioneering white Europeans their comeuppance. "Parasites decimated the red army of Cornwallis and his flock," sings Hornsby, "standing weakly on Yorktown battlefield with measles and small pox. / [. . .] divine intervention, bacterial strains from imported English dirt."

The real low blow, as with "In the Low Country," comes at the end: "Where were the black rats / when we needed them the most? / There were slave owners to infect / and the Joe Mengeles of the American West." While wishing for the slow, painful deaths of those who exploited the African slave trade could be spun as righteous indignation, conflating Lewis and Clark with the Third Reich and its "Angel of Death" is revisionist history of the most vile and stupid kind.

And as Mengele was no fonder of "mongoloid children" than Hornsby seems to be, it makes one wonder just who the real 21st-century Nazis are.

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