In the 1960s and ’70s, rock fans hardly batted an eye at their musical heroes berating a widely mocked Republican president, but in the 2010s, things may have changed. After Todd Rundgren did a May 14 interview with Variety that touched on his feelings about patrons who’ve walked out of his shows as a result of his remarks about Donald Trump — specifically, “If you’re a Trump supporter, don’t come to my show, because you won’t have a good time; you will likely be offended” — a firestorm resulted, with Breitbart and other conservative sites fostering outrage over his remarks. Twitter users by the tens of thousands urged fellow Trump supporters to boycott Rundgren’s shows.
It was an unexpected tempest as Rundgren promoted a new album, “White Knight,” which includes a comic anti-Trump song, “Tin Foil Hat,” featuring its co-writer, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, on lead vocals. Naturally, there were some mixed feelings in Rundgren’s camp, as the brouhaha brought attention to the album and video, even as there were concerns the flap might affect ticket sales not just for his current solo outings but an August classic-rock package tour with the band Yes (dubbed “Yestival”) as well as fall dates as part of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. Plus, it’s not easy to know how seriously or nonchalantly to take the threats to do something worse than just stay home from a show.
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“Over the 42 years I’ve represented Todd, I’ve never been more proud of him,” says his manager, Panacea Entertainment chairman Eric Gardner. “In the ensuing firestorm of death threats and rallying cries for concert and album boycotts following the posting of Variety’s piece, rather than duck for cover and let the storm clouds pass, he ventured headlong into the jaws of the beast by accepting Fox News Channel’s invitation.” (The network also premiered the “Tin Foil Hat” video).
“In the end,” says Gardner, “this whole episode has been a zero sum exercise. What Todd suffered by way of ticket refund requests was counterbalanced by his enrichment from the global generation of millions of impressions, which are the currency of our business. Sweeter still, the vast majority of those impressions came from the alt-right.”
Is the man who wrote “Sometimes I Don’t Know What to Feel” any less certain about his feelings now? Don’t bet on it. Rundgren got on the phone with Variety from an East Coast tour stop to discuss the fallout from the previous interview.
Do you feel there’s been an effort to go after you in the same way pro-Bush factions went after the Dixie Chicks after Natalie Maines’ comments in 2003?
Well, the biggest issue turned out to be my relationship with Yes and the Yes festival — they were concerned about what negative impact that might have on them. But things have pretty much died down. There aren’t enough of these angry people to go around, so they all move en masse to somebody else in due time. But in the first week, there was a lot of panic and a lot of mixed feelings. The record company was glad, because it brought attention to the record as a whole, but other people, agency people, were wondering what kind of net effect it would have. As it turns out, it seems like crowds have been getting bigger rather than smaller, and it’s either out of curiosity or because people are actually coming to the show to make a statement that they don’t want to see people being intimidated for essentially expressing an opinion.
What was it like when you realized you were becoming a target for the right?
The initial response was quite obviously orchestrated, because almost all of it was vitriolic and almost all of it started out with “You showbiz liberals…!” [Breitbart.com] channeled a bunch of their morons over to Variety to make commentary, even though none of those people ever read Variety before. So that was weird and ironic at first. Eventually the bots and trolls get overwhelmed by the real responses, which are at least more measured. Yeah, there’s still negative response from certain people, but as a broader audience has actually gotten to see what the hubbub is about, they’ve just found it amusing, I think, albeit with a certain amount of biting commentary. It’s a tempest in a teapot, compared to what’s happened to people like Kathy Griffin. I’ve found that a lot of the fans appreciate that you make any kind of statement at all, because there is a lot of frustration out there over this situation.
Did you ever imagine that “Tin Foil Hat” would become the “hit” off this album?
[Laughs] It wasn’t even something intended to get broadly released, but events got ahead of it, actually. It had two purposes. It was just me and Donald [Fagen] trying to make ourselves feel better, by doing something instead of nothing. [Sample lines: “The man in the tin foil hat is tweeting like a teenage girl… He’s writing checks to his accusers with those tiny little hands.”] And the video was just a segment in the show that was supposed to entertain anybody who felt inclined to be entertained while I changed my clothes. That was about it! It took on more of a life.
Have you felt any effect from people who were actually fans who decided not to come to the shows?
