Using War to Sell Country Music
The crimes of American country music are great and many: For every Hank Williams, there's a Conway Twitty; for every Gram Parsons, a Garth Brooks. Of course, Johnny Cash may well have been arrested for stopping to smell the flowers in Starkville, Miss. But his crimes pale in comparison to the current crop of country stars whose rejuvenated musical careers owe as much to Sept. 11 and the current war in Iraq as they do to (negligible) talent.
Consider country's latest heartthrob, Darryl Worley, who recently received an American flag from Lt. Gen. Richard Cody at a concert in Montgomery, Ala. The flag, one of many flown at the Pentagon on the first anniversary of 9/11, went to Worley in recognition of his vocal support of American soldiers and the patriotism of their families.
Now that's a mighty fine accolade, even for a self-confessed good ole boy from Hardin County, Tenn. But Worley earned it: He plumbed the depths of musical distaste by writing a weak song that calls for a war on Iraq. "Have You Forgotten?" (almost certainly not a rhetorical question) is an emotive call to arms: "I hear people saying we don't need this war/ I say there's some things worth fighting for/ What about our freedom and this piece of ground?/ We didn't get to keep 'em by backing down."
Worley then proceeds to conflate the current war in Iraq with the events of 9/11 in a chorus whose blustering rhetoric and fuzzy logic have proven popular with any number of undiscerning country music fans and right-thinking Americans: "Have you forgotten how it felt that day/ To see your homeland under fire/ And her people blown away?/ Have you forgotten when those towers fell?/ We had neighbors still inside/ Going through a living hell/ And you say we shouldn't worry 'bout Bin Laden/ Have you forgotten?"
"Have You Forgotten?" is currently riding high at number one for the second consecutive week in Billboard's Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart. Never, it seems, has the phrase "number one with a bullet" been more apposite.
Worley bristles at charges that the nakedly emotive nature of the song has helped forward Bush's war agenda; he argued two weeks prior to the American-led invasion of Iraq: "I am not a politician. I never have been. It's amazing to me how a lot of people become successful at their particular job in entertainment; whether it be an actor or a dancer or a singer or whatever. And all of a sudden they become this force to be reckoned with on a political level. There is nothing in this world that I want less than that."
Fine words from a man who, at a March 26 concert and rally for families of American soldiers (part of the "Spirit of America" tour) held at Tampa's MacDill Airbase, took George W. Bush's hand and said, "Mr. President, I want you to know that I pray for you every day." Bush, happy to make banal statements on a grand scale, responded: "That is the greatest gift you could ever give a president."
Gen. Michael DeLong, deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, told the cheering crowd of 4,000 that "[i]f Darryl Worley, Toby Keith and the 'Star-Spangled Banner' can't get your blood boiling, you're at the wrong place." He very probably meant "pumping," but "boiling" will certainly do.
Bush, for his part, missed the show proper, citing special presidential dispensation: "One of the problems with being the president is you always end up being the last guy here," he told the crowd. Then he solemnly thanked Keith and Worley for "providing their talents in support of our efforts to make the world a more peaceful place." Yet daily doses of Bushian genuflection notwithstanding, Worley will doubtless be crushed to hear that the commander in chief is a closet Toby Keith fan. Keith scored a massive hit last year with "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," which asserts: "Justice will be served/ And the battle will rage/ This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage/ And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A./ 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/ It's the American Way."
Keith's brand of angry Americanism has already wowed the Pentagon. He participated in a USO tour of Bosnia and Kosovo. He penned the song as a tribute to his father who served in the Army and died in 2001. "It was a song I was inspired to write because I lost my father six months before 9/11," he said on a recent radio show. "Nobody wrote an angry American song, and this was one. It was the way everybody felt when they saw those two buildings fall."
Keith is witheringly disparaging of those who have only let Ol' Glory back into their hearts post 9/11: "He taught me to be a flag-waving patriot long before it was cool to wave a flag like it is now." A close friend of metaphor, Keith's live performances include a video backdrop showing a bulldog -- "Toby," natch -- urinating on a newspaper picture of Osama Bin Laden.
Recent live performances have seen the "Big Dog" look at the lot of the average "two-bedroom-cave"-dwelling Afghan, "middle-aged Middle Eastern camel-herding man" overjoyed at the downfall of the Taliban in -- keep you eyes out for it! -- the imaginatively titled "The Taliban Song."
In fact, prior to the onset of hostilities in Iraq, Keith sought to distance himself from the song's gung-ho sentiment in a clumsily formulated attempt at clearing the decks:
"Probably the biggest thing that people don't realize about my situation on, that is, I'm as anti-war as the next guy -- I really am. I'm not for ever having to go to war. If you have to go fight... If our president and our people that we've got elected... I have faith that they'll make the right decisions and if we do, then I think you've got to go in gung-ho and protect as many of us as you can."
Bush must surely have been listening.
"I'm angry about a singer in a band called the Dixie Chicks," the Angry American told an appreciative Alabama audience in March. "She felt a need to tell the L.A. Times my song was ignorant and you were ignorant if you listened to it," Keith said, referring to criticisms leveled at him by the Chicks' Natalie Maines. "She was also recently on a European tour where there was an anti-war flavor and said some things about President Bush and the war. So, what do I think about her?" he asked.
