Patriotism vs. protest
HOUSTON — 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."
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."
Heavy metal star Andrew W.K. has a new song called "I Love NYC." The title track of band Papa Roach's new album, "lovehatetragedy" was inspired by the events of Sept. 11, as was a new song by Rush called "Peaceable Kingdom."
But most of these new songs, says Mr. Browne, haven't been getting attention because they don't push the limits like Earle does. Critics say Mr. Earle is using this song as a way to attract attention to save his faltering career. Well before its release, "John Walker's Blues" is being attacked as both unpatriotic and sympathetic to an enemy of the United States. Some country music DJs even say they will refuse to play it.
"We have the first amendment, so if he wants to write about that, great. But we can exercise our right not to play it," says Crash Poteet, who co-hosts a morning radio show on station KTST-FM in Oklahoma City.
Mr. Poteet says the public needs patriotic songs right now. That's why he was so outraged last month when he found out that local country musician Toby Keith was removed from ABC's July Fourth TV special. Mr. Keith claims that producers objected to the lyrics of his new song, "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)." The country singer said he was told it was not upbeat enough, with lines like: "When you hear Mother Freedom start ringing her bell/ It's gonna feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you/ Brought to you courtesy of the Red, White and Blue!"
Poteet spread the word among his listeners and fellow DJs to send Peter Jennings their old boots in protest and over 400 pairs ended up at his New York offices.
"That song just summed up how we all felt after September the 11th," says Poteet. "During Vietnam, there were other sides to the issue. Whereas, when you kill thousands of people in a cowardly attack, there is no other side to the issue."
Since the controversy began, Earle hasn't resurfaced from a vacation in Ireland.
"Steve Earle's a renegade," says Mr. Browne. "He's been riling people up in Nashville for almost 20 years now. So he's used to getting a lot of flack."
On the other hand, Bruce Springsteen an artist who has come to be perceived as a quintessential part of modern Americana has a huge fan base and his songs are sure to have an impact. "People are going to listen to what he has to say," says Dr. Crist.
His song "Paradise" echos the thoughts of a terrorist preparing a bomb as he thinks of spending eternity in paradise with a loved one he has lost.
But as musicians move past the patriotic fervor that has gripped the US since Sept. 11, new perspectives and thus controversies are bound to hit the radio waves.
"My sense is musicians are trying to gauge public sentiment. It's probably not calculated; they probably don't know how they feel themselves," he says. "Rock and roll is readjusting itself from its previous anti-war, anti-establishment stance. And I don't think it's figured out what that stance should be yet."