It's hard to tell which are worse: the gung-ho war cries from the redneck retributionists ("Iraq, I rack 'em up and I roll," snarls Clint Black, "I'm back and I'm a high-tech G.I. Joe") or the whimpering protestations of the peacenik brigade, most of whom seem to write songs that contain variations of the phrase "blood for oil" in every chorus. It's either black or white with these artists, and what they usually wind up with is a pile of gray mush: the rabble-rousing anthems of the hawks or the wimpy-whiny moans of the doves, both preaching to the deaf, dumb and converted.
Then, the modern-day anti-war song's always had a somewhat tortured history: In March 1941, Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers cut "Ballad of October 16," which took Franklin Roosevelt's isolationist "I hate war" comments from 1940 and used them against him when he decided to begin the draft. A few months later, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, "this song was...held against" Seeger and the Almanac Singers, wrote Jeff Place and Guy Logsdon in the liner notes to That's Why We're Marching: World War II and the American Folk Song Movement. Not long after the United States entered the war, Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and others began writing fight songs with such titles as "Hitler Song," "Move Into Germany" and "If You Want to Do Your Part." (As it turns out, Darryl Worley, Toby Keith and Clint Black have their antecedents after all, though the Smithsonian-Folkways archives reveal Leadbelly actually deleted the phrase "I'll put a boot in yer ass" from "National Defense Blues.")
Vietnam, of course, spawned the franchise; you had Dylan damning the masters of war who "build to destroy" (written in 1962), Phil Ochs singing "I Kill Therefore I Am" and condemning the U.S. government as "cops of the world," Gil Scott Heron shouting down a commander-in-chief bearing "messages of grief," Country Joe and the Fish asking what are we fighting for and Marvin Gaye wondering what's going on. Back then, the anti-war movement had a decent soundtrack, plenty of gimme-an-F shout-along anthems provided by the tie-dyed, acid-washed Woodstock Generation; ah, those were the good ol' daze.
But the heroes armed with barbed words and weapons of mass instruction have been replaced by hacks and harpies shelling us with bad poetry (Joan Baez has plenty to answer for). For every great song like Sleater-Kinney's furious and urgent "Combat Rock" off last year's One Beat (sample lyric: "They tell us there are only two sides to be on/If you are on our side you're right if not you're wrong"), there are handfuls of sophomoric offerings that sound like something dashed off during a junior-high songwriting competition.
Look no further than Ani DiFranco, whose talking "Self Evident" off her album So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter is little more than nine minutes of onstage spoken-word jive that works the brainwashed crowd into a frenzy. The crowd cheers the words "Palestine" and "Afghanistan" like she's a late-night TV host mentioning their hometowns. DiFranco, with her bad beat poetry, comes off as a Star Search contestant as she rambles on and on about false presidents and the lying media and corrupt elections and evil oil companies. If you wonder why the pro-war faction--the coalition of the willing to follow--takes the anti-war folks so lightly, it's because of lines like these: "Get our government to pull its big dick out of the sand/Of someone else's desert put it back in its pants/And quit the hypocritical chants of freedom forever." Awright, already--I surrender.
Better, because it has to be, is Billy Bragg's "Price of Oil," which, like DiFranco's, is available on the Internet at www.peace-not-war.org--alongside previously available contributions from Public Enemy ("Son of a Bush"), Midnight Oil ("US Forces"), Alabama 3 ("Woody Guthrie") and Ms Dynamite ("Watch Over Them"). Still, it's the worst anti-war song in a repertoire stacked with them ("Like Soldiers Do," "Between the Wars," his cover of Eric Bogle's "My Youngest Son Came Home Today"); it proves he's no Woody Guthrie after all (his guitar wouldn't kill lest it fired bullets), just decent with a campfire melody.
The amplified folkie returns to roots--one-man Clash, though more Paul than Mick or certainly Joe--but treads lightly with kind words sent to soldiers; worse, he even tosses in a reference to the 2000 Florida vote, which is this close to a Lewinsky reference. "Don't give me no shit about blood, sweat, tears and toil/It's all about the price of oil," sings Bragg. "Now I ain't no fan of Saddam Hussein/Oh, please don't get me wrong/If it's freeing the Iraqi people you're after/Then why have we waited so long?" Bragg, a noble and sincere man, just comes off sounding like every other celebrity who's read a New Republic headline.
