War Rages On in Music Lyrics

The answer, my friend, is in the record sales.

Americans are passionate about the War on Terror, and their involvement is reflected in the Billboard Top 200, where politically charged albums have been top sellers in recent weeks.

System of a Down's (search) "Mezmerize," an album peppered with anti-war sentiment, topped the sales charts with 453,000 albums sold in its debut week last month. Unabashedly patriotic Toby Keith's (search) offering, "Honkytonk University," while less political and more personal than his previous recordings, debuted in the same week and came in second with 283,000 copies sold.

Politically-tinged albums from Nine Inch Nails (search), Bruce Springsteen (search) and Dave Matthews Band (search) also hit No. 1 last month.

But are these albums selling because of their politics, or their musical mettle?

Casey Seiler, entertainment editor of Albany's Times Union newspaper, thinks that when it comes to popular music, it's more about proper packaging of a message than the message itself.

"You can have a great message and deeply felt political beliefs, and if you can't put it into a 3 1/2 minute song, it's not going anywhere," he said.

"The big casino is an artist who is able to find a mass audience and then bring along a complex, deeply held way of looking at the world, which is what politics is in its core. That's when you're really playing the big game," Seiler added, citing recent releases by Springsteen, whose "Devils & Dust" debuted at No. 1 in May, and Green Day (search), which debuted at No. 1 with "American Idiot" in October.

Green Day, the band formerly known for its adolescent apathy, recently took a left turn on the political highway, using their most recent album to take digs at President Bush.

"Reality television meets news and war ... tanks going into Baghdad with splashes of Viagra commercials in between. I was just so confused about what was going on. It comes from that standpoint," Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong said in an Associated Press interview.

Along with Springsteen, R.E.M. and other musicians, Dave Matthews Band embarked on the Vote for Change tour in support of Sen. John Kerry's bid to unseat Bush. Its new album, "Stand Up," features a song about getting on with life after Sept. 11. And the album's first single, "American Baby," urges the United States to return to what made the country great in the first place.

"I wasn't editing myself, and I didn't go into writing the lyrics for this album with any kind of agenda, but it's on my mind, and I wish it was on more people's minds, that this country, from town to town, is very divided now," Dave Matthews said in an MTV interview.

Nine Inch Nails' fourth studio album and first in six years, "With Teeth," also debuted last month at No. 1 in sales; songs like "The Hand That Feeds" feature anti-war lyrics like: "What if this whole crusade's a charade/ And behind it all there's a price to be paid/ For the blood on which we dine/ Justified in the name of the holy and the divine."

Nine Inch Nails even scuffled with MTV recently over a picture of Bush it wanted to show during a performance at the network's movie awards last Saturday (MTV nixed the idea and NIN dropped out of the event.)

Keith, on the other hand, appeals to the other universe of political beliefs. His lyrics often teem with flag-waving American pride and support for the military.

At the recent 40th annual Academy of Country Music Awards, a camouflage-clad Keith performed "As Good as I Once Was" for a crowd of clapping U.S. troops in Iraq, saying "Welcome to honky-tonk university, y'all. We're in Baghdad."

And while they may not be on the best-seller lists (yet), other artists are trying to get their position on the war known.

Singer-songwriter Paulette Carlson (search), the former lead singer of the group Highway 101, returned to Nashville six weeks ago to record the song, "Thank You Vets."

Carlson said the inspiration for her song was her brother Gary, a Vietnam veteran now suffering a debilitating illness contracted during his tour of duty; the song will open the Operation Homecoming USA concert in Branson, Mo., on June 13.

"It's the national homecoming we never gave our Vietnam vets," she said of the concert.

In a similar vein, country music artist Charlie Daniels (search), fresh off a tour of Iraq, has been playing free concerts for soldiers here and overseas.

"I'm a big supporter of the military," Daniels said recently. "I can't carry a rifle, but I can carry a guitar and a fiddle."

Daniels is known for his song "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag," which became a country hit after Sept. 11.

As far as music sales go though, experts say it's more about the quality than politics.

System of a Down, known for their boundary-free musical experimentation and erratic heavy metal sound, has earned remarkable reviews alongside its chart-topping numbers.

Newsday's Glenn Gamboa called "Mezmerize" "one of the most inventive, unique albums in years," while Rolling Stone's David Fricke dubbed the album a "thrilling confrontation, a graphic reflection of a nation tearing itself apart in anger, fear and guilt."

Shock value also adds allure, according to Andrew Katchen, a freelance music writer for the New York Daily News.

"I imagine when a kid sees a band [System of a Down] on 'Saturday Night Live' scream swear-words loudly into the camera, they'll go out and get that record. I know I would," said Katchen.

System guitarist Daron Malakian snuck an F-bomb through the live broadcast during a May performance.

"Also, they sound completely insane, and that's a princely quality to their target demographic [angsty teens and young adults]," Katchen added.

Indeed, System's members hesitate to attribute their success to their politics.

"We do say things that are on our minds, but most of what we say is from a social perspective more than a political perspective," singer Serj Tankian said in an AP interview. "Even though we have things that we touch upon, you know, social issues or political issues, it's a small percentage of what we do, compared to personal narratives, songs about life, theories, sex, humor."

Keith also embraces Tankian's disdain for being labeled a political artist, though he's learned to accept it.

"I get brushed with this big, gigantic red, white and blue brush. But I don't mind," Keith said during an AP interview. "I look good in red, white and blue."

That these artists from both sides of the political aisle are selling well shouldn't really come as a surprise; a look back at the charts of the 1960s will uncover innumerable Vietnam War-inspired songs.

But Seiler still thinks it's more about the music.

"Do we still listen to songs like (Bob Dylan's) 'Blowin' In The Wind' because they crystallize a political moment, or because they have great riffs, lovely melodies and wonderful vocals?" he asked.