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Masters of War

It's time to place rap duo OutKast’s Bombs Over Baghdad alongside Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Bob Dylan’s Masters...

Written by ROBERT HILBURN |
April 16, 2003

It’s time to place rap duo OutKast’s Bombs Over Baghdad alongside Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA and Bob Dylan’s Masters of War as examples of how pop songs can assume a dramatic life of their own. OutKast’s Big Boi was more than a little surprised when tennis pro Jennifer Capriati requested recently that Bombs be played as a sign of support for the troops in Iraq as she took the court for a match. He watched with equal interest a few days later as radio stations started playing the record in the same Iraq context and some US troops reportedly sang the song while going into battle.

To most people outside rap circles, all of it made perfect sense. On top of one of the most deliciously dynamic hip-hop beats since Dr. Dre’s teaming a decade ago with Tupac Shakur on California Love, the chorus sounds like an Iraq battle cry: Bombs over Baghdad/Don’t even bang unless you plan to hit something/Bombs over Baghdad. The problem is Big Boi was opposed to the US invading Iraq without UN support and he never intended the song as a pro-war exercise.

At a time when some country music fans are protesting Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks for making derogatory remarks about President Bush, Big Boi was in the unusual position of being an artist who could have objected to pro-war forces using the song improperly. But the veteran rapper has long understood that artists can’t control how the public responds to their work. ‘‘We make a record and then it is up to people to take what they want from it,’’ he said. ‘‘Fans know where we stand pretty much. “

Big Boi, who is joined in OutKast by Andre 3000 (Andre Benjamin), saw what he felt was half-hearted US bombing raids on Iraq in the 1990s as an analogy for a lack of dedication among many artists in the music business. ‘‘There were lots of people making music, but there was nothing real about it,’’ he says. ‘‘We were like saying, make music that has something to say or just get out of the way.’’

The song first appeared in 2000 on the duo’s Stankonia album, which won a Grammy nomination for best album.

Along with many superior artists, U2’s Bono says he is attracted to music, like much of Dylan’s, that leaves room for the listener to fill in the blanks. ‘‘I didn’t grow up in the tradition of pop songwriters who feel it is essential to make everything clear to the listener,’’ he once said.

What Dylan fan hasn’t scratched his head over such lines as There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all from 1965’s marvellous Love Minus Zero/No Limit.

Here are some of the most songs that have taken on new lives over the years:

Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land. Written more than a half-century ago as an angry response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which Guthrie felt was far too rosy a picture of the country. The stinging, protest verse, however, is rarely heard: In the squares of the city/In the shadow of the steeple/Near the relief office/I see my people/And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’/If this land’s still made for you and me.

Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA the 1984 composition, with its rousing chorus, is played everywhere as a proud symbol of American determination and pride. Springsteen, however, meant the song to be a hard look at the American fiber. He stressed that side of it during his 1995 The Ghost of Tom Joad tour with a stark, arrangement that made the song a harrowing reminder of the Vietnam experience.

In the context, you couldn’t escape the unsettling imagery of U2’s One. Bono was surprised to learn in 1993 that this haunting ballad was played by LA radio stations during the tumult following the Rodney King beating verdict. ‘‘I never saw the song as something hopeful or comforting,’’ he said, ‘‘to me, it was a very bitter song. It’s a reminder that we have no choice.’’

Bob Dylan’s Masters of War has been embraced by anti-war groups from the moment it appeared in 1963: Like Judas of old/You lie and deceive/A world war can be won/You want me to believe. ‘‘There’s no antiwar sentiment in that song,’’ he said in 2001. ‘‘I’m not a pacifist. I believe strongly in everyone’s right to defend themselves by every means strongly.’’ (LAT-WP)

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