Taking musical aim
What has Michael Moore got on Steve Earle? Besides more dollars and pounds, Moore has timing on his side, as Earle does not.Thirty or so years ago, if an artistic form was going to be put to a sociopolitical purpose, it was practically a given that it would be music. Rock ‘n’ roll was about rebellion and youth and speaking out, and popular music had insightful, politically charged characters like Bob Dylan, Neil Young and John Fogerty who were eager to take on the establishment.The years since have seen record labels and radio stations swallowed by giant corporations, and music slide deep into the sinkhole of irrelevance. While the occasional voice managed to slip through, it was usually from the margins. It is telling that perhaps the most prominent politically oriented singer of the 1980s was a Canadian, Bruce Cockburn.Film has become the new rock. Led by Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” film has taken a visible stand against the current political establishment. And though it’s too soon to say whether we are witnessing a blip or a turn of the tide, the wave of films railing against war, corruption and corporatism is no small thing. Documentaries like “Super Size Me,” “Outfoxed,” “The Corporation” and “Control Room,” plus Moore’s hugely successful “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine,” add up to a major effort to fight the power. Aspen Filmfest examined the phenomenon last week with its panel discussion “Fahrenheit, Fries, Fox and Fairness: The New Political Documentary,” in which filmmakers came to the conclusion (no surprise) that film had become a most effective way to take arms against the corporate/political/media establishment.
The fisticuffs on film are not limited to documentaries. John Sayles’ “Silver City,” set and shot in Colorado, examines the family and business ties that drive political corruption. Nor are the cinematic efforts limited to the left wing; a DVD called “FahrenHype 9/11,” featuring political analyst Dick Morris, was released this week, with promises to “unravel the truth” about Moore’s latest film.Even talk radio, books and TV seem to have a more prominent voice in the current marketplace of ideas than pop music.Musicians, however, are fighting to get in their shots. Most high-profile among these efforts is the current Vote for Change tour. Co-produced by the liberal group MoveOn, the tour – which will hit 11 states considered battlegrounds in the upcoming election – features various combinations of Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty, James Taylor and more. The musicians are donating their talents, and millions are expected to be raised for America Coming Together, a group whose stated intention is to defeat George Bush and elect Democrats.Early reviews of Vote for Change have noted that the tour’s rhetoric is turned down once the performers hit the stage. In a USA Today review, Fogerty said he doesn’t care to tell people how to act – not even how to vote – and Springsteen noted that he gave about three minutes of commentary for every three hours of music. Songs tended to be, such as Fogerty’s 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival hit “Fortunate Son” and R.E.M.’s “Final Straw,” more general denunciations of war than jabs aimed at any current wars. Lower down the music echelon, though, things get more specific – and far nastier. If “Fahrenheit 9/11” got the goat of Bush supporters, imagine what the response would be if any vociferous Republicans happened across “Political Manifesto,” the latest CD by the Creekdippers, a group built around the duo of Mark Olson and Victoria Williams.
