Examining the music industry's response, or lack thereof, to the Persian Gulf war

Now that the war has ended, let’s consider the echoes it left in pop music: Whitney Houston singing ”The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl; a ”Desert Shield Mix” of the 1990 Styx ballad ”Show Me the Way,” spiced up with war news reports; the likes of new jack R&B singer Bobby Brown and Dire Straits guitar hero Mark Knopfler participating in the pro-troops single and video ”Voices That Care.” Or, during the Grammy Awards telecast, everyone from M.C. Hammer to Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler saluting U.S. soldiers during acceptance speeches. Even politically aware Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid, who pointedly wore a Sinéad O’Connor T-shirt during the show (O’Connor boycotted the Grammys over commercialism), had kind words for our men and women in the gulf. ”We’re sending all our prayers out to you all,” Reid politely said as he accepted the band’s award for Best Hard Rock Performance.

For those who consider pop and rock to be antiestablishment and antiwar, such sentiments were nothing less than stunning. It has been argued for years that rock & roll has grown up and gone mainstream. But nothing drove that point home harder than the music world’s reaction — or lack of it — to the Persian Gulf war. There was some rock & roll opposition to the conflict, from comments O’Connor had also made about rock’s indifference to the war to the all-star remake of John Lennon’s ”Give Peace a Chance” (with new gulf-related lyrics) organized by Lenny Kravitz and Lennon’s son Sean. But in the main, the pop-rock community was silent or, at best, frustratingly vague.

Throughout the war, noted antiwar proponents like Bruce Springsteen and U2 kept mum. (Springsteen’s spokesman said he didn’t have any comments because he hadn’t done any interviews, and that he ”generally doesn’t issue statements.”) For every Jackson Browne, who called the allied incursion ”a huge mistake,” there was someone like Dave Mustaine, lead singer of the speed-metal band Megadeth, who, when interviewed on MTV, firmly took a stance that most simply translates as ”let’s kick Iraqi butt.” Or Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar, who told USA Today how glad he was that bomber pilots were cranking his band’s songs in their cockpits, as if the war were a scene from Top Gun. Or all the musicians — Warrant, Ralph Tresvant, Debbie Gibson, Stephen Stills, Michael Bolton, and Nelson, among others — on ”Voices That Care.” The single didn’t take a hard stance either for or against the fighting. Yet it contributed to the general impression, put forth by both the media and the government, that supporting the troops meant supporting the war — not exactly sentiments one associates with supposedly left-wing rock stars.

Vestiges of old-wave pop outrage lingered. Randy Newman quickly wrote and recorded ”Lines in the Sand” (released to radio stations, but not put on sale to the public), with cutting lines like ”We old men will guide you/Though we won’t be there beside you/We wish you well.” The Rolling Stones took a few swipes at the role of Western nations in arming Iraq before the war on their single ”Highwire.” And RCA rush-released newcomer Vinnie James’ ”War Song,” although its chorus (”If I could write a song that could end all wars/I bet they wouldn’t listen”) wasn’t quite the tear-down-the-walls stuff we expect from protest songs.

But when a rock-culture symbol like Rolling Stone decorates its logo with a yellow ribbon, as it did in a recent issue, you have to wonder about the changing role of pop music. Comparisons with Vietnam have become mundane, but there’s no ignoring a crucial difference: This may have been the first armed conflict that rock condoned by way of silence. Although the number of explicit antiwar songs to come out of the ’60s was lower than we remember, the antiestablishment feeling was implied even in an apolitical tune like the Animals’ ”We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Neil Young, who once sang angrily about the death of four students at Kent State in ”Ohio,” decorated the stage on his current tour with both a peace sign and a yellow ribbon. Like many of his generation, Young was seemingly caught between wishing the best for the soldiers and accepting the widespread notion that this particular conflict was indeed justified.

One thing the rock world couldn’t seem to grasp was that it was possible to be pro-peace and still respectful of U.S. soldiers. After all, no one wants to see body bags piling up at U.S. air bases. It’s one thing to wish for the well-being of young men and women thrust into a nightmare over which they have no control. It’s another matter to question whether U.S. forces should be there at all, and whether sanctions or negotiations would have worked. Traditionally, rock has raised such questions — and suggested unpopular answers. But that wasn’t the case during the gulf war. Instead, rock stars stood meekly at the sidelines, waving an American flag and hoping for the best.

Think about this: One of the few pop heroes who wasn’t afraid to take an antiwar stand in this mess was, of all people, New Kids on the Block’s Donnie Wahlberg, who wore a ”War Sucks” T-shirt during the American Music Awards. If we have to turn to the New Kids for social commentary, we may be in more trouble than we think.