The Beastie Boys' meek protest song.

The Beastie Boys' meek protest song.

The Beastie Boys' meek protest song.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
March 14 2003 5:02 PM

In a World Gone Mild

The Beastie Boys' meek protest song.

On Tuesday, the Beastie Boys made a new song called "In a World Gone Mad" available for free download from their Web site. The song lyrics are posted on the site, as are statements from each of the Beasties. "This song is not an anti-American or pro-Saddam Hussein statement," says Adrock, aka Adam Horovitz. "This is a statement against an unjustified war."

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It's the first song from a popular recording artist to protest the looming war on Iraq, though a hip-hop track involving Mos Def and Russell Simmons is in the works. Fred Durst did his best at the Grammys, and Sheryl Crow let her bass strap do the talking. But that's not the same as protest. The general Ashcroftian mood of self-censorship seems to be in effect for most musicians, and, sadly, the Beasties aren't breaking set the way they could. If you think an attack is unjustified and you're looking for a massed cry of fury, a bitter declaration of disgust, a fierce, unapologetic "No" that shakes the throne—well, that's not what the Beasties are up to.

On "In a World Gone Mad," they're in adorable elder-statesman mode, trying so hard not to step on anybody's toes that they end up achieving little beyond a kaffeeklatsch complaint voiced in reasonable tones over an affable beat. The first problem is the chorus, growled by Adam Yauch in the middle of a reverb hangover that muffles the sound. You want to be shouting along, but instead you wind up just struggling to make out the words: "In a world gone mad it's hard to think right/ So much violence hate and spite/ Murder going on all day and night/ Due time we fight the nonviolent fight." Kumbaya, y'all!

The Beastie Boys have always been funny, or at least clever, but the rest of the lyrics don't rise above the level of a decent Conan O'Brien monologue. MCA: "But you build more bombs as you get more bold/ As your midlife crisis war unfolds/ All you want to do is take control/ Now put that axis of evil bullshit on hold." All their anger is softened with qualifiers. Mike D. rhymes: "Mirrors, smokescreens and lies/ It's not the politicians but their actions I despise." Sometimes it's OK to despise the politicians, Mike.

It's cute that Adrock quotes Q-Tip—"Citizen rule number 2080/ Politicians are shady"—but his wacky apology to the nation just makes him sound like an opinionless bystander: "Now don't get us wrong 'cause we love America/ But that's no reason to get hysterica." Well, Ad, what would be a good reason to get hysterica? This seems like the perfect moment to become completely and fully hysterica, in a most audible and specific way. But you're the platinum-selling artist, not me.

At the very end of the song we get a spark of what might have been. MCA compares Bush to the Ben Stiller character Zoolander, "trying to play tough for the camera," and Adrock asks, "You think it's democracy they're fighting for?" The disappointment is amplified by what we know the Beasties are capable of. The right pop song could use metaphor or delivery or sheer sonics, among a zillion other strategies, to make its point. It might even piss some people off. But this song sure as hell won't.

Sasha Frere-Jones is Slate's music critic and a writer and musician in New York.