A Digital Stage Dive

In May, 61-year-old rock star Neil Young gave the world a preview of how popular culture and politics can interact in the 21st century.

By now, most readers know about Living With War, Young’s new album of grungy, anti-Bush agitprop recorded in less than a month and unveiled instantly on the Internet. For a few weeks this spring, Living With War saturated the media atmosphere—from The New York Times to NPR and E! Entertainment Television. The lead of all the stories was Young’s song “Let’s Impeach the President,” an eminently hummable, bitterly funny, and deadly serious bill of indictment that leaves no room for misinterpretation. The album contains several equally blunt musical instruments—including songs titled “Shock and Awe” and “Lookin’ for a Leader”—alongside more up-close and personal glimpses of life during wartime in “Families” and “Flags of Freedom.” The album also features Young’s roaring, distorted electric guitar over tub-thumping bass and drums, with the occasional martial flavor of a solo trumpet (which breaks into a few notes of “Taps” at the start of “Let’s Impeach the President”).

For 36 years, Young has been the Jekyll and Hyde of rock. Dr. Jekyll is introspective and acoustic, a sensitive soul who makes albums such as Harvest, Comes A Time, and last year’s Prairie Wind. Mr. Hyde is a quasi-metal rocker who turns out demented slabs of feedback such as After the Gold Rush, Rust Never Sleeps, and Ragged Glory. I can’t imagine anyone except Young could love them all equally.

I’m with Mr. Hyde myself, so I find Living With War to be Young’s most musically interesting work in a decade. Dr. Jekyll fans may beg to differ. But in either case, the way Young has launched this musical mortar into the pop cultural arena is at least as interesting as the noise it makes.

THE SONGS WERE done in a rush. According to the album Web site, three of them were written and recorded in a single, long day. They have a ripped-from-the-headlines sense of immediacy and a just-learned-the-chord-change sense of musical spontaneity. The sense of urgency about the album was heightened when Young leaked it on his Web site. First there was an announcement, accompanied by the song lyrics, all in a CNN-style crawl across the screen. Two days later the entire album appeared on the site, for free, as streaming audio. The only trick was that you had to run the entire album from beginning to end—you couldn’t just go straight to “Let’s Impeach the President” (which is in the middle of the album). A few days after that, the collection and its individual tracks were for sale as digital downloads at online music stores. A week later, the actual discs appeared in record stores. Young’s Web site also set up a blog with links to stories about the album and Young’s diary from the media trenches.

This “new media” strategy worked on a few levels. The novelty made it news. Young’s age made that angle even more interesting, as did the fact that he had done the analog version in 1970 when he rushed the single of “Ohio” into stores less than two weeks after the Kent State massacre that inspired it. Living With War’s Internet release also reopened the channel between artist and audience, which is where the lifeblood of rock and roll has always flowed. It was the digital equivalent of a stage dive, or of passing the guitar into the audience. It said to the audience, “I trust you with this. Do something with it.” In the process, Young also tapped into rock and roll’s (admittedly dormant) ability to make cultural mischief and afflict the comfortable.

Did Young lose some sales by streaming the whole album? Not many. Streaming the entire album put off the merely curious, while anyone who really cares about the music will want to be able to carry it around with them, and select and repeat tracks.

There are still a lot of kinks to work out in the relationship between art, commerce, and politics on the World Wide Web. But in the past few months, Young has moved the process forward significantly. Let’s see what the next generation can do.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor and author of Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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