Even more than Seattle's audience of well-off hipster-geeks or its readily available supplies of coke, the local attraction that most fuels the music scene here is the truism that the city saved rock and roll. But maybe Seattle and cities like it have now helped kill rock and roll, adding a nail to the coffin with every oddball new band that comes out of this or any other urban oasis in the American Desert.
The thought occurred to me in light of the three albums this year that have raised the biggest sandstorms from sea to rising sea—Neil Young's pissed-off Living with War, Bruce Springsteen's heartfelt We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, and the Dixie Chicks' ambivalent Taking the Long Way. Not only have these CDs gotten a lot of media exposure—a yardstick for any good commercial pop—they've also challenged their audiences' expectations, which should qualify them as kin to the best rock and roll.
If that's true, then it suggests something has been lost from the old-timers' rock to the new (the Dixie Chicks aren't old, but country music sure is). "I was waiting for someone to come along, some young singer 18- to 22-years-old, to write these songs and stand up," Young told the Los Angeles Times. "I waited a long time. Then I decided that maybe the generation that has to do this is still the '60s generation."
Young editorializes about our current geopolitical state throughout Living with War, ranging from oil to Obama in 41 minutes of rough-hewn music, written and recorded in a nine-day spree. But despite its most discussed track, "Let's Impeach the President," the disc is more Martin Luther King than Abbie Hoffman. A 100-person choir echoes Young's hymn-like choruses on almost every track, and together with the lyrics' pacifist spirit ("And when the night falls, I pray for peace"), it suffuses the CD in folk-music idealism. And sure enough, that bleeding-heart bent can sound as pat as it did in the halcyon'60s. In fact, this slight album works mostly because of the earthy urgency of Young's rock-and-roll heart. By and large, the songs are short, the guitar distorted and tough, and the language direct in a way that liberal folkies have been trying to transcend since they first fell in love with Woody Guthrie's logorrhea.
In a way, Springsteen's album is just as direct, smartly avoiding Pete Seeger's own compositions for anonymous folk songs whose natural poetry can be as stirring as the sweetest, saddest nursery rhymes. Like Young, too, Springsteen delivers them with a rocker's sensibility, hiring an 11-piece band that pumps up each number with everything from bluegrass to Dixieland jazz, often slipping between styles within a song. With We Shall Overcome, he is trying to create a moment of agape that can embrace each of his own, including the 50,000 people who packed a downtown Cleveland plaza on the night before the 2004 vote, to see Bruce stand with John Kerry and pledge to always honor "the America that lies within our hearts."
It doesn't work. It's not Springsteen's vision of America that fails him, but his tendency to overemote and folkie-up his vocals, all of which is underscored by that Dixie-grass band's sawing. But if the Boss is temperamentally and constitutionally unfit to deliver these songs, what performer is? The best version you probably know of "Erie Canal" or "John Henry" is the version you learned around the campfire, or that your lover sang to you softly in private when she was remembering her youth. In this unfolk age, that's when the music's famous Unbroken Circle lightens and lets us in. These off-putting versions are just reminders of what Milan Kundera wrote about handholding circles in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: "Leave a row and you can always go back to it. The row is an open formation. But once a circle closes, there is no return."
Like Kundera, the Dixie Chicks have left their own circle to fall "like a meteorite broken loose from a planet." Their departure began when lead singer Natalie Maines said she was ashamed that Bush was from her home state before a British audience at the start of the Iraq war. The most publicized song here is "Not Ready to Make Nice," about Maines's refusal to apologize, but it's couched in a CD whose mellowness embraces that old feminist adage, the personal is political, exploring the trio's hurt with music that leaves behind most of its country trappings for the soothing styles of adult pop. The commercial result: The group had to cancel numerous domestic dates on their current tour in favor of foreign locales, where they're considered heroes.
Though the temptation is to blame the Chicks' troubles on a reactionary audience, Tim McGraw has also publicly admonished Bush, and he and his wife, Faith Hill, scored one of the biggest tours of the year. Then again, McGraw also scored one of the best top-five hits in any genre with his recent cover of Ryan Adams's "When the Stars Go Blue." How much more exciting it would have been if the Chicks had dived into that kind of rock-country crossover while unequivocally embracing the values of the "Urban Archipelago," the title of a manifesto that graced the cover of The Stranger after Bush's reelection: "To the red-state voters, to the rural voters, residents of small, dying towns, and soulless sprawling exurbs, we say this: Fuck off."
The sentiment was quixotic, maybe, but I know numerous people who stood in that Cleveland plaza who found it just as rousing and heartening as Springsteen's speech. If these three discs show anything, it's not that ambitious political music is impossible, but that the urge to make nice has little place in a land where too many stars have gone red. It's a lesson the denizens of Seattle's vibrant scene hardly need to learn, as they pound nails and grind away to the newest, bluest beats they can firstname.lastname@example.org