The town preacher in the movie Footloose tried to ban rock music and dancing—sound familiar? Credit: YouTube

Pop quiz: Who uttered the following line—a Cook County official commenting on the legalities of a tax on small music venues booking rock, rap, and DJ shows, or Reverend Shaw from Footloose preaching about a ban on loud music and dancing? 

“Even if this was not a law—which it is, I’m afraid—I would have a lot of difficulty endorsing an enterprise which is as fraught with genuine peril as I believe this one to be.”

You had to think about it for a second, didn’t you?

In the past week or so, Cook County officials have essentially transformed into cartoonish, mustache-twirling villains from a snobs-versus-slobs 80s movie. They’re the functional equivalent of John Lithgow’s self-righteous Pentecostal preacher character from the 1984 film Footloose, outlawing dancing and rock ‘n’ roll out of fear of the spiritual corruption of the youth. (Ironically, Kevin Bacon’s character is from Chicago and is shocked at the town’s conservatism.) They’re the fun-hating suits and stiffs who want to turn beloved clubhouses into parking lots; the fascist principal who tells the iconoclasts to cut their hair and get jobs; the priggish cultural elitist sneering at the music that “kids these days” love while huffily insisting something like Beethoven is “real art.” 

At least that’s what I gathered after reading the news the Reader broke about how the county is trying to strong-arm small music venues into ponying up hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes. Its spurious claim is that clubs with a capacity of 750 or less that book rock, country, rap, and DJ shows have been cheating the county out of funds from a 3 percent county amusement tax because they’re taking advantage of an exemption set aside for “live theatrical, live musical or other live cultural performances.”

In the county’s view, only opera, ballet, symphony orchestras, and other so-called “fine arts” deserve a tax break. And by “fine,” the county seems to imply arts events where white people of a certain age and income level politely clap while holding programs, where socialites go to rub elbows clad in expensive Italian fabric and tinkle gold-rimmed glasses at cocktail receptions. Venues that spell theater as “theatre,” that have trustees and boards and big donors.

The county is seeking to make the burden of the amusement tax fall instead on blue-collar bars and clubs that book . . . [clears throat, retrieves monocle] dreadfully lowbrow forms of music, especially venues that regularly book DJs. Because this is real-life Chicago in 2016, not an 80s comedy, there’s no Ernest around to save camp, no Goonies with fistfuls of pirate treasure—just venues like the Empty Bottle, Beauty Bar, and Evil Olive employing a handful of lawyers to protect them from getting suddenly bilked by the government.

Cook County has become the fascist principal who tells the slacker rebel to cut his hair and get a job.
Cook County has become the fascist principal who tells the slacker rebel to cut his hair and get a job.Credit: YouTube

Here’s possibly the most surreal aspect of the whole ordeal: those lawyers will appear at a hearing scheduled for October 17 to reportedly present evidence and testimony from musicologists and working DJs in an attempt to convince the county of the cultural value of, say, house music. In effect, the county has put EDM on trial.

County officials shouldn’t need experts to attest to the cultural value of electronic music. All they have to do is look around Chicago. The record collection of the late, legendary Chicago DJ Frankie Knuckles, the Godfather of House, is on permanent display at Theaster Gates’s Stony Island Arts Bank. Knuckles has an honorary street dedicated to him, as does the seminal DJ squad the Hot Mix 5, whose individual members also have been recognized with honorary street designations. The Museum of Contemporary Art hosted a David Bowie exhibition in 2014 and ’15 and regularly hosts DJ performances at its afterhours events, and . . . hell, why do I even need to explain this?

The truth is that Cook County isn’t really interested in some kind of philosophical discussion about the nature of high art. It’s acting as a tax collector, of course, not a cultural gatekeeper. It could try to extract funds from the opera, symphony, or moneyed fine-arts patrons with say, a financial transaction tax, but instead it decided to play the bully and shake down the little guys—the PBR-stained bars and divey dance clubs—for their lunch money.

The county’s villainy is absurd enough that you’re forgiven if a certain 80s Twisted Sister refrain worms its way into your brain: “We’re not going to take it! / No! We ain’t gonna take it!”

As much as I’d like this legal proceeding to end like an 80s music video or movie—an unlikely group of music-loving misfits rebelling against the fascist authority figure or banding together to organize a fund-raising concert—those who are opposed to the county’s controversial stance are probably going to have to do this the hard way: by signing this petition that Chance the Rapper tweeted out last night, by writing and calling county commissioners, contacting Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, and showing up to the October 17 meeting to give ’em hell (and maybe a Daft Punk album).