July 22, 2002

MATT WELCH IS DEFENDING STEVE EARLE, noting that “Earle frequently writes songs from the points of view of — wait for it — other people. Including people he doesn’t necessarily agree with.” Well, yes. I do that, too. (Marc Weisblott replies to Welch by comparing Steve Earle to Ice Cube and Tom Arnold).

But the reason I’m not buying Welch’s defense (which National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru echoes) is that the comments by Earle in stories on the subject suggest that he’s deliberately trying to provoke people.

If you decide to knock down a hornet’s nest to stir up some excitement, you can’t complain when you’re stung. But hey, at least he got Welch to come out of seclusion and blog a little.

What will really sting, though, are comments like this one from the story linked above:

But Martha Bayles, author of “Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music” and a literature professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, said Earle’s apparent identification with Lindh reflected “a psychological need to repeat the good old days of the radical 60s, just like Mom and Dad.”

“Never mind whether the cause makes any sense — the point is to march in the streets and get on TV. It sounds as if Earle is singing to this crowd,” Bayles said.

Ouch.

UPDATE: Porphyrogenitus says Welch is wrong. Going back to the story I quoted above, I note that some people who have actually heard the Earle song seem to interpret it the way that talk radio has:

A smattering of like-minded New Yorkers who heard an advance copy of the Lindh song said they were enthusiastic.

“Steve Earle is standing up against the new patriotism, the ‘You’re with us or you’re against us’ mentality,” said Joan Hirsch, manager of Revolution Bookstore, which stocks anti-war pamphlets and leftist literature.

“(The song) speaks of the U.S. demonization of anyone who would go against the traditional American way,” Hirsch said. “It’s important for people to come to the defense of artists who are speaking out.”

So far, I haven’t seen any reports of Steve Earle saying he was just getting into a character’s head, and not taking a political position. But perhaps he’ll write a sympathetic song about the thoughts and dreams of Tom DeLay next, and prove me wrong.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Norwegian blogger Vegard Valberg writes that Earle needs to dress up his anti-Americanism with more artistic pretension, the way the Europeans do. The Blogger Formerly Known as Sarge is also typically pithy:

Billy Joel accepted the Brass Booby on Earle’s behalf at his home in Zurich, Switzerland, where he has been living in exile since his deportation in 1989 following the release of “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. Although no hard figures exist, the National Association of Deported Has-Beens reports 236 musicians were deported last year for crappy political songs no one ever heard of.

Earle will also be in the running later this year in the “Best Use of a Gimmick That Never Works in Order to Jump Start a Dead Career” category. We wish him luck.

He’s a contender.

STILL ANOTHER UPDATE: Eric Olsen weighs in on Matt Welch’s side, more or less, with a long and detailed post.

I agree with Eric that I don’t necessarily care what Earle “really thinks.” Sure, you can write for a character who isn’t you (I’ve never been an alcoholic who got drunk every day on Everclear, but I wrote a song called “Waves of Grain” about one). But when you write a song that you advertise as a “statement,” then, well, people are going to call you on the statement you make. My guess is that Earle means it as a poke in the eye at people he doesn’t like more than as a statement of actual sympathy for the Taliban, who’d be hurling him from the tops of buildings pretty damn quick if they could. But it’s no great shock if the pokees poke back, is it?

It’s not like anyone’s censoring his song. It won’t get any less airplay than it would have anyway, which is to say next to none. It’ll probably get more. As for the criticism, well, he seems to welcome it. So what’s the beef?

STILL ANOTHER UPDATE: Jim Henley has the wrapup. He thinks I’m wrong.

Thought experiment: Just after the Jasper, Texas incident, Lee Greenwood releases a song sympathetically looking inside the mind of a guy who lynches some black people. Same analysis?

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