"John Walker's Blues" (found on the Artemis release Jerusalem) does what songwriters have done for as long as there have been songs: It envisions another person's mind. In this case, the empathetic act has a political bent, because the other person is one who's been demonized, one who — whether he was well-informed or naive — sided with people who've done us harm. Clearly, picking this person to identify with right now flies in the face of that demonization and asks us to question our knee-jerk responses. But you couldn't possibly know Earle's work, with its sly and overt human-rights messages, and believe he embraces the Taliban. The truth is, the song is complex, and droningly beautiful, and obviously gets people thinking; whether they think clearly or not isn't something Earle can control.
Then there's Bruce Springsteen, who once wrote a critical song about the state of his Union ("Born in the U.S.A."), only to see simple-minded jingoists take it for a "my country right or wrong" anthem. On The Rising (Columbia) he, too, sees through the eyes of one of America's enemies, one of the "suicide bombers" of September 11, although in this case (on the song "Paradise") he does so elliptically, and mirrors that perspective with that of a woman whose husband died in the attacks. There's never a doubt where the Boss' sympathies lie, but the fact is that, on an album eulogizing firemen, and janitors and illusory innocence, he's doing what Earle does, putting us in shoes we don't want to wear.
But everybody expects sensitive troubadours to write controversial songs now and then. More exciting to me right now is an anthem that isn't by Earle or Woody Guthrie, but by three young women from the Pacific Northwest. On One Beat (Kill Rock Stars), Sleater-Kinney borrow a phrase from the Clash for "Combat Rock," a pounding argument against the idea that "there are only two sides to be on."
As the drums rattle with an insistent, military snare roll, a mean guitar figure repeats over and over infuriatingly, making you want to jump out of your skin. Before the singer quite gets to the point, she's dropping lyrics that make you as edgy as the instrumentation: "But are we innocent, paragons of good?/Is our guilt erased by the pain that we've endured?" As she digs her heels in, worried about blind agreement with anything painted red, white and blue, you realize that — complex and moving as his evocations of grief are —Springsteen's album exists mostly in the aftermath, not in the now, where you have to pick a side, or invent a side that doesn't yet exist. The Boss vented his rage on "American Skin/41 Shots," putting the blame for Amadou Diallo's death where the courts would not, but now it's Sleater-Kinney saying (with a Toni Basil squeal that nevertheless would never be mistaken for giddiness) "Since when is skepticism un-American?/Dissent's not treason but they talk like it's the same." By the song's final verse — "We'll come out with our fists raised/The good old boys are back on top again/And if we let them lead us blindly/The past becomes the future once again" — it's almost possible to envision a young nation of protesters, who (despite having been inoculated against dissent from childhood on, like Steve Earle's John Walker, "an American boy, raised on MTV") take to the streets, telling the White House that no fortunate son is going to convince us that a single day of American tragedy justifies the murder of thousands of innocents in a far away desert.