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Pop music in a time of war

By Sean Hackbarth
web posted March 31, 2003

Pop culture's role in the debate over war in Iraq has been limited to celebrities in peace marches and letters making their case. But there has been a few songs written by well-known musicians both for and against invading Iraq.

On the anti-war side is the Beastie Boys' "In a World Gone Mad...." In the song's lyrics the Beasties go off on President Bush's supposed past cocaine habit and the tired claim that the war is all about oil but with a conspiratorial twist.

Now how many people must get killed?
For oil families pockets to get filled?
How many oil families get killed?
Not a damn one so what’s the deal?

If this war and Persian Gulf I were just about oil, how come the U.S. stopped the war after Iraq was forced out of Kuwait in 1991? Moving north to take Iraq's southern oil fields would have been easy, especially after the pounding Iraq took along the "Highway of Death."

At one point they rap, "Lose the weapons of mass destruction and the hate." The Beasties are talking about both Bush and Saddam. They're too naive to realize when everyone agrees to disarm only those who are honest and decent will actually disarm. Nasty thugs like Saddam only see it as an opportunity to get an advantage. For three guys who claim they're not pro-Bush or pro-Saddam, I heard not one criticism of the Butcher of Baghdad, but plenty of the President. Do the Beasties denounce Saddam for building a dictatorship on brutal oppression that includes torture, execution, rape, and gassing minority groups? I don't. Instead, I hear silence along with the drum machine.

No solution to the Iraq crisis is offered other than not going to war. It sounds like a similar non-solution as to their big pet cause: freeing Tibet. Ironically, a good dose of war could just be the answer for freeing the region. The way events are turning out Iraqis will be breathing in great gulps of freedom way before Tibetans will.

Zack de la Rocha's "March of Death" takes a harder edge. This isn't surprising since de la Rocha was the lead rapper of the rock band Rage Against the Machine. Rage's claim to fame--besides having the most original guitar player of the 1990s in Tom Morella--was their strong Leftist poltical stance. Band members proudly wore shirts bearing Che Guevera's face and took on a host of Radical Leftist causes.

De la Rocha's and DJ Shadow's sonically harsher path has the standard petty Leftist insult to President Bush.

"Who let the cowboy on the saddle? He don't know a missle from a gavel."

De la Rocha also thinks Bush is the bad guy rather than Saddam.

This man child, ruthless and wild /who gonna chain this beast back on the leash?

And for good measure he tosses in the requisite "war for oil" claim (why don't we invade Canada, then?).

On the pro-war side there is Clint Black's "I Raq and I Roll." It is the best pro-war song I've heard so far. It does not have the over sentimentality of Darryl Worrley's "Have You Forgotten" or the banal nationalism of Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue (The Angry American)." I rarely listen to country but Black's song has a blues bent I like.

Black's and Hayden Nicholas' lyrics definitely take a conservative bent. While they do not want this war, they understand living in an imperfect world does require horrible things like war to happen.

If everyone would go for peace
There'd be no need for war
But we can't ignore the devil
He'll keep coming back for more

There is also the sensible wisdom of Ronald Reagan.

I Raq, I rack'em up and I roll
I'm back and I'm a high tech G.I. Joe
I pray for peace, prepare for war
And I never will forget
There's no price too high for freedom
So be careful where you tread

Unlike the Beastie Boys and Zack de la Rocha, Black doesn't insult his opponents. He does point out that anti-war speech is allowed to exist because of "the stands America's taken."

What should we take from this brief look at these pop songs with a message? For one thing, these songs will have the lifespan of Iraq's Ba'th Party. As soon as the war is over these songs will disappear, left alone to collect dust on file-sharing services and burned CDs. All the songs mentioned are focused on the Iraqi war. There are some timeless values in "I Raq and I Roll," but who's going to call a radio station 5 years, even 5 months, from now to request it? These songs are pop cultural artifacts historians and writers will use to piece together how different elements of society dealt with the war. They will hear the meager anti-Bush, anti-war rantings of the Beastie Boys and Zach de la Rocha and the Clint Black's understanding of the tragic human condition.

Sean Hackbarth publishes The American Mind, a weblog on political economy and culture.

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