BRUSSELS -- As is so often the case, something Barbra Streisand did got me to thinking.
The singing legend's triumphant return to the live concert stage featured a lengthy and, by most accounts, supremely unfunny skit lampooning George W. Bush. Streisand may be the highest profile entertainer to add politics to her act, clumsily, but she's not alone. The practice is becoming frustratingly common.
Political posturing by pop stars is especially bad in Europe, where I've lived for the last six years. During that time I've had to endure my share of USA-bashing at cocktail parties, on bathroom walls, in political discourse—and have even been prone on one or two occasions to engage in it myself. But it irks me when it comes from the concert stage—even more so when it comes from American musicians who, while touring in Europe, feel especially politically empowered. In the post-Dixie-Chicks era, perhaps they find it easier to critique US policy on a foreign stage.
Now, I'm all for mixing politics with art and I understand the power of the stage and the often well-intentioned desire of performers—from megastars on down to unknowns—to use it as a soapbox. The problem is that this hectoring has become cliché. It's a bore. On European concert stages, suggesting that George W. Bush be banished to the nether regions is simply a cheap way to get applause—a variation on "Are you ready to rock?!"
Rock's dominant and most attractive pose is contrarianism, but, in the current climate, I'd give more rock cred to a performer who stormed the stage screaming "Bush rules!" Recently, I attended a concert by one of my favorite artists, Steve Earle. I've seen him four times while living abroad, and at each performance he's ratcheted-up his between-song speechifying. In Antwerp, he gave a solo acoustic performance, but he also threw in an impassioned argument against the death penalty (a classic from his repertoire), a reference to a letter to the editor in that day's Financial Times, a critique of the works of biographer Stephen Ambrose, and a brief discourse on the Louisiana Purchase. This isn't rock-and-roll, or even folk—it's Wikipedia.
Well, I'm familiar with the Louisiana Purchase, and I expect many of the well-educated Belgians in the audience that night are, too (perhaps Earle should save the history lessons for his American shows). And I don't want to start a roundtable discussion of that historical moment, but despite what Earle said I'm not sure that Native Americans would have fared any better under Napoleon than they did under manifest destiny.
This, in fact, was the first rock concert of the hundreds I've attended at which the words "manifest destiny" were uttered onstage. Ordinarily I might find that amusing—or only mildly irritating. But something else Earle did left a bad taste in my mouth: he apologized on behalf of America for all its sins, the Iraq war being only one of them. Hold it right there, Tex. You're part of what's great about my country. Your reference to America's treatment of the Indians or its current expeditionary foreign policy may have made some Belgian hipsters feel superior to us for a minute, and maybe even forget their own shameful history of colonial oppression, but let's don't give them the wrong idea about the U.S. of A.
Besides, Earle's songs say so much more on their own—he doesn't need to lecture his audience on their margins. His lyrics speak for underdogs and outlaws, heroes and villains; his music deftly combines American styles: country, folk, garage rock, bluegrass; his songs often out-Springsteen Springsteen. "John Walker's Blues," for which he earned a lot of bad publicity in the US, is a moving and, ultimately, American expression of what drives a man to take up arms against his country. Somebody had to write a Taliban tune. Steve Earle did, and did it well. "Ellis Unit One" and "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)" say what needs to be said about capital punishment. I even see what Earle means in "F the CC", when he sings, "So f--- the FCC/F--- the FBI/F--- the CIA/ Livin' in the motherf---' USA." But he's about more than just politics. I'd stack his love songs, truckers' laments, drink-and-drug sob stories and traditional folk ditties against any other American songwriter.
Of course, Earle is not the only one to preach from the rock pulpit. European groups have for years been offering up generic anti-American statements as sure-fire crowd-pleasers. Last month George Michael gave his first concert in 15 years; his show featured a giant inflatable Bush receiving sexual favors from a Union Jack-wearing bulldog. Nice touch. I think back to a Brussels performance by the Asian Dub Foundation, a British outfit that combines punk, hip-hop and reggae with left-wing boilerplate: Rage Against the Machine meets Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. They chanted "F—k Bush!" in between all of their songs. Yawn. This is the current-events equivalent of "Hello, Cleveland!"
I can't blame a second-rate act like that for resorting to applause lines. The headliners that same night, Radiohead, were less obvious. Singer Thom Yorke keeps between-song commentary to a minimum, and over the band's gorgeous music his obtuse lyrics sometimes seem to address pressing issues. Their song "2+2=5" is a fine example of how to make a political point poetically. Yes, Radiohead do drape an Iraqi flag on their guitar rack, but it's off to one side of the stage and not prominently displayed. Plus, its message is unclear: Solidarity with the Iraqi people? Props to Saddam Hussein? Whatever. American groups deploy varying levels of subtlety. I didn't make it to see Green Day on their European tour, but they played to throngs of people happy to sing along to their punk hit "American Idiot," which many of its 12-year-old aficionados may not realize is actually a pretty astute assessment of the current political and media landscape in the US. More importantly, it rocks.
At a Wilco gig in Paris last year, frontman Jeff Tweedy was not afraid to make a statement—but he did it with his setlist. "I would like to salute the ashes of American flags," he sang, in one of the bands best numbers, "and all the falling leaves, filling up shopping bags." I know just what he means. In an encore, Tweedy offered his Parisian audience greetings from America's "reality-based community"—again, he didn't dwell on this or explain it—and then sang Randy Newman's chestnut, "Political Science". Sample lyric: "No one likes us, I don't know why/We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try/But all around, even our old friends put us down/Let's drop the big one and see what happens." The Paris crowd - which included a significant number of American expats - loved it.
Great art—even political art—is supposed to speak for itself. Picasso did not have to stand next to "Guernica" and tell you what it means for it to have an impact. Whenever Bob Dylan plays "Masters of War," well, 'nuff said. But too much explanation is a buzz-kill. Even the most political of artists can push things too far. As one friend of mine put it, "Billy Bragg ruined the Billy Bragg show I went to."
As for Steve Earle, I'd only offer him some advice from another rock icon, the notoriously zipper-lipped Joe Perry. The guitarist for Aerosmith, who usually says more with a lick than his partner Steven Tyler ever could with a lyric, had a solo hit in the early 1980s with a song whose title is perfect: "Let the music do the talking."
The author is former Europe editor of TCSDaily.com and Editor of ThisEurope.com.