Faded from Memory

Most of us can remember where we were on September 11, 2001. We don't need to rewind the video footage of the World Trade Center collapsing to remind ourselves of how we felt and what we did, specifically, in our initial shock. Although we can recall that dreary day with clarity, as the war against terrorism continues and the body count mounts it has become increasingly difficult for many of us to define our times and our feelings about the post-9/11 sociopolitical landscape.

All we know is that life has somehow changed. We hear warnings, conveniently color-coded by the Department of Homeland Security, so that we are cognizant when there is an "elevated" risk of a terrorist striking. Around us, though, life seems to go on as usual. We still buy our six-packs of beer and our cigarettes, and our SUVs still ramble along the highways.

For artists and musicians turmoil has always sired creation. Salvador Dalí's surrealist paintings were fueled by the Spanish Civil War and the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the Sixties pop culture became counterculture as musicians inspired protests against the Vietnam War through their songs. But as American bombs fell over Baghdad this spring and subsequent reports of car bombs, dead Marines, and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and Iran have filled our headlines (not to mention aggressive domestic initiatives such as the Patriot Act that threaten the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens), pop culture's political statements have proved to be anemic. Madonna made headlines for French-kissing Britney Spears, but she balked at releasing a video for her "American Life" single out of fear that it would be construed as anti-American in a time of hero worship and pariah-bashing. The Dixie Chicks may have garnered attention for speaking out against George W. Bush at a March 10 concert in London, but they didn't follow up with a comparable musical statement for fear of losing their patriotic fans. After all, these were the Dixie Chicks, manufactured record industry sweethearts, not Neil Young or Bono.

Elsten Torres, onetime leader of the now-defunct band Fulano and one of Miami's more socially aware scribes, laments that his peers are balking at an opportunity during these highly charged times to make a statement either in protest or support of the war on terror.

"It's definitely a weird and freaky time," he says. "This war is turning out to be another Vietnam. And we have a responsibility, not as musicians and writers but as human beings and citizens, to express our feelings. I'm not saying that every songwriter should come out and write a political song -- that's not the point -- but to definitely not be afraid to express their feelings."

Torres composes songs for Warner-Chappell Publishing; he has penned numbers for Latin pop stars like Alejandra Guzman, Cristian Castro, and Julio Iglesias, Jr., all of whom are as unlikely to make political statements as Tammy Faye Bakker is to record satanic sing-alongs. Shortly after the WTC attacks he helped organize an October benefit concert in New York to raise money for its victims. Later he wrote an unreleased song, "Hasta Que Regrese," about the loss of a loved one, and has since written others addressing the emotional pain inflicted by this national tragedy. He is currently working on his first solo project and hopes to include a sociopolitical track, but admits that the chances of a big label releasing an album like Marvin Gaye's classic What's Going On, a direct assault on the Vietnam War, in today's world are grim. Still he says that the time is ripe.

"The music industry should open their eyes and really serve a function," he says. "Unfortunately it's become a big, crazy, monster, money-making machine, and a lot of the stuff that's important gets washed out. There's none of that happening and I think that it's a shame that the industry is lost in a pool of making more money for itself."

While gloomy days mean corporate censorship for some, for others it means downsizing. And that's not easy when you're buxom blond bombshell Bambi LaFleur, a lounge-circuit cross between Peggy Lee and Marilyn Monroe with a touch of Jayne Mansfield. After the terrorist attacks LaFleur's world was rocked as one show after another was canceled, a tour through Asia dried up, and she lost an unnamed piano player to the business of "whoring" for another band. Meanwhile clubs were cutting their budgets and professional musicians were being replaced by what she describes as "high school kids who worked for fifty bucks a gig." But she was able to make do by landing a steady job at the Laundry Bar on Miami Beach, where she developed new material for her cabaret act.

"It was an open playground for me to explore and expand," she says. "I didn't make tremendous amounts of money but I worked on getting new fans and becoming more popular."

So far LaFleur's political statements and social commentary have been veiled by dark humor and sarcasm. There's "Double Agent DD," where she sings, "I can hold a missile in my cleavage, secret agents think I'm cute." Another tune, "Money, Who Needs It?" extols the virtue of accumulating debt. "When I die, the more that I owe, the more that I win," she claims. To keep up with the war in Iraq, she's writing a "Saddam Hussein Cha-Cha" that will probably reflect her perception of American foreign policy.

"There's oil [in Iraq], we're Yankee Doodle Dandies, and we want it," she surmises. "I'm glad I live over here. I will drive my car and I will use [Iraqi] oil. I hope that there can be a democracy formed in their country as a result, but I don't think we [invaded] just to be unfriendly. It's a nice thing we did, in the midst of taking their oil, by saying we'll free your people and let your women not have to cover their faces and get shot in the head. I don't think that that was our sole motive, though."

One of the more vocal locals to chime in on the times is Derek Cintron, singer and songwriter for the rock trio DC-3. The vociferous singer takes to his Website (www.dc3.cc) to vent his anger at the terrorists and frustration with the people calling for peace. He has bashed comedian Janeane Garofalo, filmmaker Michael Moore, journalist Peter Arnett, and others for criticizing the Bush administration; and dressed down George W. himself for not acting swiftly enough with the missiles in Kabul and Baghdad. His passion, however, doesn't quite make it into his music. He says he hasn't written a political song about the times, making his message an unlikely one, considering he's a hairy shirtless rock singer in a grungie band.

"Ever since Vietnam it has been standard fare for musicians to be always contra government and contra military engagement," he says. "I'm not a warmonger but I definitely think there's a time and a place for it. When someone kicks you in the nuts you better come back at them with a frickin' bat."

On his Website, though, Cintron advocates the use of bigger weapons such as nuclear bombs to "annihilate" Iraq, Libya, Palestinian territories, and any other place that has been accused of harboring terrorists. "I'd make every city in those backward-ass countries look like Dresden or Hiroshima at the end of WWII," he promises. An earlier post on the one-year anniversary of the attacks opined, "Rational anger is normal, well-adjusted behavior ... and so is revenge." But he's recently curtailed his posts because he felt the screeds were beginning to overshadow his music. He didn't want to be known as "that political guy."

"My friends were asking, 'What do you want DC-3 to be about?'" he says. "'Do you want it to be about your music, or do you want it to be more like Rage Against the Machine, with all these political messages?' Well, that's not our vibe. We may touch on certain things sometimes, but we don't want that to be our primary focus."

One wonders, then, what the purpose of making music is about. Is it just to entertain the masses and get people to sign up to your mailing list? Or is it about self-promotion, as was seen during the recent Miami Music Awards at Barcode in Miami Beach, when speeches by artists were drowned out by raucous chants of record label names for publicity?

The place to find the opinionated and the outspoken seems to be at informal open-mike nights where musicians match wits with spoken-word artists. As a result scenes such as Theater de Underground at Churchill's Pub on Monday nights turn into open forums for political rants. There you will find young musicians like Tom Gorrio belting out their anxieties and outrage in unplugged acoustic sets without the onus of scaring a potential audience or record executives away. Gorrio, a Miami-Dade College student by day, penned a mighty little political song that he calls "Political Super Adhesive." In it he sings, "Who ever knew that expressing your views could be dangerous/I want to run inside a mall and spread the word that we will fall/This government is destroying us all ... And more will fight for country/But I will fight for the world by sending a message to others/There is no separation of brothers."

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Juan Carlos Rodriguez