Musicians wage war of songs

Acts lob lyrics, some cancel tours, and radio debate rages

War — what is it good for? Songwriting, evidently.

Barely two weeks old, the conflict in Iraq has already produced nearly as many musical viewpoints — both pro and con — as the entire Vietnam War.

And heated opinions in the creative community are starting to spill into the commercial and political arenas as well, as radio giants like Clear Channel parry accusations they’re pushing a pro-war stance.

While some of the best-known protest anthems took years to catch on (including Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”), the first musical critiques of Operation Iraqi Freedom dropped even before the bombs did — thanks in large part to the speed and immediacy of the Internet.

There are as many opinions in the music community about the war as there are musicians voicing them. Many artists are speaking up loudly — both for and against U.S. policy — while others, like Madonna, are pulling back from strong statements to avoid controversy. And some are affected in more practical ways — altering or scrapping tour plans out of safety concerns. Matchbox Twenty, Tom Petty and B2K have all postponed or cancelled shows.

A host of performers have weighed in with new material, including Lenny Kravitz, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, R&B singer R. Kelly, former Rage Against the Machine frontman Zach de la Rocha, Sheryl Crow and the Beastie Boys.

Some singer-songwriters are in favor of the conflict, particularly in the country-music area.

While negative reaction to the Dixie Chicks’ comment have been widely reported, one music-biz insider says the firestorm is much more extensive than media members in L.A. and New York can fathom.

The Dixie Chicks’ label, Sony Music, “took a major beating in Nashville about this,” the source says. “It has gotten so bad that nobody even wants to go near the topic anymore.”

The flap is also hitting the Chicks in the pocketbook: sales of their album sank almost 30% last week, and their latest single — ironically titled “Travelin’ Soldier” — has fallen off the country charts.

The stations of several radio congloms — including Clear Channel and Cumulus Media — have yanked music by the Dixie Chicks out of their playlists.

Angered by Chick Nathalie Maines’ statement to a London crowd that she was “ashamed” President Bush is from Texas, some stations have even organized CD-squashing events to express their displeasure.

Maines has since apologized, but feelings are intense in all directions.

San Antonio-based Clear Channel — whose founder Lowry Mays has close ties to Bush — has come under heavy fire, accused of organizing pro-administration rallies and quietly removing antiwar-themed music from stations’ broadcasts.

The conglom has denied the latter charge, and insists the former stems from the individual efforts of its DJs — most notably Glenn Beck, who has set up several “Rally for America” events over the past month.

Reps for Clear Channel’s giant live-music arm say it’s too early to tell whether the summer touring season will take a hit, but they’re not taking any chances. They’ve instituted a bargain pricing policy that puts selected tickets to summer shows on sale for just $10.

As for choosing sides, Hip-hop’s court jesters the Beastie Boys decided not to wait for an album to release the antiwar “In a World Gone Mad.” They rushed out the song online so fans could enjoy such lyrical gems as “you and Saddam should kick it like back in the day/with the cocaine and the Courvoisier.”

Singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow got her licks in — however subtly — at the Grammys more than a month ago, sporting a guitar strap embroidered with the message “No War” (and prompting a headline in satire paper the Onion: “Sheryl Crow Unsuccessful; War on Iraq Begins”).

On the flip side, country crooner Clint Black used his Website to release a pro-war track titled “I Raq and Roll,” which counters with “Iraq, I rack ’em up and I roll/I’m back and I’m a high-tech G.I. Joe.”

A tune with similar themes by singer Darryl Worley has rocketed to the top of the country charts. Sales of Toby Keith’s 2002 LP “Unleashed” — which features the ultra-patriotic “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (Angry American)” — rebounded more than 30% last week as war heated up.

But the war hasn’t been all about unbridled expression in the music world; some artists and companies have decided that what’s left unsaid during the conflict is what is most important.

Pop diva Madonna — best known for causing controversy, rather than avoiding it — elected last week to pull the video for her single “American Life” out of circulation.

Musicvid includes some graphic imagery of bombing and refugees interspersed with a fashion show — depictions Madonna said are best shelved out of respect for the troops facing real violence in the field.

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