As Mood On Iraq Changes, So Does Its Place In Pop Music

by Sean Ross, VP of Music & Programming

Shortly after the war in Iraq started, and during the height of the Dixie Chicks’ problems at Country radio, I began making myself CD compilations of songs that were somehow war-related, many of which were only available as downloads. Sixteen months later, I’m up to five CDs, and have about half of the songs for the sixth already set aside. All in all, there are about 100 songs and every week I’m hearing about others that would qualify.

You don’t need to look at Iraq-related music to see how the national mood has changed, particularly in light of Michael Moore’s transformation from post-Oscar pariah to $80-million dollar man. But there’s a clear change nonetheless, particularly when you consider the songs that made it to the radio then and now—a faster transition, as it happens, than during the Vietnam era where it took a year to get from “The Ballad of the Green Berets” to “For What It’s Worth,” and another three before “War/what is it good for?” and “four dead in Ohio.”

Consider the mood in March 2003. Even those Country PDs who wanted to stand by the Dixie Chicks were finding themselves shouted down not only by request lines callers who may or may not have been regular listeners, but each time music research came back. At a time when few other artists were willing to defend even the Chicks’ right to unpopular speech, it was hard to imagine a time when the tenor of the discussion in popular music could include the line, “Why did Bush knock down them towers?” heard in Jadakiss’ current R&B/Hip-hop hit, “Why?” Country and R&B’s constituencies had very different takes on the war, of course, but that line goes way beyond being ashamed to share a home state with the president, considered treasonous enough at the time.

So what was on the first volume? There was Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten,” the song that became Country radio’s rebuff to the Chicks. We had Clint Black, then between label deals, with the even more hawkish “Iraq And I Roll.” There were radio production room remixes of Aaliyah’s “Missing You” and R. Kelly’s “A Soldier’s Heart” with listener shout-out to the troops. There was Madonna’s lyrically unrelated “American Life,” whose anti-war video was famously withdrawn before most people got to see it.

There were, as it happens, anti-war songs: Lenny Kravitz, who had weighed in during the first Gulf War with his Peace Choir remake of “Give Peace A Chance,” returned with “We Want Peace.” There was R.E.M.’s “The Final Straw,” Green Day’s remake of “Life During Wartime,” John Mellencamp’s “To Washington,” Zack de la Rocha & D.J. Shadow’s “March of Death,” and the Beastie Boys’ “In A World Gone Mad.”

None of those songs got more than token airplay at Rock radio and it was hard to know whether it was the tenor of the times or the songs themselves. Whatever you thought of Worley’s No. 1 country hit and its willingness to suggest Iraqi involvement in 9/11, it was more effective as a record than the competition. If you were looking for the pro-peace side to represent, these hastily assembled records didn’t offer much better than the Beasties’ “Don’t get us wrong/we love America/but that’s no reason/for mass hysterica.”

There was a moment, at the height of the Dixie Chicks hysteria, when one would have been forgiven for wondering if we were witnessing the end of dissent.

At the time, given the deafening celebrity silence on the Dixie Chicks, I remember writing in Airplay Monitor that it was hard to know what would draw some of our other socially inclined singer/songwriters out of hiding. Was it just a function of a typically slow-moving A&R process that would eventually unleash a tide of politically oriented songs 6 to 12 months later? Or would it take a war that wasn’t over in a month to change the climate toward dissent?

In retrospect, the pipeline opened up even before the national mood changed. In March, I’d wondered when we were going to hear from Don Henley. By my second volume, the reunited Eagles had come forth with “Hole In The World” (a song that was started after 9/11 but finished as the war started with clear commentary about both). There was also Jay-Z’s English-language reworking of Panjabi MC’s “Beware of the Boys” with its entreaty to “leave Iraq alone,” a pretty daring statement for a superstar artist at the time and a clear signal that R&B/Hip-hop would be the genre with the most vocal opposition to the war, a point underscored by the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is The Love,” even if that song was a bigger hit at Top 40 radio.

Songs like those were still in the minority on the second CD, however. Patriotism had already proven to be a pretty good way for former Country superstars to get back on the radio and that CD included Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA 2003,” Kenny Rogers’ “I’m Missing You” (one of numerous songs to come about the troops and those they left behind) and Juice Newton’s “Keepers of the Peace.”

There was also an oddity from Germany’s Little Big Men: “Mr. Bush, You Are Not the President of the World,” which consisted primarily of that phrase sung repeatedly. By and large, European commentaries on Iraq would be a lot more pointed, from Travis’ “The Beautiful Occupation” (“Don’t need an invitation/drop in upon a nation”) and “Peace The Fuck Out” to George Michaels’ “Shoot the Dog,” which asked, “See Tony dancing with Dubya: Don’t you wanna know why?” and suggested that Cherie Blair retaliate by withholding sex.

