Where have all the anthems gone?
In times of war, tragedy and turmoil, many hit songs have eloquently expressed a collective angst. But even though Hurricane Katrina has inspired several musical efforts, it seems doubtful this disaster of huge social and political implications will provoke something that transcends entertainment to capture the spirit of the country -- let alone the world.
"I don't know if anybody wants to mix their politics with their entertainment," singer-songwriter Fiona Apple said in a recent interview. "I can't think about anybody outside of country music that's even attempted to do an anthem-type song that's reflective of what's going on," she said.
Once upon a time, it was almost expected that musicians would opine on the world.
Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" touched on the tumult of the civil rights era; Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" spoke to the social upheaval of the 1970s; 1985's star-studded "We Are the World" addressed the heartbreaking starvation of millions in Somalia.
"They are songs that probe," says veteran rock journalist Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. "They're not position papers. They're statements about the human condition in a way. . . . It captures something beyond 'I'm right and you're wrong.' "
Not only were those songs important political or social statements, they were also major hits.
Flash forward to today: Most pop songs are about love, partying or relationship drama.
DeCurtis says the public has become so fragmented, it's difficult for one song to unite people: "Who's going to do it? Who has the authority to kind of step into that role and speak for everybody?"
Not that all artists are avoiding meaningful music. Green Day's multiplatinum rock opera "American Idiot" centers on the band's opposition to the war. Barbra Streisand's new "Stranger in a Strange Land" is about a soldier. And after 9/11, a few related songs permeated the airwaves, most notably Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" and Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising."
On his Web site, Prince had a Katrina song, "S.S.T.," and Stevie Wonder recently debuted "Shelter in the Rain," with all royalties going to Katrina relief. James Taylor is helping raise funds through song. And Michael Jackson is aiming to write another "We Are the World" for Katrina victims with an all-star lineup (though exactly who will or won't participate is unclear). Producer-rapper Timbaland, who has been active in the relief effort, and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons have both said they plan to do albums that will raise money for victims.
But those are the exceptions, not the rule.
Streisand says some artists may be reluctant to put social issues in their music because it might cost them fans instead of adding new ones.
"I can only think of fear," she said. "I really don't know. Maybe it will stop their sales, or they'll think people won't buy their records. I don't think that way."