Does war mute pop dissent?
By Dan DeLuca
Knight Ridder News Service
In the months leading up to a war that seemed as if it would never come, it often appeared that the pop-culture population was united against the Bush administration's plan to act against Iraq.
Sure, there have been exceptions: Bruce Willis volunteering to don cammies, and country singer Darryl Worley asking America "Have You Forgotten?" 9/11.
But from Hollywood and the music industry, there's been a chorus of dissent. Sean Penn inarticulately explained the error of the president's ways to Larry King, and TV president Martin Sheen has taken to the streets in protest. A coalition of rockers and rappers from David Byrne to Emmylou Harris to Jay-Z opposed the war.
Now that American troops are in harm's way, will the desire to rally around cause an end to celebrities mouthing off? Will there be a price to pay for speaking up?
Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks has publicly apologized for telling a London audience that "we're ashamed that George Bush is from Texas." But down in the Lone Star State's capital, Austin, where the music industry was gathered for the South by Southwest Music Festival, Maines' comments were praised by rockers such as John Doe, Ted Leo and the Waco Brothers.
Just as Sheen has been lambasted by calls for President Josiah Bartlet to be impeached, the Chicks have gotten into trouble in Louisiana, a radio station ran over the trio's CDs with a tractor. The group depends on airplay on ultra-conservative country radio stations that already regard the perky trio with suspicion.
But speaking out can't hurt artists like John Mellencamp who needs the attention or the Beastie Boys, both of whom have put downloadable anti-war songs on their Web sites recently. (The former's Woody Guthrie rewrite "To Washington" is on www.mellencamp.com; the latter's "In A World Gone Mad ... " is on www.beastieboys.com.)
But here's a far more potent protest song out there, in the form of "Boom," by the politically agitating metal band System of a Down.
With footage shot at anti-war rallies around the world in February, the video shows band members and protesters being interviewed about the war.
"I love America," says singer Serj Tankian. "But let's think before we go out and decimate people."As the song plays, factoids such as "500,000 projected civilian casualties" flash.
If MTV has done its demographic research and feels that its viewers are down with "Boom," then maybe the dissent will continue to rage even after the bullets fly. But "Boom" is only part of the story.
The next clip up was "When I'm Gone," by Mississippi modern-rockers 3 Doors Down. The video was recorded live on the deck of the aircraft carrier George Washington, and dedicated to "all the men and women serving our country." With the anthemic rock ballad playing while military people are seen going about their solemn duty, 3DD counteracts the SOAD roar of dissent with the sobering reality that the nation may be at war.
With that, the mixed media message came into focus. This is America, and protest is tolerated, even celebrated. But right now, it's time to be patriotic.