Does music reflect or lead the mood of the country? Either way, the tone of popular music regarding the war in Iraq has changed very markedly, according to some fascinating research performed by ace radio monitor Sean Ross:
- Shortly after the war in Iraq started, and during the height of the Dixie Chicks’ problems at Country radio, I began making myself CD compilations of songs that were somehow war-related, many of which were only available as downloads. Sixteen months later, I’m up to five CDs, and have about half of the songs for the sixth already set aside. All in all, there are about 100 songs and every week I’m hearing about others that would qualify.
You don’t need to look at Iraq-related music to see how the national mood has changed, particularly in light of Michael Moore’s transformation from post-Oscar pariah to $80-million dollar man. But there’s a clear change nonetheless, particularly when you consider the songs that made it to the radio then and now—a faster transition, as it happens, than during the Vietnam era where it took a year to get from “The Ballad of the Green Berets” to “For What It’s Worth,” and another three before “War/what is it good for?” and “four dead in Ohio.”
Consider the mood in March 2003. Even those Country PDs who wanted to stand by the Dixie Chicks were finding themselves shouted down not only by request lines callers who may or may not have been regular listeners, but each time music research came back. At a time when few other artists were willing to defend even the Chicks’ right to unpopular speech, it was hard to imagine a time when the tenor of the discussion in popular music could include the line, “Why did Bush knock down them towers?” heard in Jadakiss’ current R&B/Hip-hop hit, “Why?” Country and R&B’s constituencies had very different takes on the war, of course, but that line goes way beyond being ashamed to share a home state with the president, considered treasonous enough at the time.
So what was on the first volume? There was Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten,” the song that became Country radio’s rebuff to the Chicks. We had Clint Black, then between label deals, with the even more hawkish “Iraq And I Roll.”
….There were, as it happens, anti-war songs: Lenny Kravitz, who had weighed in during the first Gulf War with his Peace Choir remake of “Give Peace A Chance,” returned with “We Want Peace.” There was R.E.M.’s “The Final Straw,” Green Day’s remake of “Life During Wartime,” John Mellencamp’s “To Washington,” Zack de la Rocha & D.J. Shadow’s “March of Death,” and the Beastie Boys’ “In A World Gone Mad.”
None of those songs got more than token airplay at Rock radio and it was hard to know whether it was the tenor of the times or the songs themselves.
….It was also in late fall and early winter that Rock radio started to weigh in again with Thursday’s “War All The Time,” Living End’s “Who’s Gonna Save Us” and Incubus’ “Megalomaniac.” The latter, which represented just as much of an on-air turning point as “Where Is The Love,” was not, its authors initially claimed, specifically intended as an anti-Bush statement.
….Notably, Merle Haggard, whose long-disowned “The Fighting Side of Me” was one of the Vietnam era rallying cries, was perhaps the first Country artist with a critical statement this time, “That’s The News.”
….Country’s saber rattling is pretty much gone. The Beasties, undeterred by the lack of hysterica that “In A World Gone Mad” prompted, lash out at Bush or the war in four different songs on their new album. Prince deals with wartime hysteria on two, including the recent single “Call My Name.” There’s also a recent Contemporary Christian hit, Mark Schultz’s “Letters From War” with a happy ending—a captured soldier in an unnamed war comes home.
Which brings us to Jadakiss. There are no firm figures yet on how many radio stations are playing his Bush accusation unedited. A recent Airplay Monitor story suggests most are playing a label edit that excises the line, but here in New York, both WQHT (Hot 97) and WWPR (Power 105) are leaving it in. In Jacksonville, one Hip-Hop fan told a local TV station, “I know it’s not true. It’s just that you know it’s music to listen to because it catches your ear.” As the Jadakiss story spreads through the consumer press, radio’s scrutiny of “Why” will likely change.
….There was a moment, at the height of the Dixie Chicks hysteria, when one would have been forgiven for wondering if we were witnessing the end of dissent—on the radio, or elsewhere. Even then, the lessons of Vietnam suggested that a protracted war or American casualties would change the dialogue. As it happened, the dissent came a lot sooner than in Vietnam where the major protests of 1968 came at a time when there were already 20,000 American dead. The level of anti-war dissent on the radio has been ratcheted up steadily over the last year, from “Where Is The Love” to “Megalomaniac” to “Why.” After 15 months, nearly 1,000 U.S. dead and many times that on the other side, that’s both good and bad news.
I never had any doubt that we would see robust anti-war music because musicians were speaking out against the war from the beginning, and as Sean states, it was inevitable that the mood would turn against the war as casualties mounted.
My question is where are we now? The pendulum has swung so far back in the other direction from the days of Dixie Chick vilification that so far Jadakiss’s outrageous lyric has been ignored or given a pass. My guess is the current atmosphere of anti-Bush, anti-war hyperbole will yield its own backlash just in time for the election.