Music During Wartime

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Bruce Springsteen: Born in the USA

At first, music seemed irrelevant. Not long after the September 11th terrorist attacks, MTV interrupted its scheduled programming to broadcast live news feeds. Record stores in New York City closed. Music sales around the country, which had been slow anyway, dipped about five percent. Several artists, including the rapper DMX, pushed back their album release dates. Marc Anthony, the pop/salsa singer, dropped plans to promote his latest single, a song about heartbreak that was written before the events. The song’s mistimed title: “Tragedy.”

But pop music is far from irrelevant. In fact, war and music have always had an intimate bond. One of the greatest poems of all time, “The Iliad,” is essentially an epic song about war. As the first line goes: “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles/ murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses”. America’s Civil War produced its share of popular compositions, from the war songs of the North (“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “All Quiet Along the Potomac Tonight”) to the fighting odes of the South (“Oh I’m a Good Old Rebel”). Civil War-era songs such as “When This Cruel War Is Over”(1863) still have a melancholy resonance even today: “Weeping, sad and lonely, hopes and fears, how vain!/ When this cruel war is over praying then to meet again/ When the summer breeze is sighing, mournfully along/ Or when autumn leaves are falling, sadly breathes this song.”

Far from being besides the point, such songs had the power to soothe and uplift at a time when the nation was literally coming apart. Of course, some of the songs favored by the South sound misguided and tragic. “I hates the Constitution/ This great Republic too/ I hates the Freedmen's Buro/ In uniforms of blue,” go the lyrics to “Oh I’m a Good Old Rebel.”

The Vietnam War helped combine music with images. It’s hard to hear The Doors mournful song “The End” and not think about the explosive, nightmarish opening images of Francis Ford Coppola's “Apocalypse Now”. That war, and its aftermath, helped spawn a number of songs, from Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a plea for peace and understanding, to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” which explored the pain and confusion of a returning war veteran: “Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand/ Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man.” “Born in the U.S.A.” was famously misinterpreted by some as a jingoistic bit of patriotism; in fact, it is a patriotic song, but one that understands that true patriotism isn’t just about fighting battles abroad, it’s also about taking care of those in need at home as well. Some of today’s contemporary songs are already being reinterpreted by listeners looking for some solace in music. Sometime the artists themselves are doing the repurposing. Springsteen kicked off the recent telethon “America: A Tribute to Heroes” with the song “My City of Ruins.” "This is a prayer for our fallen brothers and sisters," Springsteen said before launching into the song. The song’s imagery of waste and destruction, and its gospelly chorus of “C’mon rise up!” made it seem as if it was specifically written about the recent attacks. It was actually composed about Springsteen’s hometown in New Jersey.

Bono recently helped gather a number of young pop performers together (including Alicia Keys and Destiny’s Child) for an all-star remake of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” The remake was aimed at raising money for AIDS charities; after the attacks, images of the World Trade Center were including in the video to make it more relevant to the current mood. A tribute to slain Beatle John Lennon in New York City scheduled for October 2 — “Come Together: a Night of John Lennon's Words & Music — was reconceived to become a tribute to Lennon, New York City and victims of the terrorist attacks. Other artists however, have been creating songs or planning concerts specifically tailored to deal with recent events. Michael Jackson is working on “What More Can I Give,” another “We Are the World” all-star type anthem. Ex- Beatle Paul McCartney will headline a benefit concert later this month. Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Marc Anthony, Shakira and other stars have recorded “El Ultimo Adios” (The Last Goodbye), a single to benefit the American Red Cross and the United Way.

Conflict may make some entertainment superfluous, but it also helps make some great art possible, from Bob Marley’s anthemic song “War” to Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse Five” to Picasso’s masterpiece “Guernica.” Many mere entertainers — the teen pop idols, the nihilistic gangsta rappers, the amoral hard rockers — will no doubt have to (at least temporarily) rethink their relevance in the light of recent events. Do we need to hear DMX’s violent boasts when there’s so much violence on TV? Is there any point in enduring Slipknot’s horror metal assault when real life is already dealing us blow after blow? But distractions do have their place. During World War II, trombonist, arranger and band leader Glenn Miller toured around England entertaining the troops — and ultimately gave his life for it when his plane was lost over the English Channel in 1944. His contributions were seen as an important part of the war effort; the support of contemporary entertainers may come to be viewed in the same light. So don’t look for pure entertainment to fade away. Though specific artists may become afterthoughts, music will not. Eric B. and Rakim, with their Gulf War song “Casualties of War” (1992) showed that hip-hop was big enough and smart enough to address topics like international conflict. Hopefully, we’ll see a new generation of artists, challenged by history, rise to the task of writing music that captures the themes of the day. Bob Dylan did it with “Masters of War.” The Clash did it with albums like “Sandinista!” and “Combat Rock.” The political-minded hip-hop metal band Rage Against the Machine was a lonely voice of relevance in the 90s. The new millennium may produce rock, rap and pop that’s equal to the times.