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Right Field

Don’t Let It Bring You Down

By Russ Smith | Posted 5/17/2006

The good news for Neil Young and Reprise Records is that I bought his latest release, Living With War, the day it was available. The bad news is that although Young’s simplistic anti-Bush lyrics invite parody and mock the cream of his 43-year discography, I’ve played the CD more than 50 times as of this writing. Young is pop music’s master of hits and misses, but this foreign-policy hawk says it’s the Canadian-born star’s catchiest recording in more than a dozen years. The fact that I hum along with the 10 tunes on Living With War almost absent-mindedly, demonstrates that the rhetoric traded between liberals and conservatives since George W. Bush’s controversial election in 2000 has reached saturation level.

Young’s a bit eccentric politically. Perhaps his most famous song, “Ohio,” which was written, recorded, and heard on radio stations just four days after the Kent State killings in May of 1970, was impassioned—in a way that Living With War certainly isn’t—but not prophetic. He wrote, with gun enthusiast/hedonist David Crosby harmonizing in the background, “This summer I hear the drumming,” intimating that the “revolution” between young and old was at hand. As it turned out, Kent State effectively marked the end of mass student protests, maybe because anti-war protesters were scared that nervous (and also young) National Guardsmen might once again overreact at subsequent demonstrations.

Young pissed off feminists with the song “A Man Needs a Maid” on 1972’s Harvest, voiced his support for Ronald Reagan in the ’80s, refused to sell his songs (unlike the majority of his fellow “anti-establishment” rock colleagues) for commercial products, lampooned the first President Bush’s “1,000 points of light” in his classic song “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and shortly after Sept. 11 released “Let’s Roll,” a tribute to the courageous passengers of the hijacked United Flight 93.

I don’t quite get all the fuss in the media about Living With War. It’s interesting that in an era when it takes a band two or three years to release a new record—my son is flabbergasted that a long time ago groups like the Rolling Stones and Beatles flooded the marketplace with two LPs in the same year—Young defied convention by writing and recording his latest collection, à la “Ohio,” in a few weeks. But although Young’s lyrics about the Iraq war, the administration’s alleged conspiracy with Big Oil, and delayed reaction to Hurricane Katrina are angry, it’s not as if he’s making a unique statement.

The Washington Post’s J. Freedom du Lac, in a preview of Living With War on May 3, said that Young “seems to be a couple of years behind the curve,” with writing that’s similar to “superficial lefty blog posts set to fuzzy rock.” Du Lac is correct in that assertion, but the article’s conclusion is way off: “Let’s just say that you might like this album if you have Daily Kos set as your Internet home page. If your daily routine begins with Michelle Malkin or Power Line, Living With War is going to make you mad as hell. Which is pretty much the point.”

I couldn’t disagree more. As one who turns to The Wall Street Journal first thing in the morning (after checking ESPN for baseball scores), my view toward Living With War’s ideology is not one of outrage, but boredom. The song that’s received the most attention, “Let’s Impeach the President,” is also the silliest. Young sings,

    Let’s impeach the president for spyin’
    On citizens inside their own homes
    Breaking ev’ry law in the country
    By tapping our computers and telephones

    . . . Let’s impeach the president for hijacking
    Our religion and using it to get elected
    Dividing our country into colors<
    And still leaving black people neglected.

Oh, brother. Young was otherwise occupied (with health problems), but you’d think he knew it was television networks that “divided” the country into red and blue on election nights. And what exactly is “our religion”? Bush is a born-again Methodist, but his supporters are a mélange of Christians, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, and atheists, just as his detractors are. With USA Today’s splashy story on May 11 that the country’s major communication companies (with exception of Qwest) have supplied phone records to the National Security Agency, the “spying on citizens” trope has been reborn, although a flash Washington Post/ABC poll released last Friday showed that 63 percent of Americans approved of the program as “an acceptable way to investigate terrorism.” (Newsweek’s poll on the same subject, conducted during the same time frame, showed the opposite opinion, with 57 percent of those polled opposed.)

In the event that the Democrats do win control of Congress this fall, by all means “Let’s Impeach the President.” That tactic backfired for the GOP in ’98 when Bill Clinton was impeached (but not convicted) and his party enjoyed a resounding and surprising victory in the midterm elections. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a rare moment of political sobriety, said last week that impeachment would not be on the Democrats’ agenda should they regain power, but don’t bet on it. Maybe Young can sing his anthem during congressional testimony.

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