John Mellencamp's "To Washington," from a forthcoming collection of covers tentatively titled Trouble No More, treads the same battlefield: corrupt election, war for oil, bad Bush. Confusing, though, is the final verse of a song that has no chorus (and that, sir, is a real act of revolution): "What is the thought process/To take a human's life/What would be the reason/To think that this is right/From heaven to Washington/From Jesus Christ to Washington." I have no idea what the answer is, and I stopped listening two minutes ago.
Keeping it real awful is Dan Bern, a folkie of some critical adoration who I believe to be a Republican plant in the anti-war movement; any feller who'd name a song "Talkin' Al Kida Blues" and actually play, sing and blow into a harmonica just like Bob Dylan circa 1964 has gotta be out to destroy from the inside. Frankly, I'd like to like Bern: The last song of his brand-new Swastika EP is "Lithuania," where our families are from; the song resonates like kin wrote it, down to the story about relatives being gunned down in the streets of Lithuania. (And turns out Bern and I both had an Uncle Eli.) Bern can also make you laugh--on purpose--which is rare among the self-serious and self-satisfied carrying placards with the word "Vietnam" crossed out and "Iraq" penciled in. "I had to turn in my own mom," he whines in his "Al Kida" blues. "You know what they say/Unpaid parking tickets aid terrorists." Still, that Dylan thing grates, maybe because the real thing never tried so hard.
Brit folkies Seize the Day--otherwise known as Peter, Paul and Peter--offer their own retro-bution on www.seizetheday.org; their track "United States" sounds 35 years old, and listening to it makes me feel 35 years older. Their mellow protest is just the kind of thing that gives the anti-war movement a bad name, because it bends so far backward it completely snaps in half. "I am not an Islamicist/Religion's not my thing," sing the folksmen who dress in silly costumes. "But they're friendlier than Christians/And I like the way they sing." On second thought, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it's just a joke.
Most talked-about among the new wave of old guards waving the white flag is the Beastie Boys' "In a World Gone Mad," which debuted two weeks ago on beastieboys.com and even garnered some K-ROCK airplay; first new single in four years, no matter the subject matter, will do that in L.A. The track's astonishingly drab--Paul's Boutique with a "For Lease" sign hung out front--and stunningly didactic, especially from the band that once had more hits than Sadaharu Oh. Here's how Mike D kicks it: "We need health care more than going to war/You think it's democracy they're fighting for?" Yo, don't they just know Dubya's partying for his right to fight? Maybe so, since they hint at the flavor they used to savor by insisting Bush and Saddam "should kick it like back in the day/With the cocaine and Courvoisier." Not bloody likely, though the Zoolander reference later reminds they're never so funny as when trying to be soooo serious.
In very shocking news, available at www.handontheplow.com is the House Music Against War EP, featuring electronica artists who couldn't get a dance-floor crowd to break a sweat, much less a bunch of pissed-off placard-wavers. Still, the damnedest of the lot is George Michael's cover of Don McLean's 1971 "The Grave" (ooof), performed so earnestly it sounds as if he's going to melt into a puddle of tears at any moment. The soldier's lament was gooey, superficial drivel first time around, and it doesn't help that Michael takes it more seriously than McLean, who thought himself as deep as the trenches of which he sang and sang and sang. Wake me up before you go-go; I fell asleep during the second verse.
Speaking of golden oldies, didn't know Chumbawumba was still around, frankly, so it was surprising to discover "Jacob's Ladder" on the Web. Surprising in a bad way: Turns out it's a lyrical remake of a song from the band's album Readymade, which was released last year (again, who knew?). The band exists to prove it's possible to admire a band's politics and loathe its music with equal ferocity; in other words, boring dance music about "oil for guns." Still, it's hardly the worst of the lot: That honor would go to Turner Prize Freak Show's strummed-down "Don't Attack Iraq," which sounds like something made up after a few bong hits (it manages to rhyme "Al Qaeda" with "Darth Vader" and concludes "we don't even have a light saber") and might have been funnier if there weren't so many giggles on it. (Rule No. 134: You're never funny when you make yourself laugh.) Come to think of it, maybe I'm just jealous--Dan Bern oughta be, too.