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For What It's Worth


Mikal Gilmore

I didn't know about this closing performance by Billy Porter and Stephen Stills at the Democratic National Convention's first 2020 night until I got e-mail from Journal of the Plague Year. That's because I watched the telecast on CNN. I can't fathom why the network failed to show it. Did they not know that it would appear? Not listed on the production schedule? Too anxious to get to the usual round-up of pundits who often don't tell us anything too vital or illuminating—at least, not something that couldn't wait?

This performance, though, made plain the language-power that music can signify and embody, and how it can uplift. Let me emphasize that first word because this spoke to our present moment—indeed, it signified an ongoing and endless moment this year. Not only any single recent instance, but a continuum of moments that have run through our times since 1966—moments that rock & roll and R&B deepened with innate irreverence, disrespect, courage and intelligence, as well as with an impetus to both revolution and revelation in ways little else (news, film, literature, lectures, pedantry, histories) could inflame or transform so indelibly.

Whatever the reason CNN and, I guess, MSNBC (and maybe the networks as well), didn't carry this performance, others who are savvier (or luckier) did.

If CNN, et al., overlook such statements from now to November, or deem them mere entertainment, they are overlooking the ignition that belongs to voices and beats and guitars as much as it does to the best of discourse. In fact, this was at one with the best of discourse.

The revolution will be televised. How could it not be? But with voices and beats.

"For What It's Worth" will apply as long as history runs, because no matter what any unprogressive historians might assert, we're yet to see the end of history.

"There's something happening here

What it is ain't exactly clear

There's a man with a gun over there

Telling me I got to beware...

"Paranoia strikes deep

Into your life it will creep

It starts when you're always afraid

You step out of line, the man come and take you away." — Stephen Stills

Mikal Gilmore is the author of four books, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning memoir Shot in the Heart, and the 1960s cultural history Stories Done. He is a longtime writer for Rolling Stone.