June 10, 2004
Pop Singer Tries on Activism
"I'm just a pissed-off Jew," David Fagin says.
It's not hard to understand why, on this Monday night in a windowless dressing room in Hollywood. Fagin's just been asked to pay for what he thought was a free drink at The Knitting Factory, where -- to add insult to injury -- his power pop band, The Rosenbergs, is playing a free concert. He shrugs and laughs a bit, then settles on a worn couch to explain what really peeves him: the erosion of artist's rights by media conglomerates and the Federal Communications Commission.
"There's all this censoring bull -- going on," he says, echoing sentiments he expressed in a recent Billboard editorial. "People in the administration are reinterpreting our constitution so vaguely, you can say 'orgy of food' on TV and be fined thousands of dollars."
The 36-year-old singer-guitarist will appear on CNBC's "New Dennis Miller Show" tonight to discuss his proposed response: a Million Band March on Capitol Hill in September. He envisions "thousands of artists, writers, producers, actors, directors, DJs and anyone else crazy enough to be there, gathering in front of FCC headquarters to say, 'We're mad as hell and we're not gonna take it anymore.'"
While his efforts tie into the trend of arts activism exemplified by groups such as Rock the Vote, Fagin's political zeal seems out of sync with his David Cassidyish good looks and head-bobbing, guitar-driven pop music.
In fact, The Rosenbergs' new album, "Department Store Girl" (Force MP), consists heavily of boy-meets-girl songs: "The whole reason life exists is man-woman, man-man, whatever your pleasure," he says by way of an explanation. "And I just don't believe in mixing music with politics in lyrics. That might be right for Midnight Oil, but the songs just don't come out of me that way."
"Most people write very angry lyrics when they're mad or depressed," The Rosenberg's bass player, Joshua Aaron, says from his seat on the floor. "But David takes the opposite approach. "He'll be completely irate, yet he'll write songs that are happy, innocent and childlike."
Given Fagin's politics, one might assume the band is named for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, whose 1950s treason trial became a leftist cause celebre. No dice.
"It's named after my friend's incredibly energetic, 83-year-old Jewish grandfather," Fagin says.
There's another reason, too. Fagin cites the anti-Semitic bullies who taunted him when he was a kid: "My shrink thinks I named the band The Rosenbergs to get back at them [the bullies], being proud of my Jewish heritage, while at the same time, still having enough Woody Allen in me, not wanting to succeed, not wanting the band to have a name that sounds successful," he says. "It's like, 'The Rosenbergs, what the hell is that?'"
Fagin laughs, but it's clear the bullies made an impression. Although the Fair Lawn, N.J., native grew up watching his mother perform her lounge act in the Catskills, Fagin was so shy that he didn't form his own band until his senior year of high school. After graduation, he dropped the group to "wander in the desert, like Moses, trying to figure things out." It took until 1994 for him to found The Rosenbergs, and six more years to become an "artist-activist," something he never intended to do.
Until 2000, that is, when his band was selected to appear on a TV show produced by an online record label, FarmClub.com -- an opportunity "other bands would have given their drummer's left arm for," according to one newspaper account. But Fagin didn't like the terms of the contract, which he says would have required him to forfeit ownership of his recording masters, among other conditions.
He refused to sign with the company, founded by music industry titans Jimmy Iovine and Doug Morris (call it David vs. Goliath); then angered music retailers by arranging a promotional deal with Napster, the controversial music file-sharing service. No wonder it took The Rosenbergs two years to find a company willing to release "Department Store Girl": "We're perceived as troublemakers," Fagin says. "But we don't have any regrets."
These days, the group's been labeled "one of indie rock's most enterprising and outspoken bands," according to Amplifier Magazine; they've toured with No Doubt and Stone Temple Pilots and their songs have been featured on TV shows such as "Dawson's Creek." Recently, they played at the Playboy mansion to promote Playboy's new video game, which features Fagin's music and likeness ("I'm described as 'amorous, confrontational, critical and funloving,'" he says).
At a recent gig, Fagin was more funloving than confrontational, taking just a minute to lambaste "the FCC's deconstruction of the First Amendment" before promising to "get off my soapbox."
During a Journal phone interview, he was back on the soapbox, a self-proclaimed "pissed-off Jew."
"I'd rather go down fighting than lay down," he says.
Fagin will appear on CNBC's "New Dennis Miller Show" June 11 at 9 p.m.