Sadly, 2004 may be the year etched on the tombstone of political music. In addition to all the indications that progressive political thinking and activism aiming to make this nation much less the world a better and fairer place are fading, the power of music to make a difference has been denuded.
As I've noted here before, the Weapons of Mass Distraction seem to be winning the war for the hearts, minds and soul of America. We live in a time when the public pays far too much attention and obeisance to what I once heard referred to during a wedding speech in England as "the pop world" -- with that touch of gently but firmly sneering contempt that higher class Brits can so effectively deliver.
Too much of today's entertainment is soulless escapism -- not that I don't mind a certain escapism as well as pop fluff as part of my diet, but only a part. In what I think is a potent indication of the emptiness in the American soul, entertainment too often passes for real life. And today's music charts are far too populated by careerists and strivers for whom music is merely a means to their own ends. This is the age of American Idle, where what resembles reality seems to trump reality itself.
Let's look at the balance sheet. Bruce Springsteen, R.E.M. and fellow progressively minded rockers took to the road to raise funds and consciousness before this crucial election. Hip-hop moguls Russell Simmons and P. Diddy/Puff Daddy (or whatever he calls himself these days) worked to get out the young black vote. And it didn't make anywhere enough of a difference to offset the false prophets in their pulpits preaching intolerance and support for a senseless war in the name of false security. Somewhere in the metaphorical realm, Jesus is suffering on the cross, moaning, "Lord, why have they forsaken my words?"
But let's not blame the public for this failure, as easy as that may be as they expend far too much interest speculating on the state of Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey's marriage. Just as the Democratic Party and its candidate John Kerry failed to articulate an inspiring vision to capture the imagination of more than 50% of the voters, today's musicians seem unable to address how we live and conduct our governance and foreign affairs with any true effectiveness.
Not that some didn't try. Kudos to Steve Earle, the Nashville rebel who has been on the dirty boulevard with the down and out looking for a puff of crack or a swig of booze alongside the underclass our supposedly great nation has tossed aside. He's also been in prison along with another (shamefully large) underclass. And since lifting himself out of that morass, he's gone beyond such previous causes as the sin of capital punishment to do his damnedest to give musical complacency a swift kick in its sofa sitting, cable watching butt.
If there was one example of great political music this year, it was Earle's The Revolution Starts Now. Yeah, "Condi, Condi" his tongue in cheek, reggae inflected love song to our National Insecurity Advisor and soon to Secretary of No Statesmanship falls flat. And "F the CC" misses its mark in battling the agency of corporate media control. But the two versions of the title song that open and close the album are the sort of storm the Bastille anthem that, if more artists made music this inspiring, might have saved us from this pickle barrel our nation has plopped itself into.
New Orleans' Neville Brothers have long woven a message of peace, love and global unity into their music. And in addition to the fact that Walkin' in The Shadow of Life is one of their finest efforts in some time, it also addresses real life in America rather forcefully in songs like in "Junkie Child" and "Your Life (Fallen Soldiers)." And their redux of The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion" sounds even more relevant today than it did some three decades plus back -- proving that what makes for the best political and social commentary in song is timelessness.
And don't even get me started on how the bulk of the Nashville country music scene has fallen into lock goose step behind our Feckless Leader and continues to evoke a Jesus whose visage should be printed on the $100 bill. But not everyone in (bad) Music City has guzzled the Kool-Aid. If like me, you consider yourself Christian but are dismayed at the outrages and atrocities committed in His name, off-brand country rocker Buddy Miller's Universal United House of Prayer is for you. Not only does it articulate a compelling vision of an independent mongrel Christianity, but it also abounds with utterly wonderful music. And his version of Dylan's "With God On Our Side" again proves how great musical commentary is timeless if not grows more potent with age. Because the essential truths don't change, if even the reasons we invaded Iraq do again and again.
Okay, time for a bit of escapism, or maybe better relief. Among the albums that seduced my soul this year are Patty Griffin's spectral and ethereal Impossible Dream and the lovely CD Eveningland from little-known roots music sophisticates Hem. And if your tastes lean towards the classics -- from pop to operatic -- Rufus Wainwright's winsome and musically accomplished Want Two (as well as last year's Want One) should not just strike but stroke your fancy.
The year did end on a note of musical hope with an album that was both right on time and -- yep -- timeless. U2's How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is a classic of global proportions from a true supergroup who, at a quarter century into their run, still strive for musical greatness and importance. It speaks to love, life, the world we live in and the Almighty with visceral power. And it rocks, baby. God bless 'em.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.