AS I'M SURE you realize, the two most important issues facing the nation are whether narsty pop culture is rotting our children's morals and whether we're executing bad guys quickly enough. With George W. Bush napping in the White House, the first task will surely be embarked upon with occasional flourishes of executive rhetoric, and regular froth-spewing from Second Lady Lynne Cheney. Bush spent much of the campaign trying to distance himself from Texas's giddy stance on execution: The good governor has presided over 146 executions since 1995, 33 of them this year. It seems likely that given a chance in the next month, he will sign off on the killing of Johnny Paul Penry, the Texas murderer with an IQ of 56, whose case is now up for Supreme Court review.
Given this bent, you might wonder how the Empty Suit in Chief-elect must perceive the jury's verdict regarding the Robin Hood Hills child murders. In 1993 three grade school boys were butchered and discovered on a creek bed. After a long, fruitless search for evidence and/or suspects, police extracted a confession from Jessie Misskelly, a teen with an IQ of 72. Misskelly implicated classmates Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, two local teenage misfits who, the prosecution carefully pointed out, listened to Metallica and wore black clothes. Echols was even (gasp!) a practicing Wiccan. Though Misskelly later recanted his confession and refused to testify against the others, all three were convicted, largely on the flimsy evidence of their tastes in clothing and music. Echols was sentenced to death.
Check out Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's documentary films Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2 for a fuller, if perhaps slightly skewed, version of this story. Sinofsky does an excellent job of showing the role small-town prejudice played in convicting this trio of weirdoes, although his attempt to finger John Mark Byers, the father of one of the murdered boys, is slightly less convincing.
But you don't have to believe the Byers angle--hell, you don't even have to believe the three are innocent--to dig Free the West Memphis 3 (Koch), a recent benefit comp that pulls off the neat trick of transforming politics into art without cheapening either. Granted, the results are more palatable to your average rock critic than they would be to the Echols/Baldwin/Misskelly who happens to be stumbling toward adulthood in your own hometown. If the kids who turn out to see Insane Clown Posse at Roy Wilkins this week show up early enough, they likely won't be converted by smirky scrunge-rock openers Nashville Pussy: No matter how reverential the band's cover of "Highway to Hell" on West Memphis 3 may be, every junior metalhead can tell it from AC/DC in six bars; just as he is sure to spot the difference between a Pantera track and the Kelley Deal cover of Pantera we get here.
But there's a resistance to conformity on this album more far-reaching than is at the disposal of your average picked-on, underage 93X listener. Consider the swift defiance of Rocket From the Crypt's "Wrong and Important"; or the indomitable L7's "Boys in Black" ("Get the freaks/Get the dirty, dirty freaks, yeah"). Even dear, loopy Joe Strummer's touchingly irrelevant "The Harder They Fall" is forgivable in this context. And the Supersuckers' "Heavy Heart" presents a far more realistic snapshot of teen degradation ("like a waterlogged ball/That no one wants to kick around anymore") than your typical Marilyn Manson fantasy. In the end, the collection sounds like a gaggle of wise older brothers and sisters talking to any kid still trapped in the constrictions of adolescence, passing the word that speed and humor and rhythm are better means of resistance than the sluggish pomp and gothic resignation and power fantasies of most metal.
All that said, Steve Earle's chilly leadoff track, "The Truth," is the masterstroke here. Earle's prison psychodrama examines the parallel between the prisoner and the guard: The former exclaims, "What scares you is the me in you." Far from Jagger's snide "just as every cop is a criminal" on "Sympathy for the Devil," Earle's song is a critique of a culture that's quick to designate "evil" as Other, something out there. This is the way, the song hints, that society generates scapegoats to assuage its conscience.
Rather than serving as an idealized mirror of our liberal, decent selves, the best rock--the best art, period--generally acknowledges the complex, often violent impulses inside us. Most of the music that's been pilloried in public in recent years voices the subconscious desires that kids know are "wrong," but feel regardless. So along comes music--from Korn to Eminem--that tells them that they aren't freaks for feeling these "gross," "antisocial," human impulses, that everyone entertains "wrong" thoughts. And along come deluded, adult culture police to insist the opposite.
If Eminem records have the power to transform our children into blood-dribbling, mom-shtupping homophobes, then the children who've already been exposed must be tainted. They're capable of anything; they should be quarantined. Makes you wonder--maybe the real target isn't the music itself but the "deviants" who listen to it.