British commentary may have been bolder, but it didn’t make much inroads at radio until Faithless’ relatively recent “Mass Destruction,” which talks about the plight of soldiers’ families, but also declares, “Whether Halliburton or Enron or anyone/Greed is a weapon of mass destruction.” And even that song wasn’t exactly a consensus hit at British radio.

There wasn’t much for volume three: Jim Brickman’s “Peace” on one side, a Mulberry Lane version of “The Star Spangled Banner” and a Charlie Daniels’ appearance on “The Flag’s Song.” By volume four, we had songs bashing the Dixie Chicks (two parodies by Cledus T. Judd) and Bill Engvall’s “Here’s Your Sign (Don’t Mess With Us)” which went after Michael Moore as well. There were more plight-of-the-troops songs, including John Michael Montgomery’s Country hit, “Letters From Home.”

It was also in late fall and early winter that Rock radio started to weigh in again with Thursday’s “War All The Time,” Living End’s “Who’s Gonna Save Us” and Incubus’ “Megalomaniac.” The latter, which represented just as much of an on-air turning point as “Where Is The Love,” was not, its authors initially claimed, specifically intended as an anti-Bush statement. But after its video, it was hard to see it otherwise. (And the band eventually said they were willing to accept listeners’ interpretation.) On the Hip-Hop side, we had album cuts from Outkast (“War”) and N.E.R.D. (“Drill Sergeant”).

It was around then that we saw the first celebrity reversal. During the Vietnam era, Bob Seger and Kris Kristofferson had started out with songs assailing protesters. So Willie Nelson’s turnaround wasn’t so surprising. Shortly after guesting on Toby Keith’s “Beer For My Horses,” which suggested a return to frontier justice (read: lynching) in the Middle East, and everywhere else, Nelson was campaigning for Dennis Kucinich and asking, “Whatever Happened to Peace On Earth?” Notably, Merle Haggard, whose long-disowned “The Fighting Side of Me” was one of the Vietnam era rallying cries, was perhaps the first Country artist with a critical statement this time, “That’s The News.”

Some of the war references in the first hundred songs are in passing: rapper Kanye West cites the war on terrorism as one of many wars fought around him, and internally, in “Jesus Walks.” Nellie McKay deadpans, “Hey, look, we’re bombing Iraq/I guess there’s no other way/Oh did I tell you/we got Fifi spayed?” as part of a day-in-the-life on “Toto Dies” (speaking of “Shoot the Dog”).

Some songs that seem to comment on recent events may just be coincidences in timing or the author’s interpretation. Lionel Richie’s own explanation of his current “Just For You” doesn’t mention 9/11, but it’s hard to hear “Pain was all a world away . . . then life took a turn/we all had to learn/and we can’t go back again/and my heart is breaking, just for you” without thinking of it. And while the line in Joni Mitchell’s “California” about “they wouldn’t give peace a chance” is more than 30 years old, it’s the Joni song that Wilson Phillips chose to cover on their new album.

With new war-related material coming out steadily now, there are still numerous Country offerings, but even Worley is focused on the troops and their families now (“Awful Beautiful Life” features the Sunday dinner table realization that a loved one in Iraq “may never make it back.”). Country’s saber rattling is pretty much gone. The Beasties, undeterred by the lack of hysterica that “In A World Gone Mad” prompted, lash out at Bush or the war in four different songs on their new album. Prince deals with wartime hysteria on two, including the recent single “Call My Name.” There’s also a recent Contemporary Christian hit, Mark Schultz’s “Letters From War” with a happy ending—a captured soldier in an unnamed war comes home.

Which brings us to Jadakiss. There are no firm figures yet on how many radio stations are playing his Bush accusation unedited. A recent Airplay Monitor story suggests most are playing a label edit that excises the line, but here in New York, both WQHT (Hot 97) and WWPR (Power 105) are leaving it in. In Jacksonville, one Hip-Hop fan told a local TV station, “I know it’s not true. It’s just that you know it’s music to listen to because it catches your ear.” As the Jadakiss story spreads through the consumer press, radio’s scrutiny of “Why” will likely change. For now, Hip-Hop fans seem as willing to exempt it from the obligations of responsible political dialogue as their Country counterparts were with “Have You Forgotten?”

There was a moment, at the height of the Dixie Chicks hysteria, when one would have been forgiven for wondering if we were witnessing the end of dissent—on the radio, or elsewhere. Even then, the lessons of Vietnam suggested that a protracted war or American casualties would change the dialogue. As it happened, the dissent came a lot sooner than in Vietnam where the major protests of 1968 came at a time when there were already 20,000 American dead. The level of anti-war dissent on the radio has been ratcheted up steadily over the last year, from “Where Is The Love” to “Megalomaniac” to “Why.” After 15 months, nearly 1,000 U.S. dead and many times that on the other side, that’s both good and bad news.

Sean Ross is Edison Media Research’s VP of Music & Programming and the former editor-in-chief of Airplay Monitor, Billboard Magazine’s radio programming publication. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com Web site every week. Sean can be reached at 908.707.4707 or SRoss@edisonresearch.com.