What’s a Nation State? (And how does this apply to Rock and Roll Bands?)

6 Mar

To be fair, at this point I really have no preconception, (or at least a well defined one), of how a Rock and Roll band is like a nation state. But I suspect there’s something to this. And I want to find out. So here we go.

Nation State

  • An imagined community.
  • A source of economic organization.
  • An identity.
  • A sense of shared purpose.
  • Shared myths, culture, economy, rights, and language.

Nation states have political autonomy. The population has pride in their national identity.  In application, though perhaps not internally on every issue, it’s people collectively think and act as one entity. They have currency, labor laws, trade agreements, etc. They identify as nationals or citizens.

Shared sense of purpose. Beating the USSR to the moon, getting a nuclear weapon no matter what those infidels say, colonizing the New World. Getting the gold medal.

Shared history or myths. Paul Revere signaling the arrival of the British, George Washington crossing the Delaware, Vasily Zaytsev singlehandedly saving Stalingrad from the German Army, the conquests of William the Conqueror or Charlemagne, Genghis Khan and the Mongolian hordes, The Six Day War.

Shared rights and responsibilities  The Magna Carta, the Tennis Court Oath, the Constitution. Taxes, obeying laws, voting.

Language. English, Deutsch, Francais, Hebrew, Xosha, Farsi, Russian, Ebonics.

Rock and Roll Bands:

  • An imagined group.
  • A source of musical organization.
  • An identity.
  • A sense of shared puprpose.
  • Shared Rock and Roll stories, income, and responsibilities.

An imagined group. With few exceptions, who are the members of a band prior to it’s formation but casual friends, people you met on Craigslist or a music ad, (or okay – maybe a family member – I told you it’s not exactly the same as a nation state).

A source of musical organization. What did you have before you got together? An unfinished riff here and there, a bass line you thought sounded cool but not attached to anything, pentatonic scales you weren’t putting to use? Maybe you had a full song or two, (or even an album), you’d written on your own, but are you gonna play all the instruments yourself? Sure, you could. But that’s something I’m not interested in at all, so eff that.

An identity. You  named your band, right? (Maybe you even named it after a nation state or something close, like America or Beirut or Asia or Nazareth – my personal favorite name is a local group called Battlestar Canada). And you do look like you’re in the same band, right? (If not, you really need to0). Made up a logo or is there a specific typeface you use? Got all that? Good. You have an identity.

A sense of shared purpose. Self-explanatory. You’re there to play rock and roll, and maybe score some free booze and drugs and to get laid occasionally. To have a good time and stories to tell when you’re old.

Shared stories. Of course you remember the time that One Hit Wonder from 15 years ago came through town and you snagged the opening spot at their show. Or the time you met J Mascis at that dive bar in DC and he was kind of an asshole to you. Or the time the van broke down and those hot chicks gave you a ride to the gas station, and Joe disappeared with one of them, returning only minutes before soundcheck the next night.

Income. You have settled the publishing rights, yeah? No? You better do that right now. Trust me.

Responsibilities. Who books the gigs and manages the website and marketing? Who handles the money? You play an instrument and pitched in for those stickers and Tshirts, right? Show up for practice and gigs sober and on time? Yeah.

Language. Don’t tell me you don’t have inside jokes or special names each other, or for bands or sound guys you don’t like. Or that one really annoying girl who comes to all your shows and won’t shut up on your Facebook page. You know that’s not what her mother calls her.

So yeah. At least simplistically, you might say Rock and Roll bands have the same basic things at their core you’ll find making up most nation states. But what should Rock and Roll bands do with this information? This is where the fun part begins.


The Rock Band as a Nation State

5 Mar

I’ve had a lifetime obsession with Rock and Roll. From my I discovery of it in 1994 at the age of 12, and my parents immediately forbidding it the same week, to my founding a week later of Radio Free Walkman, hidden in the inside pocket of my jacket, with earbuds running up through one of my sleeves to the cuff, to teaching myself to play guitar at 15, and ultimately moving out over the B-side of a Nirvana single at age 16, I have been obsessed with Rock and Roll. You might say driven.

Yeah, I’m in a band, too.

