Patriotism vs. protest
No one really knows what motivated John Walker Lindh to fight alongside the Taliban, but a controversial new song tries to figure out why: It begins: "I'm just an American boy raised on MTV/ and I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads/ but none of 'em looked like me," and ends: "Now they're dragging me back/ with my head in a sack/ to the land of infidel."Skip to next paragraph
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The song is titled "John Walker's Blues," and the songwriter, country singer Steve Earle, is no stranger to controversy. His lyrics about subjects such as the death penalty have riled conservative country listeners for years. Though Mr. Earle's new album, "Jerusalem," is not on shelves yet, word about his new song is already digging at America's post-Sept. 11 sensitivities and causing renewed debate about what a songwriter's real role is.
So far, most songs that have touched on the events of Sept. 11 have been patriotic anthems and sentimental remembrances, such as Paul McCartney's "Freedom" and Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)."
But, almost a year after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Earle's composition is one of two new songs that attempt to understand the perspective of a terrorist. The other is a song that appears on Bruce Springsteen's new album, "The Rising," released this week. Though the record is filled with soulful narratives on how the attacks impacted American lives, it also includes "Paradise," a subtle exploration of a suicide bomber's motives.
Music critics say it will be the first real test of how the public will respond to such perspectives in popular song.
"Since our country's beginnings, music has been a way of transmitting commentary and criticism, says Elizabeth Crist, an assistant professor of musicology at the University of Texas in Austin. "I expect we'll see more and more criticism and comment on the current political situation once we've moved past the initial expressions of mourning and nationalism."
But it may take longer. Like the rest of America, musicians traditionally known for their hard-hitting social commentary and anti-establishment sentiment have, in some cases, shifted in their attitudes since Sept. 11.
Songwriter Neil Young. for instance, has surprised some observers. In 1970, he wrote "Ohio," a seething condemnation of America's military involvement in Southeast Asia, at the height of the Vietnam War.
But last year, after terrorists attacked the US, he wrote "Let's Roll" a clear call to war with lines like: "Let's roll for freedom/Let's roll for love/ Goin' after Satan/ On the wings of a dove."
"Songwriters don't know what approach to take right now. The idea that war is bad was a lot clearer in the '60s," says David Browne, music critic for Entertainment Weekly. "It's a pretty symbolic shift, and Neil Young is a percent example of it."
Increasingly, new albums now hitting the record stores have songs that deal with Sept. 11. Some are devoted to the actual events and others are infused with a more thoughtful mood. In "It Hit Home," a song that New York artist Suzanne Vega wrote about 9/11, she sings: "I am no great patriot/I never wear the flag/and I only sing the songs that I'm supposed to in a crowd/but if I travel to Chicago or just take the train downtown/I see the grace that's under pressure, that's what I report out loud."