(UMCom)—As far back as the 1920s, popular music catered to a generation in youthful rebellion. That wasn’t viewed much as a social threat, however, until the mid-1950s, when sexually-charged performers like Elvis and Little Richard and charismatic actors like Marlon Brando began to represent the possibility of revolt. In the film The Wild Ones, Brando’s leather-clad biker character is asked what he’s rebelling against. His response –"Whatta ya got?" – suggests only a vague, open-ended discontent rather than an informed agenda, yet Brando’s casual delivery of the line made it seductively winning to many youth.
Such has been the nature of youth culture ever since. And while the protest music of the ’60s and ’70s made some legitimate points, mainstream rock’s validity as a social force has been increasingly diffused by an ever-increasing tendency to put style before substance. (Witness, for example, the subjugation of The Beatles’ "Revolution" and The Who’s "Won’t Get Fooled Again" into corporate ad jingles.) The romantic glamour of the would-be revolutionary, however well it may play on arena stages and IMAX screens, feeds the notion that rock stars have the answers to society’s ills, whether or not they happen to hold informed opinions. In an image-driven culture, a bearded and beret-topped Che Guevara cuts a much hipper figure than, say, Ronald Reagan, regardless of whether his ideas are actually sound.
Spitting at the political system in power has become a time-honored tradition in rock music. At its worst, though, the practice is a cheap and covert way to latch onto the lapels of youths who are drawn to rock’s promise of power, however fleeting or illusory. For this reason, it is prudent to consider politically motivated recordings like A Perfect Circle’s eMOTIVe with a degree of skepticism. Even if the album’s release date – election day in the U.S. – and the front cover’s peace symbol-in-decay aren’t the contrivances they appear to be, the music itself reveals much of the shallow posturing that has diminished pop music’s power to impact society.
Guitarist Billy Howerdel and sometime Tool vocalist Maynard James Keenan have collected socially and politically conscious songs ranging from Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Goin’ On" to Devo’s culture-skewering "Freedom Of Choice" and presented them as disturbing soundscapes almost bereft of melodic content or resemblance to the originals. With only a few exceptions, the arrangements here avoid the abrasive quality of much modern rock, opting for a ghostly, bloodless sound that is less emotional than melodramatic. The lyrics to "Annihilation," whispered in a sinister tone over a toy piano-adorned drone, advocate that we "reject the system dictating the norms from dehumanization to arms production to hasten the nation towards its destruction." The band’s own "Counting Bodies Like Sheep To The Rhythm Of War Drums," coupled with the modified World War II-era posters in the CD booklet, examines the fear of being lulled into false complacency: "Step away from the window, go back to sleep/safe from pain and truth and choice and other poison devils." This concern is understandable, coming from a generation that doubts its elders during a time of widespread unrest. Still, the dour and cynical tone that dominates the disc minimizes any underlying outcry and thoroughly disqualifies rehashed ’70s sentiments like "Only love can conquer hate" and "What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding."
Ultimately, it isn’t the brief obscenity contained within that should alarm most parents. Instead, it’s the unrelenting hopelessness embodied in the record’s android-like strains, despite any lyrical assertions to the contrary (such as those in Depeche Mode’s anti-hate anthem "People Are People"). The nightmarish musical contexts that house even the most well-intentioned thoughts make this collection hard to accept as little more than an unproductive and conceptually flawed swipe at the powers that be, both worldly and, by implication, spiritual. When A Perfect Circle reprise John Lennon’s lyric "Imagine there’s no Heaven," their dirge-like interpretation of the song requires little imagination to achieve that mental picture. Indeed, throughout eMOTIVe they’ve succeeded in conjuring, if only sonically, a world altogether lacking in redemptive spiritual power, which is arguably more frightening than the international chaos they seek to address here.
Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.