Entertainment and wartime make strange bedfellows

By Jonathan Groce | April 17, 2003

I am pro-entertainment and pro-democracy, and I stand up for the constitutional right to criticize the government through an artistic medium, in times of peace and in times of war.

That being said, the impetus for my column this week may not be considered an artistic venue, depending on your relative taste for crude television animation. Yes, the creators of South Park recently celebrated their 100th episode, and how fitting and timely that its plot featured the small Colorado town in uproar over the war in Iraq. To recap, the residents of South Park find themselves divided along pro-war/anti-war lines, and the liberal minded school facilitates this division by equating anti-homework with anti-war sensibilities. Naturally, the students join the anti-homework side, leading to a fight between adults who support the war effort and those who demand the troops return to American soil. Eventually, chaos breaks, with the adults enacting their version of World War IV in bloody fury. Credit is due to the animators of South Park for devising new, grotesque methods to kill paper cut-outs, including a picket sign through the face of a protestor.

Of course, the writers do not allow their satire to simply skewer the idiocy of the adults, including anti-war hypocritical claims that "those pro-war parents are forcing their kids to join their side." Meanwhile, the parents who oppose the conflict encourage their sons to write a report on the Founding Fathers of the United States to prove their opposition. Lazy Cartman, instead of doing said research, decides to induce a flashback through injury to travel to 1776 to experience the reality of the Founding Fathers. And so, on his third try, Cartman discovers he is in Philadelphia, circa 1776, for the delivery of the Declaration of Independence, and witnesses the Continental Congress in debate over whether or not to declare war on Britain. Finally, after bickering that rivals the modern day counterparts of the parents of South Park, Benjamin Franklin declares that America should be founded on the ability to declare war, while saying its citizens do not want war. In effect, to do one thing but say another, is the twisted power of democracy.

South Park proves in this short episode that both sides are inherently wrong in believing that they are necessarily right. As Cartman eloquently declares at the combined pro/anti war rally, after his humorous flashback, the "liberal pansies" need the "pro-war hicks" to keep the country strong, while the "rednecks" need the "pansy a--" to demonstrate to the world that we aren't imperial warmongers. Either way, both sides appear dirty, and in the end, South Park asserts it's right to criticize all arguments simultaneously. Some people criticize the show's politics for refusing to take sides, but those assertions miss the point.

South Park, however, is an anomaly on television. The episode is arguably brilliant, but it stands alone. Most shows are either too conservative, or controlled by conservative networks, to criticize the war. Late night television hosts, meanwhile, are granted considerable freedom while skewering the war, but anti-war jokes are few and far between. More typical of late-night banter is evident in this recent Conan O'Brien joke: "Saddam Hussein may be alive because he appeared on TV yesterday and talked about several things that have happened since the war started. For instance, Saddam said he was furious that Corey had been kicked off American Idol."

In the recording industry, things are more diversified, as many artists have refused to remain silent during the war. On the pro-war side, Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten" is number one on the country music singles chart, and Worley prefers that his song be labeled "pro-American." However, like the creators of South Park, I refuse to align pro-war sentiments with pro-American, which logically concludes that those opposed are anti-American. Either way, the term, which many pro-war supporters have adopted, is blatantly un-American. In any case, the song refers to Osama Bin Laden and Sept. 11, but suspiciously ignores Saddam's name, another cultural faux pas that I can't comprehend. Clint Black's "I Raq and Roll" is outright offensive, aligning "stupid" peace activists with Saddam supporters, and threatening to bomb those who stand with Saddam. I am not convinced Clint Black will not throw a grenade at a peace rally, despite his patriotism.

The Dixie Chicks are the center of attention on the anti-war side, but curiously the controversy has nothing to do with their music. Natalie Maines exercised her freedom of speech before the war began with her comments against President Bush. Since the protest of her statement, Maines has apologized, but the Dixie Chicks have plummeted on the charts, with the recent number one single "Travelin' Soldier" now gone from the Top 100, and their Grammy-winning album, Home, out of the Top 10. Some country radio DJs have banned their music, while others have organized brutal boycotts. Reportedly, some demonstrations have included bonfires to burn all Chicks albums and posters.

Are these people crazy? Maybe not if they were critical of the actual music on those albums, but to boycott a group over an off-hand comment, hyped up by certain forces in the media, should be considered insanely un-American. Of course, this is a democracy, and those former fans who want to turn their backs on their Chicks, and be persuaded by radio stations to burn Chicks CDs, have every right to do so. But something is amiss. Maybe it's just a country music thing.

Elsewhere, some artists are actually protesting the war with music. Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder recently impaled a Bush mask with his mic stand at a concert in Denver. Madonna pulled her video for "American Life," which featured a shot of the pop diva throwing a grenade at President Bush, which he then uses as a lighter to his cigar. Her statement concluded that, at this time, it would be inappropriate to release her music video out of sensitivity to troops and their families. Yet, the video is hardly offensive, save for the Bush joke. The once controversial icon is of course garnering publicity by pulling the video, but it is still unlike her to skirt controversy by banning her own music videos. The motivations are ambiguous, but that the Dixie Chicks' situation might have had some effect on her decision.

Meanwhile, anti-war songs just aren't getting airplay. Thus, many artists have offered their pro-peace music to the Internet for free. Lenny Kravitz rush-recorded his pro-peace anthem "We Want Peace," as did Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha with his intense anti-war "March of Death." While I applaud these artists for utilizing the Internet, it is a shame that radio blocks these songs from airplay. Granted, many of these songs are not commercial, but there is no harm in offering the tunes for listeners to accept or reject. Anti-war artists deserve audiences, and their work should not find its way into a bonfire fueled by misguided patriotism.

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