It’s an iron-clad rule of concertgoing that there’ll always be one person who’ll reflexively cheer when their hometown is mentioned, regardless of the context. A few years back I was at a Randy Newman concert in San Francisco, and the songwriter was playing “Rednecks,” a brilliant retort to smug northerners who feel they have the moral high ground when it comes to racism. It closes with a laundry list of Northern ghettos where blacks are “put in a cage.”
“And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco,” Newman sang.
“Whoo-hoo!” cried somebody in the audience.
Something similar went on last night at Billy Bragg‘s show at the 9:30 Club. Bragg’s between-song chit-chat has a skeptical-liberal tenor to it—-he’s eager to unite his base but quick to caution them about getting too optimistic. So while he mentioned the election plenty, he almost studiously avoided mentioning Barack Obama’s name for most of the night; it was a concert, not a rally, and the notoriously chatty Bragg did get around to playing a few songs. So the out-and-out cheering moments were surprisingly rare. But there was one weird cheering moment when Bragg noted that the times we’re living in may mark the end of American exceptionalism.
“Whoo-hoo!” cried the audience. Lots of applause.
I get it. Nobody at a Billy Bragg show wants to argue for unfettered American imperialism. But that’s not precisely what “American exceptionalism” means—-it’s a slippery fish, actually—-and even if you accept Bragg’s definition, it seems odd to enthusiastically celebrate the argument that America’s strengths have been rendered meaningless in the face of the collapse of global markets. But the moment showed how much times have changed for folkies. Time was, if you wanted an audience to celebrate its own sad state of affairs, you needed to be ironic about it:
No more, it seems.