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The God and The Infidel

Why We Need Both Springsteen and Steve Earle

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As the first anniversary of September 11 approaches, the starkly contrasting reactions to two new albums -- one by Bruce Springsteen, the other by Steve Earle -- offer a dramatic example of unresolved national feelings that have simmered over the last tumultuous year.

While both albums address themes related to the terrorist attacks, the release of Springsteen's new album The Rising has been met with the worshipful praise and orchestrated hype associated with a major cultural event. The Boss kicked off the publicity campaign for The Rising with a Time magazine cover that trumpeted: "How Bruce Springsteen reached out to 9/11 survivors and turned America's anguish into art"; an appearance on the Today Show, Nightline, and two consecutive nights on David Letterman.

In contrast, Earle's new album Jerusalem, due on September 24, has turned him overnight into what the Toronto Star calls, "America's most reviled popular musician." And this is before the album has even been released! Less well known than Springsteen, Earle is a veteran singer/songwriter with a large, loyal following, a reputation as a musician's musician, and a well-developed social conscience. Yet the Star writes, "Suddenly Eminem looks about as dangerous as a prancing court jester. . .Earle has stirred quite a little dust storm with "John Walker's Blues,' a song about convicted American Taliban conscript John Walker Lindh."

Both albums have emerged at a bewildering historical moment, when the collective consciousness of the country reflects a dizzying mixture of confusion and anger. There is still no literal resolution of the terrorist attacks, with Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar still at large; Afghanistan is in shambles and thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in the process; terrorist alerts, usually bogus, pop up like prairie dogs every few weeks; and now the Bush administration is revving up the war drums for action in Iraq.

It's no surprise that 9/11 knocked the country off its moorings, but since then things have only gotten worse for most Americans. The economy has slowed to a crawl with people losing their jobs while the country strains under the weight of corporate greed, corruption and hype. The moral authority of the Catholic Church has taken a huge hit; the cult of the CEO and faith in the stock market have been crushed; and virtually every day sees the demise of another part of the conventional wisdom, including the illusion that millions could look forward to a comfortable retirement.

Interestingly, much of the myth-smashing is being done by a media system that invested enormous energy in creating the myths it's now gleefully demolishing. Fittingly, the media hype around Springsteen has rendered him godlike, while the media storm around Earle has turned him into a pariah.

Psychotherapist Margo Duxler observes that in difficult times people often turn to artists to help make sense of chaos and conflicting emotions and images. "Meaningful art helps people process and digest experience and move toward catharsis," she says. "Great musical storytelling can help people regain hope and take action on personal solutions."

This is such a time. However, in Earle's case he clearly risks having his stories drowned out by media hype and conservative attacks even before the album hits the stores. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported, based upon printed lyrics, that "everyone from the New York Post to CNN was dumbstruck by the audacity" of "John Walker's Blues." The song 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."

According to the Toronto Star, a talk show host has called for a boycott of stores selling the forthcoming Jerusalem and of radio stations that play the song "John Walker's Blues."

David Corn, writing on the Nation's web site adds: "During wartime -- and, officially, it's still wartime -- the super-patriots are ever more watchful for acts of cultural treason." And Earle is the "latest victim of the red-white-and-blue lynch mob."

The web site of Rupert Murdoch's New York Post headlined its dispatch, "Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat" and claimed "American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh is glorified and called Jesus-like in a country-rock song."

While Steve Gill, a conservative talk show host in Nashville declared, "This puts [Earle] in the same category as Jane Fonda and John Walker and all those people who hate America."

Wire services and the Washington Post have all covered the fuss, with Reuters commenting: "The song offers a rare sympathetic view of Lindh." The New York Post noted that the ballad is "backed by the chanting of Arabic prayers and praises Allah."

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