Political Pop Music — From Joan Osborne's 'Early Recordings' to Reba McEntire's 'What If It's You,' a look at recent releases with a government bent

By David Browne
November 08, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

Political Pop Music

On Nov. 5, ”Rock the Vote” will be more than a cry for voter participation. If you drop by a record store on your way home from the polls, you’ll be faced with an equally crucial Election Day decision: Which new release by which chart heavyweight should you buy? For those whose musical tastes run along party lines, we offer the following nonpartisan breakdown:

The Democratic Party

Once known as the party of counterculture progressives, the Democrats are now the middle-ground establishment (see: Bill Clinton). Once known as counterculture fops, the Beatles are now the rock establishment — the pre-alternative standard-bearers of pop songwriting and production. A vote for Anthology 3 brings two more discs of Fab outtakes, this time from the two troubled years before their bitter dissolution.

Anthology 2 chronicled the Beatles’ evolution as studio auteurs. By comparison, Anthology 3 is primarily a collection of songs in unvarnished states. The White Album demos on disc one are lovely and intimate; the effect is of the Beatles gathered in your living room, strumming unplugged versions of their new songs, complete with muffed chords and lyrics. (On ”Cry Baby Cry,” John Lennon sounds more than ever like the godfather of Oasis.) Disc two is weaker: Let It Be was already rough, so these loose leftovers only add sloppiness. Beatlemaniacs will relish songs never released in any form by the band — like Harrison’s ”Not Guilty,” a defense of hippie values that features a screechy guitar solo. What’s missing is any sense of the tense infighting during the sessions, and the alternate ”Get Back” here isn’t the one with Paul McCartney’s Pakistani-bashing lyrics. Then again, whitewashing is a part of politics, isn’t it? B

The Republican Party

Country music isn’t the GOP of pop simply because of its links to the Bible Belt and Christian values; conservatism rears its head in the music itself. Many of the genre’s big names hire the same writers, producers, and studio musicians on album after album, resulting in a stultifying homogeneity. (No wonder the pop audience’s interest in country has waned.) On What If It’s You, Reba McEntire incites a small but worthy revolution against this work ethic: She uses her road band, rather than by-the-hour session men. The effect is instantly apparent. Instead of the hotel-lounge pop of McEntire’s recent efforts, these songs are propelled by ringing rock guitars and harder beats. In essence, she’s made her first Mary Chapin Carpenter record.

If only the tunes were as focused. Half of What If It’s You offers tales of strong-willed women who take their destinies into their own hands. ”State of Grace,” about a Wal-Mart employee who quits and drives off to nowhere, is Thelma & Louise without the ammo. Yet just as many of McEntire’s characters stand by their men to pathetic degrees. In ”Close to Crazy,” the protagonist returns to the bistro table she and her ex once frequented and engages in imaginary conversations with him. Too bad she didn’t have a sharp career woman — like, say, McEntire — as her role model. B

The Reform Party

Ross Perot’s infomercials may be deranged, but he clings to his platform: reducing the deficit and government bureaucracy. On II, the follow-up to their left-field debut, the Presidents of the United States of America aim to reduce recording budgets and instrumentation, epitomized by Chris Ballew’s two-string guitar. On the album’s opening fanfare, ”Ladies and Gentlemen Part I,” Ballew even pokes fun at arena clichés like smoke pots and inane stage patter: ”Are you prepared to rock?” he sings, both wide-eyed and sarcastic.

Starting with that smarty-pants whimsy, II finds Seattle’s only angst-free band sailing through more Romper Room alterna-rock. The trio’s songs have such meaty, beaty, big, and bouncy melodies that they sound as if they’re playing while bouncing on trampolines. (It’s easy to imagine a wacky, ”Peaches”-style video for ”Twig” or ”Volcano.”) Beneath the goofball cheer, though, Ballew sings of smashing up his Matchbox cars and following bugs around his backyard. When his whiny girlfriend ends up dead, he blames the same ”Tiki God” from the Hawaiian episode of The Brady Bunch. It’s so delightfully unhinged, even Perot might vote for them. A-

The Green Party

Ralph Nader’s party aren’t closet liberals. Brandishing a platform that advocates environmental concerns and military spending cuts, the Greenies are up-front about their leanings. Want to bet they recycle dutifully, wear Birkenstocks, and love Joan Osborne? Osborne is herself a rock & roll liberal, having participated in AIDS and abortion-rights benefits. She’s a modern-day earth mama, even on Early Recordings, distilled from two homemade records from ’92 and ’93.

It’s not hard to see why it took Osborne years to break out of the blues-club ghetto. Many of the songs are the serviceable kind growled nightly by bar bands across the country, and she had a tendency to over-scream. But even in her training days, Osborne never failed to toss something new into the mix: The wailing-wall chant in ”His Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles” and her sultry take on ”Son of a Preacher Man” indicate where she was headed. Although Early Recordings is a fan memento, few live albums have so vividly captured the feel of being in a small club. You’ll be tempted to grab a beer and shout requests for Etta James covers. B

The MTV Party (to Go)

Who better to clinch the MTV nomination than their least annoying VJs? On the soundtrack of Beavis & Butt-Head Do America, all the network’s platforms are amply represented. There’s cultural desegregation (the Red Hot Chili Peppers cover the Ohio Players’ ”Love Rollercoaster”), kitsch galore (Engelbert Humperdinck croons the faux- cabaret ”Lesbian Seagull”), and ’70s-retro worship (Isaac Hayes grafts ”Shaft” wah-wah guitars and cooing backup singers onto B&B’s theme song).

Like their supporters, Beavis and Butt-head are desensitized not only to violence but to music — the harder and more visceral the tunes, the better. They’re always on the hunt for the next sonic kick. The soundtrack offers plenty of them, from squalor merchants (White Zombie) to video flavors-of-the-month (No Doubt). But the album makes it clear that it’s more fun to watch B&B watch their favorite bands than to hear said musicians. When it’s all over, you’ll want to break something — and it won’t be the two-party system. C