Ted Leo is on a Mission
The political, pop loving Jersey punk rocker makes good.
Music, Elana Berkowitz, June 14, 2005
The political, pop-loving Jersey punk rocker makes good.
By Elana Berkowitz, Campus Progress
“I’ll put it to you plain and bluntly/I’m worried for my tired country.”
-Ted Leo, The One Who Got Us Out, Shake the Sheets
Indie rock isn’t a genre with much of a moral imperative right now. Sure, lots of white as white rockers still find something to agonize about. Maybe it’s their girlfriend or the lack thereof. Or maybe they hate their boring job or maybe they don’t have one. So, every once in a while, it’s nice to hear indie rock with a legitimate bone to pick – the right-wing takeover of our country, the ongoing war in Iraq, political disenfranchisement.
Now wait a second. Don’t run away just yet. What if political music didn’t need to be a dreary and humorless screed? What if it could take the form of the perfect pop song? Enter Ted Leo.
Leo, formerly of the late, great mod/punk DC band Chisel, has a loose-limbed, hook-heavy style and a jubilant, anthemic sound. His songs combine a sort of endearingly earnest optimism, sly literary references and sharp lyrics with basic hard-driving guitars, Leo’s trademark falsetto and a penchant for tambourines.
Though he often gets compared to ‘70s rockers and personal musical heroes Thin Lizzy, Leo seems to spring from the tradition of Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg or Elvis Costello – politically charged music that is compulsively listenable.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Leo is a long-time admirer of his fellow Garden Stater, whose almost subversive insertion of anti-war talk into arena rockers proved inspiring. “Even when I was 14, I understood that ‘Born in the USA’ was not a ‘ra-ra’ cheerleading song. I couldn’t exactly tell you what it was about. But I could listen to those words and hear someone talking about Vietnam and trying to get a job and this and that. Ronald Reagan actually came to my hometown on the campaign trail and they’d be blasting that and misusing the song. I remember thinking, huh, I don’t know that if that’s right.”
An unabashedly left-wing, pop-music-playing, New Jersey-loving, Springsteen-worshipping punk rocker, Leo wears his politics on his sleeve. His music is a call to arms for his compatriots to wake up and start tending their own gardens Voltaire-style. (“Roll out and make your mark / put on your boots and march …. if you do everything you can, well babe, that’s more than a start.”) He even managed to write a jingly, catchy song about ugly-American guilt post-9/11 in “The Ballad of the Sin-Eater.” All of this might sound a bit dull and oppressive until you find yourself dancing to the propulsive beat as he sings, “You didn’t think they could hate you, now did you? Ah, but they hate you, make no mistake they hate you.”
Leo is an avid Progress Report reader whose website is peppered with news on the Downing Street Memo, AIDS prevention in Africa, and a young Australian woman who may face the death penalty for smuggling pot. Politics, he explains, “occupies the portions of your brain that might otherwise be occupied by the chips and dip.” Still, Leo, unlike other musicians or actors, doesn’t fancy himself a serious political authority or potential political candidate. (Don’t expect a run for governor of New Jersey.) He comes off not as a gadfly or wonk but as a regular concerned citizen, albeit a kinda angry one who happens to be a fantastic songwriter. “I don’t want to be what I’m not. I don’t want to be a demigod. When I’m up there, I just like to have a conversation with the audience.”
(In case you were wondering whether all of this moral conviction and seriousness of purpose meant the guy can’t appreciate a good, totally mainstream pop song, you would be wrong. Earlier this year, Ted Leo did an acoustic rendition of American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson’s strangely addictive “Since U Been Gone,” which he mixes up with a bit of the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps.” Listen to it here.)
His politics don’t only play out in his lyrics. In addition to the somewhat de rigueur support of progressive causes during the 2004 election season, Leo has always kept the political personal and hewn closely to a do-it-yourself ethos. He keeps ticket prices hovering around $10, even though that has become harder and harder as the venues he routinely sells out grow larger. After playing in assorted, relatively obscure punk bands since the late ‘80s, he explains, “only in the last few years has it been hard for me to play in basements because we’ve been too big. I’ve definitely had flirtations with mainstream success, but we’ve never consummated that relationship.”
On a semi-related note, his popularity has apparently spread far enough to get him nominated by Peta2, the youth-friendly branch of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as one of the World’s Sexiest Male Vegetarians, alongside Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla, Corey Feldman, Ghostface Killah, Morrissey, Prince, Tobey Maguire and eventual winner Andre 3000.
Leo seems to have an uneasy relationship with the thorny question of being successful, making money, and “selling out.” As he puts it, “getting real is just caving in.” Though he has appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and in every major music magazine, he has remained on an indie label. He has already turned down an offer to use his music in a luxury car commercial. But not being the sound of the next sporty SUV means that every dollar still counts. Which is why he seems so torn about your favorite guilty pleasure and mine, downloading. Though, as an indie-label stalwart, he is certainly critical of the exorbitant prices and wasteful practices of a greedy corporate music industry, he has some harsh words for downloaders. “Look, I have done it sometimes, so I feel weird about it. But when you talk about a thousand people downloading my record, there goes my ability to pay my bills for the month or to finally get some healthcare.”
Referring to the Metallica downloading shitstorm, he notes that it was “set off by a large student population with T1 connections in every dorm room who were selfishly downloading thousands of songs. I don’t think that’s cool; especially when you’re talking about a subsidized population that, for the most part, isn’t working and is having their tuition paid by others. That just seems really bourgeoisie and selfish to me to say you don’t have to pay to see the end result of someone’s labor.” Still, Leo freely admits the Sally-Field-at-the-Oscars type thrill he got when he realized people cared enough about his music to trade it around the Internet in the first place.
Sitting home alone before embarking on a month of non-stop touring, Leo waxes nostalgic for, yup, you guessed it, the good old days. “I count myself as lucky to have grown up when punk was really underground. It was a community and a welcoming one where you could meet people from all over the world just by staying in basements free from some of the other unfortunate trappings of mass culture. That is the kind of paradigm that I try to work with.”
The DC hardcore scene that he refers to was legendarily cohesive and politically righteous – often to extremes. But that sort of golden historical moment in music still stands as his ideal. “It seems like a lot of Americans still cling to a frontier mentality where the American dream, or at least an unspoken part of it, is about isolating yourself in some sort of Montana Freeman style where you’re just out there alone with your small circle and you just don’t want to be bothered,” Leo explains sadly. “That’s untenable in the modern world. It’s not the way you should live even if you could.”
Ted Leo will speak at the Campus Progress National Student Conference, July 13 in Washington, DC.