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Thursday, May 4, 2006

The Most Controversial Blog Post Ever
Neil Young's new album, "Living with War," is an incendiary, moving, totally American document of peaceful protest that is going to make a lot of people crazy one way or another.

And there's no doubt that the centerpiece of the album, a song called "Let's Impeach the President," performed as a melodic, rocking campfire ode, will be what causes the most controversy.

(credit Fox)

Whatever the musical qualities of Neil Young's new album, it is almost certainly this: the least controversial record you will hear this year. In fact, it might be the least controversial record of all-time.

The vague concept of controversy likely had its peak when OJ Simpson was unsuccessfully accused of killing those two people. That was controversial. A celebrated football player with a promising comedic acting career, two grisly murders, a highway chase conducted at a reasonable speed, a racist cop, questionable science, the Dancing Itos and a wacky roommate. Regular people actually felt very passionately about this stuff. When the verdict was announced you were either over-joyed or totally pissed. There was no in between. You were not allowed to be indifferent.

Since then, thanks to the Internet and Nancy Grace, controversy has slowly lost all meaning.

Everything is controversial now. Jack White's ad for Coca-Cola. Hawaii's gas price-cap law. The judgment of a replacement umpire in Toledo. The sculpture of Kate Moss practicing yoga. The movie about the plane that passengers forced to crash on Sept. 11. And, of course, tomorrow's town meeting in Eastham, Massachusetts.

Of course, if everything is controversial, nothing is controversial. Identifying these things as controversial suggests that people are deeply split over their respective value. This is not generally true. Few people outside the clubhouse of the Toldeo Mud Hens are particularly distraught over the ruling of a replacement umpire in a recent game. Absolutely no one, not even Kate Moss, cares about a sculpture of the professional drug addict practicing yoga. These things are, at most, contested. Or disputed. Or merely interesting.

Now, the War in Iraq is actually controversial. Almost as much so as the time OJ didn't kill anybody. It, in fact, is the sort of thing for which the word controversial should be reserved. There have been public protests, presentations before the United Nations and even a Presidential election conducted on its merits.

But - and this is an important distinction to make - criticism of the War in Iraq and/or the President who led his nation into it, is not actually controversial. In fact, it's rather mundane.

According to an informal survey, approximately 3,982 records have been released since Sept. 2001, criticizing the President of the United States, the War on Terror and/or the War in Iraq. Several editorialists on television and in print have followed suit with dissenting opinions. Even Comedy Central has gone so far as to green light a program - working title: The Daily Show - dedicated entirely to criticism of the operation and its authors. At last count approximately two-thirds of those Americans who were bored enough to speak with a pollster agreed that the President of the United States was doing a rather poor job. Unless you are among the descendents of Samuel Prescott Bush, it is nearly impossible to go a day without hearing some criticism of America's latest adventure in democracy spreading.

None of Neil Young's relatives have yet invited me into their cars to listen to Young's new record. But I'm fairly certain I understand the gist. I also imagine that Neil considers his latest work among his most important and bold to date. It might eventually prove to be the first, but it is almost definitely not the second. In fact, it might be the safest record he's ever made.

Controversial would have been a sympathetic record written from the perspective of Mohammad Atta. Or a hit single about abortion (even if Ben Folds beat you to it). If 50 Cent announced his homosexuality and then released a single defending hip-hop's homophobia, that would probably be controversial. If Kanye West released a record exploring man's inherent racism, with each song built on a sample of a Wagner recording, that would count too.

A major artist at the peak of his popularity going on national television during a period of profound national crisis and calling the president a racist? Controversial. An aging rock star well past his commercial prime recording an album that only repeats what 338 leading historians have already argued? Not even all that newsworthy.

If Neil Young was really interested in making a statement he would perform naked for the duration of his next tour, hoping to demonstrate that old people are physically beautiful too. Or use his new album to lay out a specific alternative vision for America which he could then loan to the Democratic Party.

If he was feeling particularly heroic, he could even help OJ find the real killer. At this point it's arguably as interesting a pursuit.

***

Pearl Jam won't get half the credit (because, first, they're not important like Neil Young and, second, they're not Nirvana), but their record says all the same stuff with just as much rock and twice the eloquence. Young's Living with War is, for the most part, a blog post put to music. Someday this will surely be used to explain its enduring relevance.

***

Fun with hypotheticals: Imagine Johnny Cash was still alive and did exactly the same thing Young has done and the resulting record was of exactly the same quality. Only difference - Cash's record was a spirited and rousing defence of George W. Bush's vision for America. Would that record have received a 7.6 from Pitchfork?

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