Sunday, August 28, 2005
Pop Culture vs. the War
Maureen Dowd’s column in the New York Times today (August 27) reads pop music for signs of growing popular sentiment against the war. First, she notes that “the No. 1 music video requested on MTV is Green Day's antiwar song, ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends,’ about the pain of soldiers and their families.” Green Day’s video is indeed powerful, and I find it rather amazing that a 7+ minute video with scenes of Iraq combat is so popular on MTV. (“Wake Me Up” is also the top video on AOL Music’s Top 11.) “Wake Me Up When September Ends” is from Green Day’s dissent-filled rock-opera album, “American Idiot,” which is full of anti-Bush, anti-Patriot Act sentiments: "Now everybody do the propaganda / And sing along in the age of paranoia." The video, however, is not explicitly anti-war, and it could give as much comfort to the pro-war loved ones of soldiers in combat as it could to anti-war families.
Not so for the Rolling Stones, who Dowd also mentions. Their forthcoming album, “A Bigger Bang,” due out on September 6, contains a song called “Sweet Neo Con,” which is a completely unambiguous diatribe against Secretary of State and former National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice. Here are some lyrics:
You call yourself a Christian, I call you a hypocrite
You call yourself a patriot, well I think you’re full of shit
Oh, sweet Neo Con, what path have you led them on?
Oh, sweet Neo Con, is it time for the atom bomb?
You parade around in costume, expecting to be believed
But as the body bags stack up, we believe we’ve been deceived
The horror you’ve unleashed will backfire with more grief
When will you ever learn, Sweet Neo Con, as the world burns?
I LOVED the old Stones, but I think the last decent album they produced was back in 1978. Who would have imagined that the Strolling Bones (Mick, age 62, Keith, 61) could produce something so, well, oppositional. I’ve listened to 29 seconds of the song on amazon.com, and it ain’t great. Nonetheless, as Dowd notes, it is remarkable that the “N.F.L. did not cancel its sponsorship of the Rolling Stones tour,” despite the song. Nor did sponsor Ameriquest. Nor did the song stop Arnold Schwarznegger from using the Stones’ August 21 kickoff concert in Fenway Park as a fundraising event, charging $100,00 to donors who wanted to sit in his box and watch Mick sing “Street Fighting Man” along with the Guvernator. (Maybe the Stones’ stance isn’t THAT oppositional?)
To my mind, the best Condoleeza Rice song to date is Steve Earle’s hilarious “Condi, Condi,” from his most recent album “The Revolution Starts Now”: “They say you’re too uptight. I say you’re not.” Steve showed up to sing last Saturday at Camp Casey (Cindy Sheehan’s anti-war camp at Crawford, Texas) and you can see clips of him performing “The Revolution Starts Now” and “Rich Man’s War,” on democracynow.org (August 22). (And his entire performance of "The Revolution Starts Now" is at truthout.org). I consider “The Revolution Starts Now” the most important, most consistent anti-war Iraq war album (in any genre) to date. Earle is our Woodie Guthrie, our Pete Seeger, our Phil Ochs, our Country Joe. Dowd also notes that Joan Baez sang at Camp Casey last Sunday, and you can see her singing “Joe Hill” on democracynow.org’s Thursday, August 25th show, and "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" at truthout.org.
Dowd finally tells us that Gary Hart, in his very fine Washington Post op-ed piece on Wednesday (“Who Will Say ‘No More’?”), quotes from the anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist-deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool said to push on.” Dowd’s own column is entitled, “Bike-Deep in the Big Muddy.” For some reason, neither Hart nor Dowd credit Pete Seeger, who wrote the song in 1967, performed and recorded it. It is definitely worth reviving, at this moment:
Waist deep! Neck deep! Soon even a tall man'll be over his head
We're waist deep in the Big Muddy! And the big fool says to push on!
There are two other important anti-war videos I’d like to mention here, that are a few months old but still relevant and well worth viewing. The first is Eminem’s “Mosh,” released shortly before the November 2 election, and a single from his 2004 album “Encore.” The album represents a real decline from Eminem’s earlier work, but “Mosh” is an extremely powerful and compelling call to mobilization, one that is amazingly multi-cultural and diverse in its interpellations.
But the most gripping and politically daring video comes from the domain of (alt)country music. Since 1997, Mary Gauthier (pictured above) has been producing incredibly crafted songs about the down-and-out, with lyrics worthy of the finest southern writers. (She’s been compared to Lucinda Williams, but I think with Lucinda, it’s much more about the voice, and with Mary, it’s about the story.) I’ve followed Gauthier for awhile, but I never expected what I heard, and saw, in “Mercy Now,” the title track from Gauthier’s latest album (February 2005). The first two verses are about how “my father” and “my brother” “could use some mercy now.” It’s another beautiful song, evoking tough luck and hardscrabble lives, exactly what one has come to expect from Gauthier, up to this point. And then, the third verse:
My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit
That’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful
Who follow them down
I love my church and country, and they could use some mercy now
And on the video, there are images of the war and Iraq, and as Gauthier sings about her church and country “as they sink into a poisoned pit,” we see photos of Abu Ghraib: the hooded prisoner connected to wires, and Lyndie England laughing and pointing at nude prisoners.
The next verse goes global:
Every living thing could use a little mercy now
Only the hand of grace can end the race
Towards another mushroom cloud
People in power, well
They'll do anything to keep their crown
I love life, and life itself could use some mercy now
(The video here is not so remarkable: there’s no image of a mushroom cloud.)
The sheer radicality of this video, especially when it comes to its depiction of the US’s employment of torture in Iraq, seems to have passed without much comment, and no protest. Perhaps part of the reason that Gauthier is able to do what she does here without arousing outrage is that she simultaneously expresses her love for her country and her church (sentiments not all that common in other genres of US pop music but routinely expected in country) at the same time that she says country and church are “going down,” sinking into a “poisoned pit.”
Mary Gauthier has been nominated for three Americana Music Association awards: Album of the Year (“Mercy Now”), Song of the Year (“Mercy Now”) and New/Emerging Artist of the Year. The awards are September 9, and I wish I could be there in Nashville to see them show the video for “Mercy Now” as they announce the nominees. (Will the Abu Ghraib bits be aired? Who knows?) Final note: The "Mercy Now" video, directed by Demetria Kalodimos, won the Music Video Audience Award at the 2005 Nashville Film Festival in April.