Well, I tend to think that the people who have made a big stink are not people who have kept up anyway. They’re the same type of people who would have walked out because they didn’t hear “Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw the Light” and “Bang the Drum All Day” within the first half-hour of the show, who don’t understand how far things have come since then. The other people in the audience aren’t there to hear the hit songs in the first half-hour or they won’t feel satisfied; they’re mostly there to see something new. So I don’t think that the net loss was significant at all. It would be the same people who walk out anyway because they don’t get that immediate satisfaction of hearing stuff from the ’70s.
Looking at your tour itinerary, a lot of your recent shows were in Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and Texas — some deep-South red states. How’d that go?
Yeah, that’s where a lot of the threat missives would come from — you know, “If you come to Florida, look out, because you’re gonna get shot.” But as the tour went on, the incidents kind of began to disappear, and we got a whole lot of love out of Florida and Texas and practically no walkouts. So I think that the net effect of it has been, for me, at least, no effect, or potentially a positive effect.
As this heated up, I was imagining whether you were amused, or alarmed, or some combination of both.
Well, when you start getting the death threats, everyone around you certainly gets alarmed. But if you’ve been in the entertainment business long enough, you get death threats about something at some point. At first I was a little apprehensive. But it’s just because I don’t go out of my way to upset people. It was meant to be amusing; it wasn’t meant to be upsetting to people. So that sort of bothered me. But it was only a few days later that I was on “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon, and we were talking in a break and I asked him, “You make fun of Trump almost on a nightly basis. Do you get death threats?” He said, “Yes, I do.” And I realized that probably he and Stephen Colbert and Alec Baldwin and people who make fun of him weekly or nightly get death threats by the tons, just out of this freaking machine of alt-right professionals. At first you feel kind of vulnerable and lonely about it, but then I began to realize that I actually belong to a larger club.
You’ve probably found yourself some places you didn’t expect to be, like being a guest on Fox News.
I certainly didn’t expect that, no. We knew going in that it was likely that they were going to try to set me up, but the guy (Jesse Watters) just doesn’t have the skill to do it. The net result was probably positive, because of people finally getting to see what the hubbub was about and most of them getting a laugh out of it. It exposed the video to a much broader audience, and I don’t think it furthered the indignation argument very much. It’s not like that (Fox) audience could have gotten any madder.
Have you had a chance to talk to Donald Fagen since the controversy arose?
We correspond back and forth. Donald actually wanted to go full-bore with this right off the bat. After I finished the video and showed it to him, he said, “Put it out, put it out, we have to put it out.” I said, “That might be a distraction in the early days of the album release.” He started to get pretty frustrated that the video wasn’t out in order to give more exposure to the song, because he continues to be pretty upset about the whole thing. I get to play the video every night, and that’s my revenge. [Laughs.] That’s my statement, on a nightly basis. Although I’m probably retiring the video when I go out with Yes, because I’m not the headliner, and it’s inappropriate for me to kind of potentially divide the audience with some political issue when probably the greater context is the music… I don’t see [“Tin Foil Hat”] being eternally relevant. I think it worked because it’s relatively early in the so-called presidency of Trump, but events are going to be driven by the things that he does in the future.
Is it a surprise to you that people are shocked that you might have a political opinion and it might not be theirs? You did title an album “Swing to the Right,” and it’s not as if the statement in that title was meant as an unironic suggestion.
Well, I also did a whole album called “Liars.” [Laughs] People don’t seem to put two and two together sometimes. But I think that anybody that I lost as a part of this was not really there in the first place. That they somehow overlooked the fact that I also wrote a song called “Love Is the Answer.” And have done plenty of more anthemic songs about unity and helping each other and the opposite ethos of what Trump and Trump supporters represent. So I’m pretty sure I have lost practically nobody, because they were never there in the first place — never up on what was going on or what the central message really was.
You have those people who want to be able to love “Love Is the Answer” but also love the travel ban or the border wall. Those things don’t seem compatible to you, worldview-wise, but it doesn’t seem like a conflict to everyone.
It doesn’t compute, in some ways. You’re a pretty poor artist if you have to just come out and say everything. The whole idea of art is just couching ideas in different ways so that they’re easier to consume in some ways, but it doesn’t change what it is that you’re trying to convey… And if someone can’t deduce from the material that I’ve written what the political or social attitude might be underneath it, it’s because they’re purposely not paying attention, or they don’t care and never did care — like, “The words are nice and they rhyme, and what it really means, I probably won’t wonder too hard about it.” Then there are the listeners who know that there’s something in there and are looking for it and will plumb and bore into the song until they think they’ve found it. And those are the people that I actually write for.
