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Saturday Letters

Songs of Anger, Patriotism

August 31, 2002

Let me get this straight. Songwriters who express anger and patriotism over the murder of 3,000 human beings on 9/11 elicit yawns and rolling eyes, while those who distance themselves from such "extremes of emotion" offer "comfort and perspective" ("Can Songwriters Convey What Everyone Is Feeling?" by Robert Hilburn, Aug. 28).

Apparently Hilburn has decided that the only tasteful method of musical expression is employed by Bruce Springsteen, who steers well clear of any such emotional extremes on his new album, and by Steve Earle, who would like us to walk a mile in John Walker Lindh's shoes before judging his inexplicable behavior.

According to Hilburn, artists such as Neil Young, Paul McCartney, Alan Jackson and Toby Keith have lost "artistic discipline and judgment" by expressing undiluted emotions in their songs.

I'd be curious to know which event in world history might justify patriotism or, God forbid, anger.




The sort of jingoistic nationalism as displayed by Toby Keith is only one of several reasons why this country finds itself at odds with the world. Alan Jackson's song isn't quite as obnoxious, although anyone who wears their ignorance of geography like a badge of honor needs to get off their tour bus and visit a library.

It's people like Steve Earle who, I believe, represent the true spirit of America; his is a voice of dissent, a voice that speaks truth to power. There isn't a whole lot of that around these days as musicians seem to be telling people what they want to hear as opposed to what they need to hear.

Not that I put too much stock in what Bono or Springsteen have to say, but as artists who are commonly portrayed as populists (well, except at the ticket counter), I think it is especially sad that they are merely aping the conventional wisdom rather than speaking what they surely know in their hearts to be true.


San Diego


It may come as a shock to Hilburn, but not everyone rolled their eyes when Paul McCartney sang of his willingness to fight for freedom. Some of us actually found it a lovely song and a powerful and much-needed renunciation of the pacifist claptrap his old bandmate dreamed of.

Nothing to kill or die for may have seemed to make sense way back in the pre-9/11 days, but such naive notions pretty much came crashing down with the two towers. Some of us actually believe Neil Young had it right in "Let's Roll" when he said, "You've got to turn on evil, when it's coming after you."

Much too simplistic for Hilburn. Better to celebrate Steve Earle's ode to a traitor. Now there's a work of real complexity.

I don't blame Hilburn. As a member (however peripheral) of the arts community, he must scoff at notions as quaint as good and evil, or face exile. I suppose I should be grateful that the fate of our country is not in the hands of pop stars and rock critics.


Huntington Beach


Thanks to Hilburn for his thoughtful and levelheaded take on Steve Earle's new work. He's going to need all the support he can get from the non-reactionary, non-chest-thumping arm of the media (can you imagine the fun Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity are gonna have with this?). I, for one, will be at Tower Records bright and early on Oct. 8 to pick up my copy, help Steve pay the rent and hear what the most intelligent songwriter since Dylan has to say about the soul of our wounded nation.


Los Angeles

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