The low-fi album opens with “Poor GW,” which taunts the president on the rising toll of war dead: “These morticians don’t need no work program / … the crime is higher, it’s climbing higher every day.” And where Fogerty, on his new CD, “Deja Vu All Over Again,” limits his political commentary to the title song, the Creekdippers are wall-to-wall politics on “Political Manifesto.” The CD continues to jab at Bush: “Portrait of a Sick America,” which imagines physically beating Bush as women cheer; and “George Bush Industriale,” which blames generations of the Bush family for petrochemical poisoning. On the brighter side, the Creekdippers hail Senator Robert Byrd – a Democrat, but you knew that – for his May 2003 speech calling the Iraq war “an unprovoked invasion of a sovereign nation, in violation of long-standing international law, under false premises.””Senator Byrd,” sings Williams in her quivering voice, “put off that trip to heaven / Stay down here with us on Earth.”Rickie Lee Jones challenges the Creekdippers for directness, and surpasses them for personal blows. Last year’s “The Evening of My Best Day” opens with “Ugly Man,” wherein Jones begins a recitation of her problems with the sitting president, staring with his looks, and moving on to deeper issues like trustworthiness, and how his accomplishments are all the product of nepotism. Jones is at her most persuasive and clever on “Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act),” which both skewers the recent controversial legislation and implores the press to do its job better. The song, with its chorus of “Tell somebody what’s happening in the U.S.A.” is delivered as upbeat gospel – and it’s hard to argue against the gospel. Jones had thought herself retired from songwriting. But the current administration prompted her to action. “The election of George Bush,” reads the album’s press notes, “the passage of The Patriot Act; the monopolies of media and their misuse of language. I began to realize that someone had to speak up.” Jones responded with her first new songs in six years, and her first-ever foray into political material. It’s quite a turn away from the detached hipster of earlier songs like “Coolsville.”Also lured out of retirement by the political climate is Camper Van Beethoven. The band’s first record of new songs in a decade, the concept album “New Roman Times,” creates a “fictional” divided America constantly at war. The central character is a soldier in the fascist Fundamentalist Christian Republic of Texas.
Dan Bern has long weighed in on the world around him, but the singer-songwriter is overtly political on “My Country II.” Bern still works largely in humorous terms. “President” has Bern, in his post-Dylan, nasal twang, laying out his executive plan: “Stop burning up the air we breathe and make the planet boil / And we won’t have to kiss the ass of whoever’s got the oil.” Bern can be obscure at times; “Sammy’s Bat” – a reference to baseball slugger Sammy Sosa’s illegally corked weapon of destruction – wraps together Guantanamo, revolution and various holy books. But Bern’s stance against head-in-the-sand flag-waving, leaders who pay no attention to those following, and blind consumerism come to a definite conclusion with the unambiguous, album-closing “Bush Must Be Defeated.”One need not be as wordy as Bern to make a clear point. Anitbalas, a multicultural crew from Brooklyn inspired by Fela Kuti, the outspoken king of Afrobeat, sticks largely to instrumental rhythms on its latest. But the title, “Who Is This America?” and lyrics like “How is the states now? / State of confusion / State of commotion / State of individualism,” speak out against America’s go-it-alone tendencies.Then there is Steve Earle. Earle’s outspokenness made him practically the guru of alt-country and an icon of independence before the first Bush administration. But Bush II kicked Earle into high gear. “Jerusalem,” from 2002, was Earle’s nuanced assessment of 9/11, an effort to see things from all sides, even overtly unpopular ones.Any measured tone, though, is gone on Earle’s latest, “The Revolution Starts Now.” Earle makes his intentions apparent. In the liner notes, he says he had a tight deadline to meet with the CD – that is, in time to weigh in before Americans cast their ballots.Foremost, Earle stands up for the duped soldier. In “Rich Man’s War,” “Home to Houston” and “The Gringo’s Tale,” he personalizes his populist, anti-war sentiment by writing character-driven story songs of young men sent off to battle for dubious purposes. In the poetic “Warrior,” Earle states, “There are no honorable frays to join / Only mean death dealt out in dibs and dabs.”
In “Condi, Condi,” Earle taunts Condoleezza Rice by coming onto her with his tongue hanging out: “Oh, Condi, Condi / I think you’re hot.” And Earle proclaims his right to do all this on “F the CC,” a bilious attack on those, like the Federal Communication Commission, inclined to interfere with his expression.In an effort to balance this survey, I searched for some Republican rockers who praise the Bush administration and its beliefs. But even my vast stacks of CDs yielded not a one. So I turned to trusty Merle Haggard, who established his right-wing credentials long ago with the hippie-baiting “Okie from Muskogee” and the ultra-patriotic “The Fightin’ Side of Me.” On “That’s the News,” from the recent album, “Haggard Like Never Before,” Haggard still stands up for the working man. But now he is also standing up against his leaders: “Politicians do all the talking / Soldiers pay the dues,” sings Haggard.Seems like even ol’ Merle has issues with the present administration.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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