Nearly everyone approaches the subject of the September 11 attacks with great sobriety and weight. But not everyone finds the same lessons, or favors the same reactions. Take for example the music produced in response to the attacks-and how it has been received.
Earlier this summer, country star Toby Keith was scratched by ABC's Peter Jennings from a list of performers for the network's Independence Day festivities. Keith's song "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" struck a hugely positive chord with country fans, but received a parade of boos from the cultural elite. It was just too unsophisticated in its message: "You'll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A./Cause we'll put a boot in your a** - it's the American way." The Washington Post huffed that Keith loved numbers that "tread the line between rascally and mean," and his "meanest" song was "Courtesy," which "unabashedly glorifies the bombing of Afghanistan" and "traffics in vivid, simple shades of black and white, good and evil."
Oh, rot. Responding to this kind of complaint should be wholly unnecessary. Is the Post trying to argue that the September 11 attacks don't rest in most Americans' minds as "vivid, simple shades of black and white, good and evil"? If Toby Keith is "mean" to our mortal enemies, is that somehow bad? What next? Should we debate the moral nuances of Pearl Harbor? Would they like us to contemplate the philosophical complexities of the Oklahoma City bombing? All the search for grays in a sea of black leads only to moral paralysis.
This is the natural dividing line separating the liberal elites from the masses. In their typical self-congratulatory fashion, the elites feel that rah-rah nationalism is unsophisticated, and that spine-tingling love of country is fool's gold for rednecks, surely to be exploited by the evil military-industrial complex.
By contrast, Bruce Springsteen's new album "The Rising" has been celebrated as "an act of national consolation," or as Time's cover put it, he "turned anguish into art." It's easy to see why the music press gathered around the Boss's feet like a pack of poodles. They are comfortable with novelistic sensibility, at ease playing September 11 as tragedy, not as outrage. They can accept the nation wallowing in suffering and anomie, not steeling itself with resolve. They want to feel literary contemplating the lost humanity, not crush to bits the evil that plotted and planned these massacres.
To be fair to Springsteen, there are certainly many profiles of individual suffering and loss, and his anthems do them great justice. He also writes on his album of the natural urge for revenge, and has been publicly supportive of President Bush's war on terrorism-just not in song. To balance out Springsteen's support for the president, MTV's Kurt Loder prodded him to worry out loud about how civil liberties can vanish in war time - a plausible worry, if it doesn't leave out the 3,000 people who lost their civil liberties courtesy of al-Qaeda.
But Springsteen is allowed a few liberties with his political views. After all, before the attacks, he was never much of a nationalist. "Born in the U.S.A." scored America's war on "the yellow man" in Vietnam. He performed a cover version of Edwin Starr's silly anthem "War" ("What is it good for/Absolutely nothing"). Springsteen even performed at a left-wing Christic Institute benefit in 1991, lining up with people who felt that a "secret team" of American military and intelligence officials was ruining the communist dictatorships of Central America. He has helped fund left-wing liberation movements in Africa.
And yet Springsteen is a moderate when you compare him to other artists. Take Steve Earle, the folk-country artist, another critical darling. Later this month, he'll release his latest CD, which includes a song called "John Walker's Blues," which tries to imagine the life of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. Earle portrays Lindh thinking he would rise to Heaven "just like Jesus." His verses pulse with Taliban empathy: "We came to fight the jihad and our hearts were pure and strong/And when death filled the air, we all offered up prayers and prepared for our martyrdom."
Unsurprisingly the Washington Post hasn't declared that this song was "mean" to the people who lost loved ones when these "pure and strong" jihad psychos blew up civilians with jetliners. On August 19, NBC's "Today" show touted its "exclusive" as Earle performed the song, no doubt causing some choking over breakfast.
NBC, like ABC, hasn't found a morning spot for Toby Keith. But most of Americans share his "vivid and simple" wisdom that unalloyed evil exists, and we have to stop it before it stops us. Only the elites find that "rascally."