Sunday Morning: Beastie Boys Fight For Their Right To Pontificate

Even for popular punk-rap trio, there's a right and a wrong time to express political concerns.

Lately, the Beastie Boys, the same band who once shouted out about the need to "fight

for your right to party," seem to have taken on the role of musical mother hen.

First, they tried to prevent electronica-punkers Prodigy from playing their inflammatory hit

"Smack

My Bitch Up" (RealAudio excerpt) -- a song which women's rights groups have

taken exception to, for obvious reasons -- in late August at the Reading Festival in

England, where the two bands shared top billing.

Then, more recently, Beastie bassist Adam Yauch decided the MTV Video Music Awards

ceremony was the right place to talk international politics.

I have two words for Yauch and the Beasties: bad move.

There really is a time and a place for political discussion and activity. Being a rock star by

no means disqualifies Yauch or the rest of the Beastie Boys from addressing their

political concerns.

But they really should pick their battlegrounds a little more carefully.

Did the guys who used to rhyme onstage next to dancing girls in cages really think a

phone call to Prodigy would make them refrain from playing "Smack My Bitch Up," when

a full-scale firestorm of protests from women's rights groups and resistance from retailers

couldn't get the electronica act to back off? Wisely, Prodigy opted to play their song,

explaining themselves in a statement issued by leader Liam Howlett through their British

label, XL Recordings.

"I still respect their music, but I think they should respect other people's freedom to

express themselves," Howlett said after the Reading Festival.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Granted, the Beasties have gone out of their way to denounce their old ways, claiming

they have matured and have a new perspective on their influence on the world and

music. Certainly, Yauch and his Beastie partners have been a major force in helping

raise awareness about the cause of freeing the Tibetan people from Chinese

oppression, via the annual Tibetan Freedom Concerts.

But they haven't stopped there.

Feeling perhaps a bit more vocal than usual, the normally coy Yauch piped up with a

fresh serving of his own political rhetoric at the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony last

week, holding a viewing audience of millions captive as he made his general complaints

about America's bombing of Afghanistan in retaliation for terrorist attacks on U.S.

Embassies.

Did the same threesome that helped spearhead the past three Tibetan Freedom

Concerts think that a vague venting about a U.S. bombing in the Middle East would have

any lasting impact?

This kind of political riffing is particularly disappointing from a group which has already

proved it knows the right way to direct its political concerns. In three years of carrying out

the Tibetan Freedom Concert, the Beastie Boys and co-organizer the Milarepa

Foundation have taken concert-goers who likely didn't know Tibet from Tahiti and

educated and outraged them into taking direct political action through their contributions

and increased activism.

Certainly, change does not come easy. But if it's change the Beasties are looking for,

then holding such well-attended and high-profile events as the Tibet shows is a good

way to go.

On the other hand, pontificating on large, complex issues with broad, sweeping

statements doesn't cut it. "I think it was a real mistake that the U.S. chose to fire missiles

in the Middle East," Yauch stammered before an international audience. "That was a

huge mistake. I think it is very important that the U.S. starts looking into nonviolent means

for resolving conflicts ... and that's another thing that America needs to think of, is our

racism."

Extraneous statements at awards shows are inevitably remembered as little more than

self-indulgent interruptions. When the audience being addressed is clinking glasses,

raving about Marilyn Manson's androgynous suit or Madonna's and Courtney Love's

revealing wardrobes and wondering what musical surprises may be in store for them this

year, it's best to take your viewpoint elsewhere.

Legendary actor Marlon Brando certainly never effected any real change by sending a

Native American to accept his Academy Award for Best Actor some years back. What is

most clearly remembered about that event is its absurdity, rather than the cause for

which the talented actor was fighting.

In that same way, Yauch's comments seemed as inappropriate as Prodigy playing

"Smack My Bitch Up" at a National Organization for Women convention.

There's a right time and a right place for everything. But the Beastie Boys' timing seems

to be a little out of whack lately.

Yauch's comments will ultimately be lumped with ODB's interruption of the most recent

Grammy Awards to complain about his Wu-Tang Clan getting aced out of an award and

with the actions (at the same show) of a publicity-hungry young artist who painted the

words "Soy Bomb" on his chest and disrupted a performance by Bob Dylan, gaining little

more than a cheap 15 minutes of fame.

I think it's great that the Beastie Boys have matured and discovered worlds beyond the

narrow confines of rap and rock.

I just wish they'd find better ways to express themselves.