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The Song Remains The Same

The SamePost-9/11, most artists have yet to turn introspective


The hippies did their part. Take Country Joe and the Fish's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-a-Fixin'-to-Die Rag." Take "For What It's Worth" by the Buffalo Springfield, or maybe "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Take "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, or "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath. With apologies to Henny Youngman, take "Ballad of the Green Berets" by Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler -- please.

Shortly after last September 11 -- hell, within a couple of hours after the first planes hit and showered debris both on the streets and in our collective consciousness -- folks were claiming the terrorist attacks as "our Pearl Harbor" and "our Vietnam." This was it, everyone was saying. This is the end of the age of irony, the end of selfish self-promotion. This was our chance to not only reconstruct our buildings and our lives, but our culture. Our art. This, they told you, was the beginning of a return to meaning. We had lost sight of what real meaning was, and, damn them all to hell, the terrorists had provided it for us. Performers would quit turning the mirror on themselves and focus it instead on society, and we'd see a spike in serious art like never before. Music would return to the days of CSNY's pleading cries of "How many more?" after the Kent State shootings -- music with a heart, and with an edge.

Except it didn't happen. Well, it kind of happened, but nobody heard it. Remember that longhairs like CSNY and others weren't exactly folks that Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard Nixon thought highly of. Songs like "Ohio" were protest fliers played once an hour, all over the country. After September 11, the country waited for a performer with the balls to react without silly jingoism or cheesy self-promotion.

We're still waiting.

John Ashcroft gets the cool-and-clammies from nippled statues, so we might safely assume some Noam Chomsky-quoting, incendiary art fire of a song would immediately get extinguished, anyway.

Sadly, even this isn't the case. It's that everyone's afraid to step up, except for knuckleheads like Toby Keith, who's trying so damn hard to be Charlie Daniels circa "Still in Saigon" and "In America" that it's laughable. Every Hat Act in Nashville has written a song about September 11, and all with the Bush Administration as their session men.

Just like the Ground Zeros in New York and at the Pentagon, September 11 has now been completely roped off in our minds, compartmentalized in media sound bites and cheap flags given away in banal insurance offices. And with the rare exception of someone like roots badass Steve Earle, penner of the inflammatory "John Walker's Blues," still no one has dared to cross the line. Where's the artistic renewal and rebirth? Where are the lessons learned? Put another way, if buildings fall and no one's around to hear them, do they make any noise?

For many, one of the most emotionally charged albums post-September 11 was the Armenian/American band System of a Down's Toxicity. Recorded in full prior to September 11, the album was even released on that fateful date, but soon after became the number one album in the land with its Los Angeles-inspired look at an America on the brink, which few bands, metal or otherwise, could see through all the glitter and haze.

From the opening track ("Prison Song"):

Minor drug offenders fill your prisons/You don't even flinch/All our taxes paying for your wars/Against the new non-rich

From the song "Deer Dance":

Pushing little children/With their fully automatics/They like to push the weak around/A rush of words/Pleading to disperse/Upon your naked walls, alive/A political call/The fall guy accord/We can't afford to be neutral on a moving train

From "X":

Show your people/Show your people how we died/Show your people/Show your people how we died/We don't need to nullify

And lastly, from "Chop Suey":

I don't think you trust/In, my, self righteous suicide/I, cry, when angels deserve to die/In my, self righteous suicide/I, cry, when angels deserve to die/Father, Father, Father, Father/Father/Into your hands/I/commend my spirit

Again, none of the album's songs are directly about September 11. Rather, it's a great example of a group of musicians catching the prevailing zeitgeist of a period of time in their music. One could argue that Britney Spears and Shakira and others capture the rather glossy, emotionless feel of the times in which they're popular. You could probably convincingly argue that's why they're popular in the first place. However, System of a Down were able to, from the outside, latch on to the violent insecurities of the rather well-made-up gal known as Mother America, and expose her secret diaries.

Toxicity is a darn good album to begin with, with jagged time signatures and exotic, Middle-Eastern touches and instrumentation. Relevance -- universal relevance -- is what made it Spin magazine's album of the year and a future classic.

I know what you're saying. What about the Boss? What about The Rising? What about it, you ask? Well, it's a good album, and relatively well done, as you would expect from someone of Springsteen's talent. It's certainly not a great album, and I don't know that I'd want it to be. If someone could handle subject matter as direct as September 11 with unfailing grace, I'd be amazed. It's too large an event to speak in specifics, which is why the more angular songs on the record -- the ones that could also be love songs -- are the most moving. However, it is ostensibly an album about September 11, and not suitable for our purposes.

Granted, there is great music out there, both on the underground and on major labels. New releases by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo are among the best releases of the year. However, that was expected.

Britney Spears, of course, is only going to appear in hippie or revolutionary garb if Pepsi tells her it's a good idea. No one, after all the "benefit" concerts, wants to see her or Michael Jackson or Sheryl Crow taking on the fundamental unfairness of the Patriot Act, though one imagines they'd consider it if the money was right. No, what I'd like to see are more artists taking chances, more artists tossing out the sparkly shirts and Paul Mitchell Tea-Tree hair gel and expressing themselves instead of supping at the rapidly decaying corpse of pop culture.

Maybe it takes another Nirvana. Maybe -- as much as I hate to say it -- it takes another terrorist attack. But music -- real, powerful music -- drives at people's souls and works within them and without them, as all good art does. As the artistic renaissance that happened during Vietnam shows, it can be both comfort and direction in the most dire of times. As long as a person can still hum or whistle a tune, you know everything's gonna be alright.

As exhorted by Mr. Springsteen, we do in fact need to rise up. That said, we need to act up as well.

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