The Blog

Stardumb: Beastie Boys

The Boys make a seriously dumb protest song; David Byrne and Jay Z; Eddie Vedder and Sen. John Kerry.

6:00 AM, Apr 4, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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COMEDY, performers tell us, is harder than drama. One reason may be that grimness and weight come more naturally than lightness. To achieve the sour gloom of the dramatic performer, one need only take oneself seriously, which is both easy to do and psychologically gratifying. Take yourself seriously and inside you'll be purring with satisfaction.

Indeed, in our minds' eyes, we easily see ourselves as Marlon Brandos, but only with great effort or inspiration do we see ourselves as Marx Brothers.

The Beastie Boys burst onto the musical scene in the mid '80s loaded with such inspiration. Their Brooklyn burlesque shocked by embracing adolescent vulgarity without hesitation or self-consciousness. It was music for 14-year-olds that seemed to have been made by 14-year-olds--that is, 14-year-olds raised on screwball comedy and dirty jokes. "Man, living at home is such a drag"--the Beasties complained on their hugely successful debut album--"Now your mom threw away your best porno mag."

A heavy dose of raunch, beats so pounding they'd loosen your fillings, rhymes so obvious they were shameless, and a vast musical vocabulary pressed into service via sampling: These were the main elements of the Beastie brand of rap as it barreled past the cheesy lustfulness of tight-pants rock and the morose pondering of new wave to claim ownership of young American ears. The music was simply more fun than anything else around, and it remained so, even as the Beasties matured, developing to where they didn't have to rely on borrowed riffs--a dependency that continues to compromise much of the rest of rap and hip hop.

But now the Boys have decided to be men, serious and outspoken. For years, they've had their pet causes, most prominently freedom in Tibet (as well as the freedom of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal). But in the wake of September 11, an even darker awareness has come to them. They have taken up the antiwar cause. And, as you may already know, they've turned out a protest song.

To put their latest track in context, the Boys post a handful of comments on their website. "A war in Iraq will not resolve our problems," says Adam Yauch (aka MCA), perhaps not realizing that the death of Saddam Hussein and the toppling of his regime will almost certainly lead to a reduction in our Saddam-related problems. "If we are truly striving for safety," he continues, "we need to build friendships, not try to bully the rest of the world."

This suggests war has resulted from insufficient friendliness on the part of the United States. (Now, I don't want you to flinch. Our critics can be our best friends sometimes, so let's consider what Mr. Yauch has to say.) The Beastie Boy is certainly right that we have been quite bellicose of late.

How is it that we haven't found a way to make nice with the Baath regime after twelve years of pointless U.N. interventions and violated resolutions? After the mincemeat Saddam has made of inspections, after the plot to assassinate the first George Bush, after decades of Iraq's pursuing weapons of mass destruction, after decades of the regime torturing, raping, and executing Saddam's opponents, after years in which Iraq has only shown its cooperative spirit to terrorist organizations? How is it that we, the United States, have not overcome these little obstacles? Clearly, we are at fault. There should be a charm school for any nation that displays such antisocial behavior. Thank you for your comments, Mr. Yauch.

The beastly protest song--"In A World Gone Mad," it's called--is the Beastie Boys taking themselves seriously, despite a long and hilarious run that would recommend they do otherwise. Available via free download on their website, it has all the chest-beating of a Beastie classic without any of the redeeming lightness. But not only is it heavy, it is dumb. And worst of all, the protest track is musically banal, its squeaky sound and nervous rhythms a step backwards for these bold musicians.

Not that "In a World Gone Mad" doesn't offer anything new. In it, our rappers, who once routinely sang about the joys of packing heat, say it's "Due time we fight the non-violent fight." The theme of increasing national security through playing well with others is picked up in the first verse, as the Beasties address the president: "You and Saddam should kick it like back in the day / with the cocaine and the Courvoisier / But you build more bombs as you get more bold / As your mid-life crisis war unfolds." Courvoisier? The Beastie Boys used to invent cliches; they should be above such sloppy seconds.