|DIME STORE BEATS? THRIFT STORE RHYMES? THE BEASTIE BOYS' SLAPDASH ANTI-WAR ANTHEM.|
|By Tim Grierson||
As always, when you need perceptive music criticism, look no further than the people at Clear Channel.
Asked his opinion on the Beastie Boys' anti-war song, "In a World Gone Mad," John Ivey, vice president of programming for the conglomerate's myriad Los Angeles radio stations, offered this: "It sounds like something they threw together." (You can hear that song and read the lyrics for free, at BeastieBoys.com.)
Clear Channel is an evil, lowest-common-denominator tastemaker, but Ivey, like it or not, has a point. "In a World Gone Mad" carries the same goofy, funky bounce that was evident on the Boys' last album, Hello Nasty. Lyrically, the song tries to balance cheekiness with serious themes. Ultimately, it suffers from the same sort of knee-jerk reactionary awkwardness that hurts most any protest song. It won't make you wince like "Let's Roll" or "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue." But six months from now -- you know, around the time when we're takin' on North Korea -- you'll have as hard a time remembering it as you do that Gulf War ballad with Will Smith on it. ("Gulf War ballad? Will Smith?" Exactly.)
"In a World Gone Mad" is a very good rough draft, but -- yes, Ivey -- it sounds like they threw it together.
By now, the Beastie bio is well known. They start off as snot-nosed little brats, screaming and screwing and drinking and drugging. Along the way, they grow up, get socially conscious, support the freedom of Tibet, become role models for Successful Artists With Brains. But they've been better spokesmen as activists, not as songmakers or beatmakers or hipshakers. Less you forget, Ill Communication ran aground with its calls for spiritual unity and peaceful living. Hey, we need these messages -- especially from a group who could potentially penetrate Clear Channel's narrow niche of "popular" -- but Mike D, MCA, and Ad-Rock dampen their smart-ass talents when they get too sincere. (I mean, they go by their real names most of the time now.) In contrast, a classic like "Egg Man" or "Sure Shot" brings the white-boy funk while peppering the raps with attacks on racism and sexism. Subtle, shrewd, and under the radar -- the best ways to smack an unsuspecting audience with your views.
Good intentions are fine in message songs, but good hooks are much preferable. Tom Petty is affected by the L.A. riots, and so he open-heartedly writes "Peace in L.A.," easily the worst moment of his career, tuneless and clueless. ("Don't be a fool/Stay cool" does nothing to ease racial tension or economic disparity, Tom.) Neil Young is touched by the heroism of the passengers on Flight 93 who crashed their plane rather than let their captors use it for terrorism; "Let's Roll" is the disfiguringly terrible song that results, a thud with a bad riff. Despite its shortcomings, "In a World Gone Mad" rises above these fiascoes, even if it doesn't go the distance.
The song charms on contact. Its dance-floor fun, its jittery rhythm, its catchy beat, those three wonderfully mature loonies behind the mic -- everything is in its right place. Frankly, it's a huge relief to discover how loose, how thrown together, "In a World Gone Mad" feels. Read too many stories about one more important pop figure weighing in on the war with Iraq -- here a Mellencamp, there a Madonna, everywhere a country-music bozo -- and you just assume the worst. Whether they're for the war or against it, most musicians are incapable of giving us four minutes of balanced, forceful argument on demand. (Hell, most of 'em can barely come up with a halfway decent soundtrack contribution when the stakes are much, much lower.) And perhaps that's the saving grace of the Beastie Boys' contribution. Aside from a couple wince-worthy moments, they say their piece, show you a good time, and quietly slip away.
Addressing the Iraq war dead-on, the Boys don't get strident or pompous. They sound like the generational spokesmen they know they are, the hip older brother of rap-rock, reformed but still cool. Long ago abandoning the back-and-forth wizardry of Paul's Boutique, each Beastie gets off some good rhymes. I particularly love how Mike D redeems the niceties of "Now don't get us wrong, 'cause we love America" with the next line: "But that's no reason to get hysterica." It's one of the few moments where the lyrics' generalities give way to a funny/smart insight. Other than that, we get your typical comments. Politicians are shady, this is a fight over oil, Bush's tough-guy act needs to stop, why invade now, and so on and so on. Then again, the Beasties do try to give these banalities a fresh spin. As far as I know, no one else has drawn the comparison between our current president and Zoolander. And, really, wouldn't we all be curious to see Saddam and W. end their violent ways and just enjoy some cocaine together "like back in the day"?
When the Beasties started out, they shocked you with brash attitude. Nowadays, we savor their veteran leadership; we congratulate them for not letting their gray hairs lead them down the road to utter whackness. But the goofiness of "In a World Gone Mad," while disarming and ingratiating, also undercuts the importance of what these conscientious objectors are trying to say. Neither the disjointed beat nor the lyrical flows offer much urgency. These guys have been defiantly old school for a while now, but in the face of scary current events, there is an undeniably dated feel to these simplistic samples and breakbeats. Let "In a World Gone Mad" spin in the background, and you might think you're just listening to a badly revved-down version of Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome."
This association doesn't flatter the new song. When Chuck D delivered "Terrordome," he was making an incendiary personal statement, fighting to keep his head above the dizzying, scandalous waters trying to pull him under. Even 13 years removed from its debut, the track still rocks your skull, pumps your blood, fires your synapses. So much of Fear of a Black Planet, the album that housed "Terrordome," does the same thing. It echoes the tension of an era while gravely forecasting the racial troubles that lay ahead. It serves as a time capsule in the best sense; it brings a moment of history alive forever.
But, to be fair, Chuck was a genius and a visionary -- destined for a
brief run and an early flameout -- while the Beastie Boys, despite their
antics, were too levelheaded, too well-adjusted not to last. It's made
them very rich and very successful, to be sure, but no one should question
their commendable political stances. And also don't underestimate this
band's appeal: How many more kids will learn about the nagging questions
of this conflict through "In a World Gone Mad" than on Charlie
Rose or in Newsweek? Rather than sitting silently by, the Beastie
Boys responded with feeling and a little humor. Their song far outshines
the earnest country ditties that have already come down the pike since
9/11. It's just a shame that it probably won't be time-capsule worthy
itself. But even if it were, "In a World Gone Mad" wouldn't
be able to dent an administration hell-bent on accomplishing their questionable
objectives in a war that, frighteningly, also seems like something they