Cue "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" played against a visually doctored backdrop of Maines and Saddam Hussein together. I guess you had to be there.
But spare a thought for those poor godforsaken Dixie Chicks. The popular country trio saw their latest single, "Travelin' Soldier," tumble down the country charts thanks to very public anti-Dubya comments made by Maines at a recent London concert. Maines, doubtless appalled by the resulting lack of radio airplay and the potentially damaging commercial implications of her comments, later offered not one, but two very public apologies:
"As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers' lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American."
Recently a group of outraged Dixie Chicks fans started a freedom-of-speech petition in support of Maines following the South Carolina Legislature's adoption of a resolution calling both for a public apology from Maines and a free concert for military families when the popular country trio resumes its U.S. tour in May.
Irate talk radio host Mike Gallagher has proposed an alternative concert to the Dixie Chicks' South Carolina date, with all proceeds from the concert donated to South Carolina military families. Fit to burst, he said, "Obviously, this is designed to send a message that it's not OK to run down our president during this time of war. They insulted their core audience. Country music fans are red-blooded, patriotic Americans who support our military and support our commander in chief. "
Country Music Queen Rosanne Cash has claimed that the treatment of Maines resembles something very much like the rise of McCarthyism. "It's the people who scream loudest about America and freedom who seem to be the most intolerant for people with a different point of view," she told Australia's Undercover Music. The current issue of The Onion hits the nail dead on the head in a mock opinion piece by Ellen Dunst entitled, "I Should Not Be Allowed To Say The Following Things About America":
"True patriots know that a price of freedom is periodic submission to the will of our leaders -- especially when the liberties granted us by the Constitution are at stake. What good is our right to free speech if our soldiers are too demoralized to defend that right, thanks to disparaging remarks made about their commander in chief by the Dixie Chicks?"
Unfortunately, truth really very often is stranger than fiction. The Dixie Chicks made it on to an online traitor list alongside other such showbiz luminaries as Madonna, Mos Def and Sheryl Crow, to name but a few of the "flaky" celebs who fall foul of the Web site's guiding principle: "If you do not support our president's decisions you are a TRAITOR to our country!"
A patriot list is also provided in the interest of balance, which very handily comes replete with a useful dictionary definition of the "P" word for those not quite certain of the increasingly tainted word's meaning ("one who loves his country, and zealously supports its authority," it reads). José Maria Asnar, 54, from Madrid, Spain has signed up, but Darryl and Toby are noticeable by their absence.
Still further bad news followed the hapless Chicks with the announcement that Al Gore had taken up the freedom-of-speech cudgels on their behalf. Speaking recently to an audience of college students in Murfreesboro, Tenn., Gore said, "They were made to feel un-American and risked economic retaliation because of what was said. Our democracy has taken a hit. Our best protection is free and open debate."
Yet where Maine's timid anti-Bush outburst resulted in a very public slapdown from the media and country radio programmers alike, Worley and Toby Keith have dripped with praise and country music-award nominations as a result of their twangin' post-9/11 triumphalism. Not only did Keith record the fastest-selling record of his career to date, he scooped up eight Academy of Country Music Award nominations. Worley, for his part, bagged a best New Male Vocalist nomination. And according to his record label, Dreamworks, the song is "scaling the charts faster than any single in recent memory. Obviously, Darryl has hit a nerve that strikes to the core of this country's conscious."
The song has certainly hit a very obvious emotive nerve. Whether it strikes to the core of the American conscious is another thing. One can only wonder what the good folks of Basra and Baghdad would think of Worley and Keith's chest-beating invocations to war. That, though, was probably of little concern to Worley when he picked up his USO Merit Award at the Metropolitan Washington USO black-tie dinner event April 9. Previous recipients include Liz Taylor, Steven Spielberg and Bob Hope.
The "Spirit of America" has truly been reawakened. Unfortunately it is the paranoid America of McCarthy's House on Un-American Activities -- simply substitute Hanns Eisler and Pete Seeger with Natalie Maines or even Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (who has recently taken to impaling a mask of President Bush on a microphone stand at recent concerts). In that context, red-blooded patriots Keith and Worley may well be the Elia Kazan Lites of their generation.
Richard Perle, one of the chief architects of the Bush administration and former president of the defense policy board, famously said, "If we let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don't try to piece together clever diplomacy but just wage total war, our children will sing great songs about us years from now." Thankfully, they'll know whom to call.
The likes of Rosanne Cash and Maines aside (it's taken almost as a given that John Cougar and Steve Earle, et. al., act as a liberal counterpoint to the worst country music political excesses), dissenting country voices have been relatively few and far between to date. ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings allegedly had Keith dropped from last year's 4th of July TV special, although ABC cited Keith's existing concert engagements as the real reason for his no-show.
"I find it interesting that he's not from the U.S.," Keith said of Jennings at the time (Jennings is Canadian). "I bet Dan Rather'd let me do it on his special" he huffed. That's the spirit, Toby: Play the nationality card.
As is so often the case in these things, the last word must go to Toby "Big Dog" Keith: "Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye / Man, we lit up your world like the fourth of July."
Repeat to fade.
William MacDougall lives and works in Berlin, Germany. He is a regular contributor to a number of political publications and Web sites, including Counterpunch, Red Pepper and Z Magazine.