If sung ironically, Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" might make an effective protest song akin to those on Sleater-Kinney's recent album One Beat (Kill Rock Stars). Like the Clash albums it draws inspiration from, One Beat is ideologically nonconformist and musically adventurous. It expresses the familiar post-9/11 sadness, but also rails against civil-liberties infractions, joining Public Enemy in the small group of doggedly antiwar attaxploitation artists. Sleater-Kinney's lyrics sometimes suffer from the stiltedness common to agitpop. ("But are we innocent, paragons of good?/Is our guilt erased by the pain that we've endured?" Those are good questions, and bad lyrics.) But their polemics are tempered by lyrical and vocal playfulness as well as the band's precise, galvanizing sonic wallop. Especially effective is "Step Aside," in which singer Corin Tucker sets up her soapbox ("disassemble your discrimination!") on a wonderfully imagined Sixties dance floor, punctuating the activism with loopy jive ("shake a tail for peace and love") like a politicized but just as fun Martha Reeves.
Some pundits have complained that 9/11 songs arrived too soon. But reflecting the culture and the political climate is one of the things songwriters do: Thank goodness the job doesn't belong just to editorialists but also to senescent rockers, cowboy crooners, and punk-rock housewives. If anything, it's too soon for pop to ignore 9/11. Sure, great music doesn't require profundity or timeliness. But non-country radio's obliviousness has been vexing this past year, especially as the chasm between its business-as-usual frivolity and the severity of current events becomes particularly pronounced.
The best 9/11 songs are both easy and risky: They grab attention and drive sales, but in doing so, they also expose their authors as saps or dissenters. In attaxploitation's drive to exceed the self and reach out to the listener, the genre sacrifices art-for-art's-sake pretense for magnanimity and civic engagement. And that ought to be a lot closer to the American way than Toby Keith's giddy ass kicking.