Entry 18: The Plastic Punk Goes Confederate
“Rebel Yell,” Billy Idol. Produced by Keith Forsey. Written by Billy Idol and Steve Stevens.
Release Date: October 24, 1982.
I recently reviewed Craig A. Warren’s The Rebel Yell: A Cultural History for The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society. I liked the book and my review is largely positive, but there’s one aspect I’d like to discuss here because it pertains directly to Civil War memory in popular culture. Warren commendably incorporates “Rebel Yell,” Billy Idol’s most famous tune (with the possible exception of his cover of “Mony Mony”), into his study but I disagree with Warren’s interpretation of the lyrics. This was too small an issue to warrant a lot of attention in my review, but it seemed like good fodder for a blogpost–especially since there’s some overlap with my previous discussion of the Confederate flag.
Warren argues that the Rebel Yell in Idol’s song, like the flag in The Dukes of Hazzard, had become so culturally ubiquitous that it could be separated from its historical context. He calls this process the evolution of a “Personal Rebel yell,” in which historical specificity deteriorates and every person can impose their own ideology–however facile–onto the famous Confederate scream. Warren uses Idol’s “Rebel Yell” to try to prove his case: “None of the lyrics made obvious reference to the American South or to the Confederacy. Rather, Idol delivered a quintessential ‘Personal Rebel yell’, an individualized shriek aimed at the universe.” Thus, for Idol, the Rebel Yell meant empty rebellion and nothing more.
I’m not so sure. It’s true Idol primarily uses the yell to make a sex joke: bragging in the chorus that he and his partner are so awesome in bed that she screams out something approximating the Rebel Yell when asking for “more, more, more.” But take a look at the second verse:
She don’t like slavery, she won’t sit and beg
But when I’m tired and lonely, she sees me to bed
What sets you free and brought you to me, babe
What sets you free, I need you hear by me because . . .
Is it just a coincidence that Idol mentions both “slavery” and freedom in a song titled “Rebel Yell”? Warren thinks so. “Perhaps some listeners familiar with the historical Rebel yell may have wondered whether its reference to ‘slavery’ harkened back to the Old South,” he posits, “but any objective reading of the lyrics would undermine that interpretation.” Call me subjective, but I disagree. I don’t know how familiar Idol is with American History, but these lyrics surely indicate he at least understands the connection between the Rebel Yell, the Confederacy, and the institution of slavery, and that sounds like historical context to me.
This is worth noting because it proves Confederate symbols cannot entirely be severed from their historical associations. I’ve already argued here that this is true for the flag but it’s also true for the Confederacy’s primary musical symbol: “Dixie.” Numerous attempts have been made–including one by Abraham Lincoln himself–to remove or lessen the song’s association with slavery and white supremacy, but none succeeded for long. I agree with Warren that these connections aren’t as strong with the Rebel Yell, but they’re still present.
Warren also argues that the song’s origin proves the absence of lyrical historical contexts. Idol recalled he got the idea from watching Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Ronnie Wood pass around a bottle of Rebel Yell Bourbon at Jagger’s birthday party. The name struck him as perfect for an album and/or song and, after ensuring that the Rolling Stones had no intention of using it, Idol set out to make the record. He claimed he was completely ignorant of the term before that night, which Warren cites as evidence that the Rebel Yell had moved completely outside of its Confederate context–a process Idol exacerbated by using it in his song.
The problem with this argument is it assumes that, after being introduced to the Rebel Yell, Idol never bothered to learn more about it. Warren is surely correct that the yell’s appeal to Idol was its potential for defiant, sexually-charged punk lyrics, but his references to slavery and freedom suggests some additional contextual knowledge. Idol also frequently played a guitar with a Confederate flag on it. Warren argues this shows how the flag had also become a symbol of generalized rebellion by the 1980s (at least in Idol’s England), but anyone who’s read John Coski’s book on the flag or Kevin Levin’s blog knows this is never really true. Idol may well have viewed the flag and yell as broad symbols of rebellion and nothing more, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t also understand their historical context and could apply it whenever he wished.
Using authorial intent to interpret lyrics only takes us so far anyway. Even if Warren’s correct and Idol appropriated these Confederate symbols without any knowledge of their historical context, he’s only half of the equation. Idol doesn’t get to completely control how his audience interprets his lyrics and surely many of his listeners understood the Confederate associations of these symbols and applied meaning to them in ways he may never have intended.
To be clear, I don’t think Idol’s a Confederate apologist nor that there’s much historical or poetic depth in “Rebel Yell,” other than Idol boasting about his sex life. The historical context he’s employing is at best playful and at worst purposefully offensive. Indeed, I have no clue what Idol’s actually talking about in the second verse, other than employing cheeky references to slavery. Nevertheless, this is a performer who borrowed a Confederate symbol well-aware of its historical connotations. “Rebel Yell” is not the deepest popular expression of Confederate memory, but it certainly belongs in that context.
- Sorry if this was a little too academic. I didn’t even mention how much I like the song. Given my equal fondness for Tom Petty’s “Rebels” and The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” maybe I have a soft spot for songs with Lost Cause elements.
- And, again, let me be clear that I liked Warren’s book overall and encourage anyone interested in Confederate memory or the Rebel Yell to read it. I found his argument that there was never a single, uniform yell especially convincing.
- Does it mention slavery?: Only in the verse I quoted above, although Idol also offers to sell his soul for his lover, which carries some historical weight given his earlier lyrics.
Next Entry: The Better Angels
For sake of argument, let’s say that when Idol wrote the song he DID understand the American Civil War and the proslavery stance of the South. Why would he then have the one that “don’t like slavery,” be the one shouting the rebel yell?
Good point, but I don’t think he was being that literal. It’s just wordplay and shows that he equated the Confederate South with slavery, at least in the shallowest sense. I’ll concede it’s possible the reference is a coincidence, but I almost always give the songwriter or author the benefit of the doubt. There are lots of other ways he could have constructed that verse and he chose to use “slavery” and “free” for a reason. In other words: http://www.hark.com/clips/stdctvshbn-billy-idol-gets-it
I knew that Wedding Singer clip would come in at some point in the discussion. Good stuff.
Can’t agree with you here. Clearly, given the context of the song, the slavery reference is about sadomasochism. FYI: in concert his lyrics in this part of the song were more X-rated.
Sure, but why can’t it be both? A cheeky reference to slavery as both sadomasochism and a reference to American slavery only makes the song’s central Rebel Yell metaphor stronger.