[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

October 2006

Won't Get Fooled Again
by Pete Townsend

We'll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the fold, that's all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain't changed
'Cause the banners, they are flown in the next

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
No, no!

I'll move myself and my family aside
If we happen to be left half alive
I'll get all my papers and smile at the sky
Though I know that the hypnotized never lie
Do ya?

There's nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Are now parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight

I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again
Don't get fooled again
No, no!


Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

Liberate or Dominate? "Won’t Get Fooled Again"

In an enormous wave of social and political turmoil fueled and ridden by rock music, The Who released Pete Townshend’s "Won’t Get Fooled Again," the closing track of the classic 1971 LP Who’s Next. If we don’t listen closely, we could think the song conveys a simplistic '60s "tune out, drop out, turn on" message -- that the singer is done listening to authority figures because they can’t be trusted.

The song’s main thought is instead more sophisticated, combining insights into history, politics, and human nature. People undermine their own and each other’s interests and defeat their own desire for a better world simply by doing what comes naturally.

The more things change…

It appears that the "children" are metaphorically "at our feet," in addition to literally being there if one brings them to a political demonstration. Parents fight for what they teach their children to value. "[T]he morals that they worship will be gone" because their parents, who are fighting, taught them not to perpetrate violence. Those who "spurred us on" -- organized and inspired the fight against tyranny -- tyrannize adversaries or wrongdoers, "the shotgun" their form of justice.

Whatever tyrant "we" fight to be liberated from is replaced by a new tyrant, not by genuine liberation. Second verse: "We were liberated from the fold, that’s all" -- not from tyranny. "The change, it had to come / We knew it all along" suggests that some sort of change was inevitable due to whatever pressures built, whatever needs were unmet. But notions that the change would be fundamental, ushering in a just system, were overblown or just wrong.

The fighters, those who stuck their necks out, separated themselves from those willing to continue under the status quo or too timid to fight even if disgruntled -- sheep following any shepherd as implied by "the fold." Liberated from the fold, one shakes off oppressive foldthink ("groupthink," as Orwell put it). All else goes on as before. "[H]istory" -- the recorded past, including today described generations hence -- "ain’t changed." The same flags will lead people into "the next war."

Change is superficial

Reinforcing the superficiality of change wrought by protest, "the slogans are replaced, bye-the-bye" -- when it happens doesn’t much matter since slogans aren’t substantive. And "the beards have all grown longer overnight" -- the fighters have only grown older with each passing day or have otherwise changed superficially -- but their basic, flawed humanity remains the same. The leaders of the new fight cast themselves as more radical or more intellectual than their predecessors, but the difference is merely in appearance, not in substance. Those who liberate themselves from the fold by moving leftward become the status quo, only to separate themselves by moving right of "the fold" later.

The song’s final words -- "Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss" -- observe that people who fight for a more democratic society typically turn out to be fighting to replace the dominant power holders with themselves, not with justice. The struggles that dominate human societies are between would-be bosses, not between those who would dominate and those who would liberate.

What’s a regular bloke to do?

The song’s intriguing bridge has the singer "mov[ing] [him]self and [his] family aside" -- getting them out of danger from the fighting and its immediate consequences, perhaps pursuing non-political endeavors -- "If [they] happen to be left half alive." Is "half alive" what they were before and after a supposed change occurred, an unsatisfactory system remaining unsatisfactory? Is “half alive” what one is when frustration or fear leads one to abandon political struggle because, being innately political, we lose part of ourselves if we withdraw completely from public life? Was the fight so destructive that they’re fortunate to remain even half alive? That a case can be made for all three is part of the song’s genius.

Getting "all [his] papers" and "smil[ing] at the sky," the singer feels lucky to be alive. He embraces his basic identity as made official in his birth certificate, his passport, whatever documents apply. He is still breathing, he still experiences exuberance at his existence in the natural world, the gods did not smite him due to choices he made in either joining the cause, opposing it, or watching from the sidelines -- his smiling at the sky suggests all of this.

"Though I know that the hypnotized never lie / Do ya?" sounds like a sarcastic rhetorical question directed at the listener, we the masses who are hypnotized by the status quo, its consumer baubles, and its social fictions, until the next wave of protest pushes the next big idea, which becomes the next social fiction maintaining the new status quo, which doesn’t differ significantly form the old one.

So is the song saying it’s our intellectual laziness -- our preferring hypnosis over thinking about what we do -- that keeps reform from being meaningful? Because no matter what happens, we fall back into our routines and trust that people who voiced such enchanting dreams will not betray or disappoint? Though "Do ya?" appears accusatory, the singer himself prays the same old, same old won’t happen with the new boss, not lifting a finger to secure his dreams but to play his guitar "just like yesterday."

Will we get fooled again?

Pete Townshend was onto something. He didn’t just advance a cliché such as "politicians are liars" or "it isn’t worth getting involved." Very succinctly, he elucidates how our humanity itself limits social progress. Certain people -- alpha males perhaps? -- are power-seekers. In a mass society, power eludes those who can’t stir public passions and direct them to their personal ends by getting them to think the public interest is what drives them. Being social primates, we care about each other and society as a whole, so we will be stirred to action. Being natural subjects and objects of deception, we will also fool ourselves and be fooled.

The elections coming up next month in the United States might not involve fighting in the streets, but "campaign" is a term of war, and we hear about many battles raging in close races between Republicans and Democrats. As Ralph Nader and some other public citizens have consistently pointed out, our public institutions, the distribution of wealth, and the big problems that affect millions of people remain as they are no matter who holds office. Prepare to meet your new bosses, and don’t be surprised if they’re the same as the old ones.

...David J. Cantor

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