Antiwar anthems battling for attention

— The growing antiwar songbook in 2003 raises some intriguing questions about protest-as-pop: Can Madonna's "American Life" add to her list of hits? Can John Mellencamp's "To Washington" capitalize its message on U.S. radio? And do the Beastie Boys really think President Bush and Saddam Hussein have partied together?

Some answers to the first two queries should present themselves in the next week. As for the third, the Beastie Boys advise the two world leaders to "kick it like back in the day/With the cocaine and the Courvoisier." The line is a goof, but the song, posted last week as a free download on the group's Web site, is serious. "This is a statement against an unjustified war," Beastie member Adam Horovitz states on the site.

But to John Ivey, vice president of programming for Clear Channel's cluster of L.A. radio stations, the song is also a little ragged. "It sounds like something they threw together," he said.

Ivey also says there is a hesitation by radio to bank on songs that take a stand on a war in Iraq. "You take them, pro or con, on a case-by-case basis," he said, "but I don't think anybody is looking to fill up the airwaves with songs about the war."

This week, Mellencamp hopes to buck that with "To Washington," a folk song that bitterly disparages Bush and his policies. Some lyrics: "What is the thought process to take a human's life?/What would be the reason to think that this is right?"

Mellencamp will perform the song on television Wednesday night on "Late Show with David Letterman." The song was also sent late last week to U.S. radio programmers. Ivey doubts many will embrace it.

Ivey does, however, hear one hit in the activist group. "I've heard the Madonna song, and it's left of center, because that's what she has shown she has liked to do, but it's also a great Madonna track. She's such a staple of pop radio."

"American Life" is for sale this week on her Web site for $1.49 and will be e-mailed to U.S. fans next Monday.

A video is coming in April too. There's buzz that it is jolting. Could an especially incendiary video hurt the song's mass appeal on radio? "Well, if it's too controversial, VH1 and the stations won't touch it," Ivey says. "It might not get aired at all."

Leave it to Madonna to figure out how to produce a political statement and a radio hit.


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