But I have another, much more horrible obsession. Politics. Foolishly reasonable about the booming economy upon my high school graduation in 2000, Rock and Roll was of course just the back up plan. So off to college I went.

But why politics? Funny story, (or is it sad?). I grew up in a home with parents who were fairly prominent in the Christian Coalition. In 1988 at the age of 6, I was “helping” at Pat Robertson’s local 1988 presidential campaign headquarters. In the following years I met Ralph Reed, Jesse Helms, and pretty much every conservative candidate and elected official from North Carolina.

(A note of personal satisfaction – a distant cousin of mine is the superintendent of Oakwood Cemetery where Senator Helms is buried, and the Senator’s massive headstone is right outside my cousin’s office window).

2000 was the first time I ever voted. And despite my typical teenage angst combined with uninspiring candidates resulting in me wearing my SupPop tshirt with the word “Loser” printed in all caps on the front to the polling location, I was pretty excited about the whole thing. But when the polls closed, I still didn’t know who my president was. And I had to know. And thus the political seed planted long before finally began to bloom in the fertilizing menure that 24 hour cable news had become.

Finally after a few weeks, we knew not only who we’d elected, but we also knew who the Supreme Court had appointed, and we also had a pretty good idea of how big Florida Secretary of State, Katherine Harris’ breasts were, as she preferred to stand sideways with her chest puffed out whenever she was on camera – especially when Sean Hannity was interviewing her.

But having nothing to do with Katherine Harris, (my news crush was on Norah O’Donnell), I was hooked. There were so many other unresolved news stories I had become intensely interested in, and I had to find out how those were going to turn out too, god damn it. And with all the overlap, there was always something new to find out about. I couldn’t stop, and didn’t want to.

And so I decided to major in Political Science. And that’s when I was forcibly compelled by syllabi to learn about nation states, and then by my own interests to learn of the existence, and then nuances of Social Identity Theory.

If Rock and Roll isn’t an excellent indicator of social identity, I don’t know what is. I’m obsessed with Rock and Roll. I told you that already. And though it’s been nearly 10 years since I walked out of UNC Chapel Hill with my Poli-Sci degree, I still think about these things, and I’m still addicted to cable news. And though my record buying habits are mostly digital now, I still get excited about “new record Tuesday” when I remember how that used to be a thing.


I was talking to my girlfriend about local Rock and Roll politics in my hometown scene. She recently moved here from her hometown, Berlin, where she worked a several years as a professional club DJ. Now she’s a couple hundred pages shy of a doctorate in history, and finishing it up here in the states. It just so happens her concentration (broadly speaking), is 20th century Europe, and I liked 20th century history so much, I all but minored in it – you needed 7 credits – I had 9, but they were plugged in the wrong way for me to get the minor.

Or was it you needed 5 and I had 7? Aren’t I supposed to be good at history…?

Our conversation was about the seemingly strange stagnation in the success of a local band I’d long since departed, that by any local barometer should be pretty successful in the scene by now. But they’re not – at least not as successful as they should be. They have the sound, the songwriting, the look, good shows at the right bars on the good nights, and the connections – they’re all even door guys or bartenders.

I explained their situation thusly, in the context of the more academic historical and political interests my girlfriend and I share – the band is too isolationist. And then, very satisfied with myself over this explanation, I took a long drag off my cigarette and realized that Rock and Roll bands are a lot like nation states. And so here we are.

Hey, you like Wikipedia, right? Yeah, me too.

The nation state is a state that self-identifies as deriving its political legitimacy from serving as a sovereign entity for a nation as a sovereign territorial unit. The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural and/or ethnic entity.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nation_state)


The Rock and Roll Band is a group that self-identifies as deriving it’s musical legitimacy from serving as a defined, cohesive unit. The Rock and Roll Band is a musical and social entity.

Is everything about a nation state applicable to a Rock and Roll Band? No, of course not. But then, not everything about a nation state is applicable to a lot of nation states, either.

So it’ll do.

To repeat my premise: Rock and Roll bands are a lot like nation states. I’m going to try to explain how, as well as how this comparison might be usefully applied by any given band whether they’re seeking Rock and Roll hegemony, or just a good time in front of people other than their bored friends on a rainy Tuesday night downtown.

You say you want a revolution, indeed.

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