Photo by Michael Wilson
I’ve been playing with this uncomfortable notion of making wisecracks about the onslaught of politically oriented pop music that’s come out in recent months. It’s uncomfortable because it makes one look like a bit of a spoiler, or a trivializing, complacent ass. But I suspect I speak for many when I talk of my longstanding boredom with music that hangs overt, literal politics over itself in order to promote a cause, or to express outrage about nasty situations that crop up on the local, domestic or world stages. Or most any of those glittering, star-studded events where all the bighearted and passionate rock celebrities contribute their time and a few pop ditties in order to benefit the Democratic Party, or farmers or women or livestock. See the plump rock stars pump their fists in the air and lead us in chants; we roar our approval, slap one another and ourselves on the back for “getting it” and being right-on enough to be in the right place at the right time and having something akin to God on our sides. Don’t we all feel good about ourselves? And isn’t that what it’s all about? And: Doesn’t it feel great to have a common enemy?
The protest song itself goes back probably to the time of the metaphor-dealing medieval English minstrels and earlier, and this semi-grand tradition reached its peak with the American left activism of the ’60s, a time when social and political circumstances such as the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam combined with the particular timing of the rise of hippie-style counterculturalism to produce a galvanizing force that made the linking of politics/protest and music/art a natural and even logical phenomenon. It even made for pop success, such as Barry McGuire’s No. 1 mid-’60s hit “Eve of Destruction.” Once in a while, it led to artistic success as well. Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” got him drafted into the protest-singer arena, but he was basically a surrealist poet, not an activist. Go down the list: MC5 performing at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968; John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” “Power to the People” and caustic counterrevolutionary “Revolution.” Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen; U2 slagged the bullying Brits in “Sunday Bloody Sunday”; punk rock had the confrontational Clash and the socialist Gang of Four; Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and “Welcome to the Terrordome” justified their self-tagging as the “Black CNN.” More recently we’ve had the explicitly militant and literal-minded Rage Against the Machine, and specific Armenian genocide resolution proposals from System of a Down; then there’s that new Green Day song they’re playing on KROQ and 103.1, where the singer rants, “I don’t wanna be an American idiot!,” a sentiment I find quite dope, since I don’t, either. (On the counter-counter-counter side, let’s not forget Nashville stud Toby Keith’s reaction to the Dixie Chicks’ anti-Bush debacle, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue [The Angry American].” As you might recall, it was a big piece of cracker shit.)
Recently, there’s been something in the air: This guy Bush is if nothing else a great instigator — of the kind of outrage that’s making musicians need to speak their peace in numbers not seen in a very long time. Here’s a small sampling:
AMERICAN AMBULANCE, All Over the Map (Rustic) Standard-ish rock & roll from this Brooklyn alt-heartland-type combo, righteously ranting lyrics like “You know they’re rattling their swords again . . . they’re killing everything that’s in their way,” and “Hey John Ashcroft, come and kiss my New York ass!” They do timely covers of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” and Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny ’Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?” and Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” and it all amounts to a really excellent bar band who’ve got things on their minds other than sports, cars and pussy. Probably sounds better the drunker you get.
JASON DEAN/PUDDY TAT, In Shambles: A Cowboy Loose on the Range (www.Jason-dean.com) Musically excellent XTC-ish pop mini-symphony by this L.A. dude who does a lot of not-inadmirable railing about what an evil bastard Bush is and the shortsightedness of his administration’s policies, etc.; Dean sums it all up in grand operatic style with a chorus urging us to vote — Democratic! Not a lot in the way of metaphor, but the music’s great.
THE YELLOW SWANS, Bring the Neon War Home (Narnack) Portland’s harsh noise duo Yellow Swans sort of deconstruct the whole idea of protest by super-expanding it; like, if you obliterate everything with noise, you’re protesting everything; thus you’ll easily be able to slot in your particular grievance while listening to it. Specific items like police oppression, the Reagan era, the war on drugs and the bombs in Iraq are used as psychological jumping-off points; those things inspire images that get thrown into a Veg-O-Matic with guitar, voice and hellaciously raw electronics, and what gets strewn back out is something that is potentially very revolutionary, because it suggests possibilities.
STEVE EARLE, The Revolution Starts . . . Now (Artemis) I’m not convinced he’s the new Woody Guthrie, but new sensitive redneck Steve Earle chronicles hard times, war and federal-government shenanigans with a seemingly fertile and authentic gift for articulate snarl. Earle dissed the death penalty with “Billy Austin” and “Ellis Unit One,” and pissed off the country-music big cheeses with “John Walker’s Blues” in 2002. On his new one it’s “Yeah, the revolution starts now/in your own back yard,” which theme he plays out over and again on an adequately rocking and almost-choking-with-integrity set. In a way Earle’s just the Michael Moore of roots/country-rock, the alternative Middle American who’s mad as hell and ain’t gonna take it anymore and lashes out in a sharply middlebrow way. He does his fair share of explicit Dubya daggering on the electric-country pokey “A Rich Man’s War” (“Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war”), accuses with lines like “your sons, your daughters . . . the cruel consequence of your deceit.” “F the CC” (it’s censored on the cover) says, “Fuck the FCC, fuck the FBI, fuck the CIA, livin’ in the motherfuckin’ USA” — in other words, fuck all you motherfuckers. And dang, that feels good.
VARIOUS ARTISTS, Lullabies From the Axis of Evil (Kirkelig Kulturverksted, Oslo; www.kkv.no) It’s indisputably true that all wars are in essence a testosterone-without-an-outlet problem. Men start wars; it’s men who insist that they’ll always be necessary, even today. Men start wars because they’re not fucking enough, and what’s more, deep down, all men know this. Anyhow, I love the title of this project, which comes from a traditionally non-interventionist country and seeks to promote another viewpoint with an impeccably chosen batch of somber, aromatic songs by Mahsa Vahdat from Iran, Amel Kthyer and Halla Bassam from Iraq, Kulsoom Syed Ghulam from Afghanistan, Palestine’s Jawaher Shofani, Syria’s Mayada Killisly Baghdadi and other ostensible enemies of the USA. These artists’ gentle imprecations in deeply personal tales of lovers, children, the stars and peace should be pumped into every elevator and mini-mall in America.
VARIOUS ARTISTS, Future Soundtrack for America (Barsuk/MoveOn.org) MoveOn.org was shrewd to get this fairly wide-ranging bunch of artists to contribute songs for a disc benefiting the undertaking, a set that portrays at the very least that their particular revolution is deep enough to embrace conflicting new aesthetics: Death Cab for Cutie, the Flaming Lips, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bright Eyes, Tom Waits and, strangely, Elliott Smith’s pro-drug song “A Distorted Reality Is Now a Necessity To Be Free” are among the 22 tracks.
GEORGE W. BUSH, Bushspeak: The Curious Wit & Wisdom of George W. Bush (Shout! Factory) Here’s our chance to laugh at what a supremely idiotic jack-off the president of the United States is, in the privacy of our own homes, without fear of reprisal: excerpts from some of his most extraordinarily shit-for-brains speeches, and his dumbass flubs over the most basic of English-language terms. To be fair, I will say one thing for President Bush, and that is that he never combs his fingers through his forelock.