When a song is mistaken for an anthem
It’s time to place rap duo OutKast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad” alongside Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” as examples of how pop songs can assume a dramatic life of their own.
OutKast’s Big Boi was more than a little surprised when tennis pro Jennifer Capriati requested recently that “Bombs” be played as a sign of support for the troops in Iraq as she took the court for a match.
He watched with equal interest a few days later as radio stations started playing the record in the same Iraq context and some U.S. troops reportedly sang the song while going into battle.
To most people outside rap circles, all of it made perfect sense.
On top of one of the most deliciously dynamic hip-hop beats since Dr. Dre’s teaming a decade ago with Tupac Shakur on “California Love,” the chorus sounds like an Iraq battle cry: “Bombs over Baghdad / Don’t even bang unless you plan to hit something / Bombs over Baghdad.”
The problem is Big Boi was strongly opposed to the U.S. invading Iraq without United Nations support and he never intended the song as a pro-war exercise.
At a time when some country music fans are protesting Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks for making derogatory remarks about President Bush, Big Boi was in the unusual position of being an artist who could have objected to pro-war forces using the song improperly.
But the veteran rapper (real name: Antwan Patton) has long understood that artists can’t control how the public responds to their work.
“We make a record and then it is up to people to take what they want from it,” he said by phone this week from his home base in Atlanta. “We explain a song when people ask, but we can’t control how they feel about it.
“In our case, fans know where we stand pretty much. I talk to them in the street all the time. I really think Bush should have gone through the United Nations before going over there. But once the fighting starts, everything changes.
“You have guys over there with families here, and you have to support the troops and pray for them. So, if the song helps them keep their spirits up, I don’t have a problem with that.”
Big Boi, who is joined in OutKast by Andre 3000 (Andre Benjamin), saw what he felt was half-hearted U.S. bombing raids on Iraq in the 1990s as an analogy for a lack of dedication among many artists in the music business.
“There were lots of people making music, but there was nothing real about it,” he says. “We were like saying, make music that has something to say or just get out of the way.”
The song first appeared in 2000 on the duo’s “Stankonia” album, which won a Grammy nomination for best album (losing to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). It was a sensation in hip-hop circles but didn’t reach a mainstream audience until now.
That’s when the public took ownership of it and turned it into a 2003 battle cry. You can feel movie producers getting in line to license the song -- which was co-written by OutKast and David Sheats -- for war-related films and soundtracks.
Although songwriters may feel uneasy when their songs take on new meanings, many of the most evocative songs leave room for exactly this type of multiple interpretations. What Dylan fan hasn’t scratched his head over such lines as “There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all” from 1965’s marvelous “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”
Along with many superior artists, U2’s Bono says he is attracted to music, like much of Dylan’s, that leaves a lot of room for the listener to fill in the blanks. “I didn’t grow up in the tradition of pop songwriters who feel it is essential to make everything clear to the listener,” he once said. “All of us in the band were always interested in abstraction ... letting things be out of focus.”
Here are some celebrated songs that have taken on new lives over the years:
Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Written more than a half-century ago by the songwriter whose working-class protest songs greatly influenced Dylan, “This Land” is one of America’s most popular anthems. But few know it was written as an angry response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” which Guthrie felt was far too rosy a picture of the country. The stinging protest verse, however, is rarely heard, leaving it as sunny as “God Bless America.” In one version, it goes:
In the squares of the city -- In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office -- I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” The 1984 composition, with its rousing chorus, is played everywhere from sporting events to Fourth of July celebrations as a proud symbol of American determination and pride. Springsteen, however, meant the song to be a hard look at the American fiber. He stressed that side of it during his 1995 “The Ghost of Tom Joad” tour with a stark, bluesy arrangement that made the song a harrowing reminder of the Vietnam experience. In the context, you couldn’t escape the unsettling imagery.
U2’s “One.” Not all misinterpretations of songs involve political issues. Bono was surprised to learn in 1993 that this haunting ballad was played by Los Angeles radio stations during the tumult following the Rodney King beating verdict. The DJs picked it as a message of brotherhood and comfort. “I never saw the song as something hopeful or comforting,” he said at the time. “To me, it was a very bitter song. It’s saying, ‘We are one, but we’re not the same.’ It’s not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along in this world if it is to survive. It’s a reminder that we have no choice.”
Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” This song has been embraced by antiwar groups from the moment it appeared on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” album in 1963. Among its many memorable lines:
Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe.
Yet Dylan disputes the notion that it’s an antiwar song.
“There’s no antiwar sentiment in that song,” he told me in 2001. “I’m not a pacifist. I don’t think I’ve ever been one. If you look closely at the song, it’s about what Eisenhower was saying about the dangers of the military-industrial complex in this country. I believe strongly in everyone’s right to defend themselves by every means necessary.”
Yet neither his words, nor those of Big Boi or Bono, will probably alter the way their songs are perceived. Once a record is released into the world, the audience has a right not only to embrace or reject it but also to decide what it means.