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Finding art among the ruins

Rock 'n' roll and social commentary have always gone hand in hand. Why wouldn't they? Pop music for years has been the art form to respond most quickly to events. Back in 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Ohio was a speedy reaction to Ohio National Guard members shooting student protesters at Kent State University.

Fast forward 30 years and we find Neil Young, who penned Ohio, again making his opinion known after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in Let's Roll, his single urging America to take action.

Compared with the enduring Ohio, Young's hastily produced Let's Roll made a very different artistic point: Sometimes it's wiser for an artist to wait and get his or her head together before subjecting the world to hokeyness.

Rock icon Bruce Springsteen did just that in carefully crafting the provocative concept album The Rising, his response to Sept. 11 and its aftermath. Springsteen, 53, who performs at the St. Pete Times Forum on Sunday, has long been a voice of the people, a critic of politicians and like his idol, Woody Guthrie, a plain-folks commentator.

Unlike, say, country singer Toby Keith, whose chest-thumping single Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue promised terrorists who messed with America that we would put a boot in their behind, Springsteen's album is important and conscientious. The Rising is not a masterpiece. It's not even an excellent record, but it's a thought-provoking response to tragedy that finds Springsteen passionate and also ambivalent. In short: It's art.

The Rising is rich in metaphor _ however clumsy and cliched at times _ and images of war-torn cities and its heroes. The album honors the firefighters and emergency workers in New York on Into The Fire:

May your the strength give us strength

May your faith give us faith

May your hope give us hope

But Springsteen doesn't just document what happened; he wrestles with it. What does it mean, the Boss asks. Now, he seems to say, everything is changed. Springsteen did the same with Born in the U.S.A. back in 1984, a Vietnam protest song that's still misunderstood as so much rah-rah clamoring for nationalism. Springsteen had years to figure out his feelings about that war before committing them to music. Not so with Sept. 11. And it shows. The Rising's stories are mere sketches, and Springsteen makes no Big Statements.

Some argue that rock 'n' roll is capable only of limited social commentary.

"It's hard to express sincere political or social commentary in a pop song as it is in a bumper sticker," says John Strausbaugh, author of Rock 'Til You Drop: The Decline of Rebellion to Nostalgia. "It's the medium. It's a three-minute pop song. Everything's got to rhyme; it's got to be instantly recognizable."

Springsteen himself knows his medium's limitations, funneling complex ideas into fist-pumping choruses. Think of Born in the U.S.A. and Thunder Road, songs reportedly played at many memorial services for firefighters and rescue workers who perished Sept. 11.

But rock's so-called "limitations" are assets to the Boss. The art is in the adrenaline, rock's ability to express angst _ and confusion _ quickly.

"I had some lofty ideas about using my own music to give people something to think about _ to think about the world, and what's going right and wrong," Springsteen told a reporter years ago. Could there be a more truthful artistic statement of purpose?

Springsteen's ambivalence about Sept. 11 pours through Empty Sky, a song on The Rising recounting loss and longing:

I want a kiss from your lips

I want an eye for an eye

At recent Springsteen concerts, fans have cheered wildly the eye-for-eye lyric, which seems to surprise the singer, some have reported. One critic wrote that Springsteen seems to be more forgiving than his fans, who may be seeking retribution for the terrorism. But the character of Empty Sky is just that, a character.

In the case of alt-country singer Steve Earle, portraying a character has gotten him into a mess of trouble with mainstream America. Never a darling of the Nashville scene, Earle is a complex artist whose twangy tunes explore the dark side. On John Walker's Blues, Earle speaks with the voice of John Walker Lindh, the real American who pleaded guilty to aiding the Taliban. It's an empathetic song exploring what it might be like inside of the head of a twentysomething religious zealot. Earle's character sings about his disdain for boy bands and MTV, his search for something more meaningful and of finding the answers in Islam.

It ticked off lots of folks. As some art should.

Art should make you hold your chin and scratch your brow in curiosity. Art should perplex, pull the rug out from under your feet. That's how we move forward intellectually, spiritually. By being challenged.

Like Steve Earle, Springsteen doesn't claim to have the answers. He's not saying "Let's roll!" or "Let's put a boot in Bin Laden's behind!" On The Rising, Springsteen is saying, "Look at this mess. My God, what have we as a people done? And what are we going to do? What's decent? What's right?"

These are the kinds of questions with which anyone who gives a hoot about the world should wrestle.

An artist's purpose includes commenting on the world, events, shifts in culture, life. The question isn't: Why are a handful of musicians responding to the events that began on Sept. 11? The question is: Why aren't more?

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. To reach Gina Vivinetto,