Friday, January 28, 2005

Steve Earle and Political Music

I had a conversation with a fellow music loving friend yesterday about political music and whether it was usually good or not. The answer that I think we both came up with was that it could be good but usually it was bad. Songs are best when they unfold a point rather than beat you over the head with it. Merle Haggard never had to write songs about being against the death penalty. Instead he wrote Sing Me Back Home and sang the definitive version of Green Green Grass of Home. In the same vein, Tom Russell never wrote a song saying that the industrialists who moved big factories out of America should be killed. Instead he wrote U.S. Steel, a song about a guy who is just lost when the Homestead plant shuts down. Too often overtly political songs fail because they are just poorly written. I like Kris Kristofferson's albums of the late 80s and early 90s because I feel strongly about what the US did in Latin America under Reagan, but I can accept that the songs themselves aren't very good. His best songs of the past 20 years such as Shipwrecked in the Eighties (about a Vietnam Vet) and Johnny Lobo (about AIM activist John Trudell) are a lot more subtle than Sandinista and Love of Money.

That brings me to Steve Earle's new album, The Revolution Starts Now. This album epitomizes both the best and the worst of political music. Some of the songs are absolutely outstanding. Home to Houston is a great example of political music because it's about a guy who works for one of the big contracting companies as a trucker in Iraq. He's scared to death and he says "If I ever get home to Houston alive, then I won't drive a truck anymore." Or take Rich Man's War. A lot more blatant than Home to Houston but this still works because the stories he tells in the song represent real life people. You have the story of some poor kid in south Texas who joins the military because all the jobs have been moved across the Rio Grande (not the Rio Grande River) and what else is he going to do?, the story of a real patriotic guys who joins the Marines and is wandering around Afghanistan with no hope of coming home to his wife and kids soon and then his car gets repossessed and the story of a kid in the Gaza Strip convinced to be a suicide bomber buy a bunch of guys driving Mercedes. These are really wonderful songs.

On the other hand, you have his wretched "love" song to Condi. And his juvenile "Fuck the FCC." In this song he makes the point that he can say "fuck" a lot in a song. Wow, that's really saying something. Is anyone saying you can't say fuck or anything else on an album. There are countries where maybe a song like that would be saying something, but not in the US. Just because I can't see Janet Jackson's breasts on TV (which is a little disappointing perhaps) doesn't mean that the government is cracking down on you saying fuck whenever you want Steve.

There's also his embarrassing talking song "Warrior" with its weird masculine overtones but in extremely pretentious language. Finally there's The Revolution Starts Now. This is actually a pretty good song. It's really catchy and well-written. But what revolution are we talking about? Was a John Kerry victory going to lead to the beginnings of a revolution? Somehow I don't think so. There was a time when The Revolution meant something concrete, even if it's shape shifted frequently. It meant communism, or black power, or the New Left. But now that word has nothing concrete attached to it and seems to exist in the mist. The revolution doesn't start now because no one knows what it is or even what the first baby steps would look like.

One thing that Earle doesn't do at all that you wish he would is to have a good comical political song. I guess the Condi song is supposed to be this but it's brutally bad. For really funny political stuff I can't say enough about Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon's Prairie Home Invasion which includes a classic update of Phil Ochs' Love Me I'm a Liberal and their original Will the Fetus be Aborted?