While driving through L.A.’s Laurel Canyon on Super Tuesday, I let Jesus take the wheel for a moment as I steered my iPod past the singer-songwriter types who once called the canyon home. In the spirit of the day rather than the place, I settled on John Mellencamp’s most recent album, Freedom’s Road (2007). I’ve had it for months, but this was my first time listening to it; I had been so put off by the use of the song “Our Country” in Chevy truck ads that I couldn’t bring myself to play the album, though I’d heard it was excellent.
I can now be the latest to affirm that it is. In fact, it’s mighty impressive that, 30 years into his career, Mellencamp’s last two studio albums (the other one being 2003’s Trouble No More) have been among his very finest. I still wish he hadn’t been required to sell his song, if not necessarily his soul, to General Motors in order to get his album released, but it’s difficult to argue with the results Á¢€” Freedom’s Road is Mellencamp’s highest-charting album since The Lonesome Jubilee way back in 1987.
As I drove up the canyon and listened to songs like “The Americans” and “Jim Crow,” I found myself thinking less about Jim Crow and more about Sheryl Crow, whose new album, Detours, came out on Super Tuesday and opens with no fewer than half a dozen politically driven songs. She takes on Iraq and the broader “war on terror,” she examines the costs of Katrina, and she imagines a world no longer ruled by the lust for oil. She does it all without artifice, without couching her ideas in ungainly metaphor or sneaking them into a few lines of songs that otherwise have a personal focus. She’s writing protest music, pure and simple: protest music with a beat. And she’s making a big deal of it, too, commercial prospects be damned.
Detours isn’t likely to return Crow to her commercial peak of the late ’90s, but her efforts to engage her still considerable fan base in political discussion place her in good company. Perhaps she’s noticed that political themes have helped prolong the careers of Mellencamp, Springsteen, and Neil Young. The days when their new music automatically landed on the radio or in millions of CD collections are pretty much over, but they seem to recognize that they can maintain a chunk of their old audience while making music that matters to them. And maybe they can change the world, just a little.
For some reason, it’s these aging (sorry, Sheryl) mainstream artists who get the most attention from creating political music, even though there’s a decent number of, ahem, “socially conscious” acts who are in their prime right now. (There would be more if Zack de la Rocha hadn’t largely decided to sleep through the Bush administration. What were you thinking, Zack?)
In honor of Sheryl’s new CD Á¢€” and the real super Tuesdays that are coming November 4 and next January 20 Á¢€” here’s a mix of contemporary political pop. For several dozen more free downloads of 21st-century protest music, go to Thurston Moore’s website, protest-records.com.
Sheryl Crow Á¢€” “Shine Over Babylon” (from Detours) (buy)
John Mellencamp Á¢€” “Jim Crow” (from Freedom’s Road) (buy)
Bright Eyes Á¢€” “When the President Talks to God” (from the “First Day of My Life” single) (buy)
Kimya Dawson Á¢€” “Anthrax [Powerballad Version]” (from Hidden Vagenda) (buy)
Arcade Fire Á¢€” “Intervention” (from Neon Bible) (buy)
Eminem Á¢€” “White America” (from The Eminem Show) (buy)
Nanci Griffith Á¢€” “Big Blue Ball of War” (from Hearts in Mind) (buy)
John Mayer Á¢€” “Belief” (from Continuum) (buy)
George Michael Á¢€” “Shoot the Dog” (buy)
Sheryl Crow Á¢€” “Gasoline” (from Detours) (buy)
Neil Young Á¢€” “Let’s Impeach the President” (from Living With War) (buy)
Bruce Springsteen Á¢€” “American Land” (from Live in Dublin With the Seeger Sessions Band) (buy)
Pink Á¢€” “Dear Mr. President” (from I’m Not Dead) (buy)