Musicians wary of singing about Katrina - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Musicians wary of singing about Katrina

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Posted: Thursday, October 6, 2005 3:20 pm | Updated: 9:19 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

NEW YORK - In times of war, tragedy and turmoil, many hit songs have eloquently expressed a collective angst. But even though Hurricane Katrina has already inspired several musical efforts, it seems doubtful this disaster of huge social and political implications will provoke something that transcends entertainment to capture the spirit of the country - let alone the world.

"I don't know if anybody wants to mix their politics with their entertainment," singer-songwriter Fiona Apple said in a recent interview. "I can't think about anybody outside of country music that's even attempted to do an anthem-type song that's reflective of what's going on," she said.

Once upon a time, it was almost expected that musicians would opine on the world.

Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In the Wind" touched on the tumult of the civil rights era; Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" spoke to the social upheaval of the wartime 1970s; 1985's star-studded "We Are The World" addressed the heartbreaking starvation of millions in Somalia.

"They are songs that probe," says veteran rock journalist Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine. "They're not position papers. They're statements about the human condition in a way. ... It captures something beyond 'I'm right and you're wrong.'"

Not only were those songs important political or social statements, they were also major hits. Record charts were a barometer for the much of the nation's mood, from worries about war (John Lennon's "Imagine") to women's rights (Helen Redding's "I Am Woman") to disillusionment (The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion").

Flash forward to today: Most pop songs are about love, partying or relationship drama.

"The climate of today is not really focused as much as it was then on being able to speak about different cultural issues or different situations that were going on politically," says Alicia Keys.

DeCurtis says the public has become so fragmented, it's difficult for one song to unite people: "Who's going to do it? Who has the authority to kind of step into that role and speak for everybody?"

Not that all artists are avoiding meaningful music. Green Day's "American Idiot," their multiplatinum rock opera, centers on the band's opposition to the war. Barbra Streisand's new song "Stranger in a Strange Land" is about a soldier. And after the 9/11 tragedy, a few related songs permeated the airwaves, most notably Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)" and Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising." And Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue" was a gung-ho patriotic ode.

But those were the exceptions, not the rule.

Barbra Streisand says some artists may be reluctant to put social issues in their music because it might cost them fans instead of adding new ones.

"I can only think of fear," she said. "I really don't know. Maybe it will stop their sales, or they'll think people won't buy their records. I don't think that way."

Many musicians probably remember what happened to the Dixie Chicks. Natalie Maines' comment to a London audience expressing disapproval of George Bush near the start of the Iraq war sparked widespread outrage among the trio's country audience, and their record sales plummeted.

"Look at what happens when people get up on podiums and talk about politics," Apple said.

But even songs having a conscious edge with little political subtext have difficulty resonating with audiences. Paul McCartney's "Freedom," which he wrote after 9/11, got plenty of attention but little airplay. Neither did Neil Young's "Let's Roll," a tribute to victims on one of the doomed planes.

That same year, Bono's multi-star remake of "What's Going On" for World AIDS Day didn't become the next "We Are The World," despite a lineup that included Keys, Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake and Gwen Stefani.

"It's a vexing type of question," said DeCurtis. "It seems silly, because music has been expressing these issues for centuries - it's hard to think that it doesn't have the cultural standing to do it any more."

Still, people are trying.

Prince had a Katrina song on his Web site, "S.S.T." Stevie Wonder recently debuted "Shelter In The Rain," with all royalties going to Katrina relief. James Taylor is helping raise funds through song. And Michael Jackson is aiming to write another "We Are The World" for Katrina victims with an all-star lineup (though exactly who will or won't participating is unclear). Producer/rapper Timbaland, who has been active in the relief effort, and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons have both said they plan to do albums that will raise money for victims.

"This naturally will definitely affect artists as individuals and surely make us reflect in our writing," says Keys. "I do feel that there are a lot of great songs to be born out of the time that we're dealing with now."

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