Jewish World Review May 22, 2006 / 24 Iyar, 5766
Morose musicians get serious
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | For most Americans, springtime brings joy, renewal and baseball, but some prominent pop music icons choose to celebrate the season with howls of anguish and predictions of apocalypse.
Burt Bacharach, for instance, legendary songwriter of wistful, romantic ditties (Raindrops Keep Fallin' On My Head) now weighs in with a bitter assault on the Bush administration in Who Are These People?:
Who are these people that keep telling us lies
And how did these people get control of our lives
And who'll stop the violence cause it's out of control? ...
Looks like the liars may inherit the earth.
To make it clear that this isn't the gentle old bard of nostalgia and yearning, the concluding lyric proudly proclaims:
See things really have to change. ... Or else we're f—-ed!
Meanwhile, Seattle grunge survivors Pearl Jam return with the band's first aggressively political album in 10 years. Raspy-voiced lead singer Eddie Vedder growls on World Wide Suicide:
It's a shame to awake in a world of pain ...
It's the same everyday in a hell manmade ...
The whole world,World over
It's a world wide suicide.
Also facing hellish suffering, apparently, is Pink (who impersonated a hooker on the Grammy-winning Lady Marmalade revival). Her new protest song, Dear Mr. President, asks George W. Bush:
How do you sleep while the rest of us cry? ...
How can you say
No child is left behind
We're not dumb and we're not blind
They're all sitting in your cells
While you pave the road to hell.
In yet another alarmist anthem, 1960s veteran Neil Young leads a 100-member chorus in a catchy singalong called Let's Impeach the President.
Of course, it's hardly a revelation that pop stars loathe Bush: Bruce Springsteen led numerous headliners in campaigning for John Kerry in 2004. But the new element in recent songs involves an air of desperation, even doom, with some of the grimmest mainstream pop lyrics since Barry McGuire famously warned about the Eve of Destruction in 1965.
In that smash hit, however, the singer sought to persuade skeptics of his dire point of view, lamenting that "you don't believe/We're on the eve/of destruction." The new songs, on the other hand, assume the audience automatically shares fears of "world wide suicide" and "violence ... out of control."
They represent an enraged response to tragic casualties in the Middle East, while ignoring the fact that we've lost fewer American lives after three years in Iraq than we did during three hours on 9/11. In Vietnam, the rate of U.S. battlefield deaths exceeded today's sacrifices by a ratio of nearly 30 to one — when adjusted for that era's much smaller population.
Moreover, The New York Times recently noted that "conflict worldwide is in fact diminishing, not growing." In a "Human Security Report" by the University of British Columbia, scholars reached the consensus that "the number of armed conflicts has been dropping steadily since the end of the Cold War. ... The trend holds true for virtually every category of conflict — coups, interstate wars and even genocides," The Times said.
While pampered pop stars warble about living in "hell manmade," the economic growth rate and stock market values remain historically high. Unemployment and inflation continue to register relative lows, and more people own their homes than ever.
Though majorities tell pollsters that the nation is on the "wrong track," literally millions of people from around the world seek to make new lives in the USA every year. Pink suggests that all "the rest of us" cry ourselves to sleep every night, but surveys show widespread optimism when it comes to personal — as opposed to general — progress and prospects.
Why, then, the flurry of songs expressing the darkest view of our present situation? Recording companies can find easier ways to connect with a mass audience, and music industry insiders freely acknowledge that embittered political messages will generally diminish, rather than enhance, a project's commercial prospects.
It's therefore a safe assumption that authors of these bleak, Bush-bashing ballads are motivated more by conviction than connivance. Their indignant lyrics might not gain lavish royalties but can easily earn peer respect and lift self-esteem. Driven by more than simple greed, ambitious performers often yearn for recognition as artists and social critics, not just entertainers.
Pink has said of Dear Mr. President, "I think it's one of the most important songs I've written." She wants the public, in other words, to take her seriously. For Bacharach, Who Are These People? lends fresh relevance and urgency to an aging songsmith more commonly associated with hits of yesterday than controversies of today.
The new songs play perfectly into an unfortunate aspect of American culture: the assumption that alarmism and negativity are inherently more serious, more mature and more honest than optimism.
Could a pop star celebrating national good fortune, such as Irving Berlin in Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep or God Bless America, expect praise today for his courage and integrity?
In another corner of the entertainment industry, this year's Academy Awards anointed five decidedly downbeat projects (Crash,Brokeback Mountain,Munich,Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck.) as nominees for best picture.
Even in a glorious spring season of new growth and fresh beginnings, and a period of mixed good-and-bad news for the nation at large, would-be substantive voices of popular music maintain a peculiar preference for self-pity and pessimism.
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