The thing the right-wing sites highlighted from the Variety interview was you saying “Don’t come to my show,” but the context of the rest of the quote was not there. You weren’t threatening to impose a purity test at the door; you said you wished you could warn hardcore Trump supporters that they may not want to come, if they don’t have a sense of humor about your mockery, “because you won’t have a good time.”
They tried to cast it as me having some kind of inherent dislike of the Trump voter. Here’s the problem, and here’s where I get in trouble again. [Laughs] There are certain things about Trump that are irrefutable: He is dishonest. He is a pathological liar. He’s an ignoramus. These are all provable. “Evil” (is) a little less (irrefutable); it depends on your definition. I consider him evil because he makes other people do things that they regret and that they wouldn’t do otherwise. Those people who are still 100 percent behind him, the only thing you can deduce from that is that he represents them perfectly. They support the dishonesty, they support the ignorance, and they support the evil. But it isn’t like those are the people that I dwell on all the time. I’d much rather think of people as having some concern about the truth, and wanting to know what’s real and what isn’t real, and wanting to help other people rather than destroy them because they’re not loyal to you. That’s what I’d prefer to believe about people. But the plain reality is that anybody who will still go to the wall for this guy is everything that he is. And that’s depressing. [Laughs.] And if those people walk out of my show, as far as I’m concerned, buh-bye.
During the election, Trump had a lot of people who supported him not unequivocally but saw him as the lesser of evils. But since the election, some of that seems to have solidified into even more unqualified support in some quarters, so you’re running into something pretty virulent if you slam him.
Well, how often would you see online postings on behalf of Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton threatening to kill Trump voters? People who want to kill other people, they like Donald Trump. That has to be confronted. Some of these people are really sick in the head. The guy who taunts Muslim women on the train and then stabs anybody that tries to stop him, that guy thinks he can do that because of Trump. That’s the truly scary thing. You know, some clown making a death threat from his bedroom does not really frighten me. It’s that a lot of these people like that guy (in Portland) — white supremacists — think they’ve got permission now to come out of their ratholes. And if I could do anything to beat them back into their ratholes, even if it’s just something as stupid as “Tin Foil Hat”… You don’t accommodate evil. People say, how did the Germans put up with all of this? Because inch by inch, they watched their neighbors get away with it and let them get away with it. And at some point, it no longer has anything to do with political beliefs. It has to do with people who are filled with hate and want to inflict that hate on other people.
Did you have any reaction to Kathy Griffin, like, okay, there’s the heat off me a little bit?
Exactly! [Laughs] That’s exactly what I felt. I mean, I sympathized with her, but I thought, how could you not expect this? That being said, I think a lot of other people that you would have thought would have stood up for her right to do that backed away. And a lot of that is because they’re afraid.
Does this affect how you might feel going into the future — that you’d feel either warier or more emboldened about making any kind of political statement?
I don’t think it has any effect at all. I’ve made statements in the past… I wrote a song back in the ’80s called “Jesse” that had a filthy lyric to it that took on Jesse Helms, the Pope at the time, and Tipper Gore. There were people who said “That was in bad taste,” but it did not get the kind of violent reactions you get from Trump supporters. So this is a whole different breed of something. In my personal opinion, it started probably in the ’90s, when Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay realized that they couldn’t get Republicans elected because they had stupid ideas and terrible candidates, or stupid candidates and terrible ideas – one or the other — and they decided, “We’re going to change the rules completely. We’re going to call on the wolves now” — or what I call the natural-born pricks of the world. Everybody knows ’em, and they’re actually in public life: Newt Gingrich is one. Find somebody in the Senate who likes Ted Cruz; they’ll tell you he’s a natural-born prick. And instead of referring to your opponents as being wrong or even fuzzy-headed, you now referred to them as pathetic and corrupt. They no longer have legitimate arguments anymore. You’re irredeemable if you’re an opponent of conservative thought. From that point on, the natural-born pricks of the world had political cover for their behavior. You could pretend it was actually a political philosophy, when it was just you being a prick. And now the government is full of those people. The people that came in with the Tea Party movement were the natural-born pricks of the world, who knew nothing about government, but were so happy to have their hands on the reins of power and go crazy with it.
Do you feel humor or satire is the best method of dealing with these things? Left out of a lot of this is that “Tin Foil Hat” is funny.
In the opinion of a lot of us, this is the most horrible thing that’s ever happened to the country… (Other calamities) weren’t us attacking us. This is sheer suicide at this point. So you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying, until some responsible person at the IRS releases his tax returns.