David Browne
May 07, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

As we’ve learned, the White House is not particularly fond of Iraq-Vietnam comparisons. But whether they like it or not, here’s another one: For the first time since the messy conflict in Southeast Asia, the old-fashioned protest song — a genre once considered a relic of another era — is staging a comeback.

On EW’s website a year and a half ago, I lamented the dearth of topical tunes, a long-standing rock & roll tradition, in the wake of the clear-cut buildup to war. Granted, the Iraq invasion hadn’t yet begun, but the silence from the pop, rock, and hip-hop community was disquieting. By that point, all we’d heard on the music front were jingoistic anthems by country acts (Toby Keith, Darryl Worley, and so forth) and ambiguous, semipatriotic singles from Paul McCartney and Neil Young. I wondered if the antinuke tunes of the Reagan era (by everyone from Sting to Nena) would be the last we would hear of politics in pop.

One battlefront and many bleak and grisly news reports later, the response from the music community has dramatically spiked. Reflecting how the complex emotions brought on by the terrorist attacks have given way (for many people) to even more tangled feelings about involvement in actual combat, pro-war (or blatantly pro-America) songs have all but disappeared. Suddenly, musicians have awakened to the idea of weighing in on the war, the government, and related issues. It’s now possible to hear antiwar sentiments in everything from folk (Loudon Wainwright III’s ”Presidents’ Day”) to alt-bluegrass (the Mammals’ ”The Bush Boys”) to prog-punk (Decahedron’s ”Not These Homes,” from Disconnection_Imminent, an album-length meditation on war and media).

In the last few months alone, I’ve heard a slew of striking, agitated opposition songs, including OutKast’s ”War,” Prince’s ”Cinnamon Girl” (”…the mass illusion, war-on-terror alibi/What’s the use when the god of confusion keeps on telling the same lie?”), and the assaultive title track of Bad Religion’s upcoming The Empire Strikes First (the best of the punk lot, which also includes contributions from Pennywise and NOFX). Although it only hints at the topic, the Get Up Kids’ galloping ”Lion and the Lamb” (with its references to fighting for oil) is a standout on the new Rock Against Bush Vol. 1 compilation, only some of which is explicitly political.

Just as in the ’60s, though, when the best political missives involved more than rhyming ”war” with ”no more,” the songs vary in tone and quality. Some, like R.E.M.’s ”The Final Straw” and Green Day’s ”Life During Wartime” (both briefly available online), are a little too elliptical; Willie Nelson’s ”Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth” (”How much oil is one human life worth?”) is a tad threadbare in the melody department; and Patti Smith’s ”Radio Baghdad” is well-intentioned, but its drony free verse (not to mention its 12-minute length) isn’t likely to convert anyone. I never thought I’d say this, but I actually prefer a song by the often embarrassingly retro Lenny Kravitz — the online-only ”We Want Peace,” whose Arabic-style chant compensates for lyrics like ”Why are we kicking our own ass?”

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