War -- what is it good for? A lot of mixed messages from pop stars, as David Browne found listening to the new wave of Sept. 11 songs
The pattern used to be simple: American military springs into action, outraged rock stars decry it in song. As soon as the dust from the Twin Towers settled, though, it was clear the music world’s reaction to Sept. 11 would be different. Watching Neil Young and Fred Durst perform on the all-star charity telethon the week after vividly illustrated that pop stars of all ages wouldn’t necessarily be adopting the anti-army stance of two wars past.
But how exactly would they react? Reflecting the complex emotions we’ve all experienced, the slowly swelling crop of 9/11 songs ranges from revenge fantasies to patriotic bromides. Proudly occupying the former category is the Charlie Daniels Band’s bellicose ”This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag,” in which the grizzled southern rocker goads an unnamed bin Laden with muscle-headed lyrics like ”Now we’re coming with a gun and you know you’re gonna run.” Any chance of artistic subtlety is shot down by the finale, in which schoolkids recite the Pledge of Allegiance as ”USA!” chants are heard behind them. A less obnoxious Nashville response, Aaron Tippin’s ”Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly” is a brawny, standard-issue number that ignores daisy-cutter bombs in favor of national pride: ”I pledge allegiance to this flag,” Tippin sings, ”and if that bothers you, well, that’s too bad.”
Despite the recent global shifts, at least one thing hasn’t changed: Paul McCartney’s knack for a facile, sing-along chorus. ”Freedom,” which premiered at the Concert for New York City and was hastily whipped out for single release, certainly sounds as if it were done fast: McCartney hasn’t tossed off such a simple, ragged shuffle since his early post-Beatles albums. Reflecting a generation that came of age protesting, his lyrics lack any specificity. ”Anyone tries to take it away will have to answer ’cause this is my right” is as declarative as he gets, making ”Freedom” a rather squishy exhortation.
The phrase ”let’s roll”—the last words of Todd Beamer before he and his fellow passengers on Flight 93 took on their hijackers—provides the hook for two new records. The most stylistically au courant is dcTalk’s ‘‘Let’s Roll,” in which the Christian-pop trio lurch into full nu-metal thrash: ”Let’s roll, let’s fight!/Let’s show the world what’s right!” But would God want His followers to kick this much holy ass? Neil Young’s ”Let’s Roll”—written and recorded Thanksgiving week—is more literal, with Young singing in the voice of Beamer (”I got to put the phone down/And do what we gotta do….I hope someone can fly this thing/Get us back to land”). Alas, the lumbering melody can’t match that of ”Ohio,” his poli-sci bull’s-eye. For Young, it feels surprisingly stodgy, and the narrative thread of the lyric unravels into generalities. As with fellow boomer McCartney’s track, the song is hampered by Young’s ambiguity: Part of him wants to kick some al-Qaeda butt, but the other part isn’t quite sure.
Pop and protest haven’t always made compatible bedfellows, but what’s lacking in the Sept. 11 songs is anything approaching great art. In fact, only one track hits an emotional nerve. Alan Jackson’s ”Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” is brimming with disorientation and confusion. Mournful in mood and arrangement, it’s primarily a string of images and feelings: ”Did you open your eyes and hope it never happened/Close your eyes and not go to sleep?” The song has the eloquence of the best blue-collar country songwriting: ”I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran,” goes the chorus. Who didn’t feel that way in the weeks after? ”Where Were You” is hardly the most rousing anthem. But even after three months, it still feels like the most affecting, and appropriate, reaction.