Sarah Churchwell: Late arrivals at the Hotel Protest

The Iraq invasion has brought the Eagles back to the recording studio, with the White House reportedly unhappy at their banging the anti-war drum. But just how daring are they?

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Not being one of those elitists who think that just because something is popular, it must be bad (I am undoubtedly an elitist, just not one of those elitists), I am not ashamed to admit that I have for many years been a fan of the Eagles, whose Greatest Hits 1971-1975 competes with Michael Jackson's Thriller for best-selling album of all time.

As I don't aspire to be a music boffin, I will leave debates about the Eagles' musical merits to the experts; all I know is that it was with some cheeriness that I read of the release, this week, of their first studio album in more than 20 years.

Long Road Out of Eden is being hailed as a protest album, an excoriating indictment of US culture and foreign policy. Knowing of the Eagles' huge popularity with much of Middle America, the White House is reported to be uneasy about another recruit to the anti-war ranks. But this double-CD from one of the most successful bands in popular music also raises the question of where the boundary between necessary compromise and gross exploitation lies. There seems to be no Archimedean point outside the system any more; even as our most popular artists deplore the commercialisation of culture, they take part in little parables of concession and conciliation – as do most of us.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs during the Reagan era, I didn't encounter the Eagles until long after they had broken up. I listened to Don Henley's "Dirty Laundry" and "Boys of Summer" before I listened to the Eagles, apart from the ubiquity of songs such as "Lyin' Eyes" on the radio, which I found risibly country & western. In the 1980s, Chicago did not do country; that was for Southern crackers. Now we have all grown up: country music has gone mainstream and I have learned not to call yahoos crackers.

This week, some 20 years after I discovered the Eagles and memorised all the words to "Hotel California" (although I only just ascertained what "colitas" are, Don Henley's impeccable enunciation having left no doubt as to the word, only its meaning. I vaguely assumed it was some kind of pungent-smelling desert herb. I wasn't wrong), the Eagles are back with their first studio album since 1979, hell having frozen over in the meantime. And as it seems to be the year for the éminences grises of American rock to take a stand against a war that more than 70 per cent of the nation opposes, Long Road Out of Eden, like Bruce Springsteen's Magic and Neil Young's Living With War, criticises American aggression, complacency and consumerist culture.

Actually, the album contains love songs, humorous sequels to Eagles classics, and "How Long," an upbeat tune with a country feel that was written in 1972 and has been number 25 or so on the country charts for 10 weeks; so that by my count, only three and a half out of 20 tracks on the double-CD protest the state of America today. But hey, that's three more than we had last month, and at this point I'll take what I can get. Besides, the band have said it is the politics that got them back together.

As a result of the success of "How Long," the Eagles have been invited to perform for the first time at the Country Music Awards in November, which suggests that their "protest album" is not rocking any swift boats in the red states, at least not yet. This is somewhat surprising, because the songs that do venture into social commentary lambast a stereotypical version of Middle America, while the song "Frail Grasp on the Big Picture" launches a direct attack on evangelicals.

Moreover, the Dixie Chicks were cold-shouldered by the CMA last year following the enormous success of their "comeback" single, "Not Ready to Make Nice", an unrepentant up-yours to the ex-fans who burned their records in the wake of lead singer Natalie Maines' controversial comment in London in 2003 that she was ashamed that President Bush is from Texas. (Of course, he's not; he's from Connecticut. I think we should all be ashamed of him, but there you go. Feel free to burn my CDs.)

The Dixie Chicks remain chicas non gratas with much of the South, and the CMA declined to invite them to perform, but the Grammys, which cater to a far broader and less bellicose segment of the US, were not so reluctant. The grande dame of protest music herself, Joan Baez, introduced the act as "three brave women" who are using "the power of music" like Woody Guthrie, the great American protest singer, to unite the country.

Her optimism would seem premature, judging by the vitriol that was heaped on to websites in the wake of the Dixie Chicks' sweeping the Grammys; they're clearly not the only ones who are not ready to make nice. Seventy per cent may disapprove of the war, but that doesn't mean they approve of people who criticise it. (It makes no sense to me, either).

A few weeks ago, the Eagles invited the Dixie Chicks to open for them at a concert in Los Angeles, thereby firmly pinning their protest badges to their long black leather coats. Of course, what took a great deal of moxie from the Dixie Chicks in 2003, when most of America, especially the red states, were "rallying behind the troops" by supporting the government's decision to send them into a situation where they were likely to get their heads blown off, appears somewhat less daring from the Eagles today.

That said, Don Henley can't fairly be accused of belatedness; he has always written songs featuring social criticism, especially of materialism (think "her mind is Tiffany-twisted / She's got the Mercedes bends"), and he has been an environmental activist for years. One of his big causes was been protecting a site called Walden Pond from developers. Walden Pond is a 61-acre lake in Massachusetts, besides which the celebrated 19th- century naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau lived and wrote one of his best-regarded works.

The echo of Thoreau is instructive. He also protested what he considered an immoral tax by going to jail and subsequently writing the pamphlet "Resistance to Civil Government", more commonly known as "Civil Disobedience", Thoreau oppugned the poll tax because it supported two things he opposed: slavery, and a war that was deeply dividing the country. The slave-holding Southerners supported America's expansion into Texas because they felt it was the nation's "manifest destiny" to spread empire, and its value systems; the Whigs, who included Abraham Lincoln, considered it an unprincipled land grab and opposed the ensuing war with Mexico as an unjust imperial excursion into the sovereign territory of another state. Sound familiar? Except for the part where the other party actually opposes the war?

An intelligent and articulate man, Henley obviously sees the parallels ("Well ain't it a shame / 'Bout our short little memory / Never seem to learn / The lessons of history," he sings in "Frail Grasp on the Big Picture"), but he does not seem to be advocating civil disobedience. On the contrary, he is insisting in interviews that resistance can be successfully mounted only from within the system. It is for this reason, he says, that the Eagles have signed an exclusive one-year deal with Wal-Mart, arguing that it can't be any worse than the "evil" of the major record labels; he also insists that the giant company is working hard to improve its environmental credentials, and adds for good measure that it is no bad thing for someone who wants to change the world to have "the direct line to the CEO of Wal-Mart".

This may not be entirely untrue, although it is certainly convenient; it will also undoubtedly seem a bit rich, pun intended, to a lot of people: the Eagles reportedly earned £100m during last year's tour alone. They can't need the money.

"We are artists," Henley said, "but we are also businessmen and we try to live in the real world." His song "Business as Usual" offers a wry reflection on such compromise, singing of efforts to "do good" and "be righteous" that are ground down by "business as usual". The song ends: "Business as usual / Day after day / Business as usual / Feel like walking away." But of course, he hasn't, at least not yet. And although there is no escaping the cynicism of his position, I'm not sure that Henley is trying to.

For my part, it was such a relief to encounter in Long Road Out of Eden a song that began with pilgrims and prodigals on the road to Utopia and ended with a lesson learned from Caesar on the Appian Way about the dangers of empire ("it's hard to stop this bingeing / once you get a taste"), that I am prepared to forgive the Eagles a multitude of sins.

Sarah Churchwell is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia

Further listening: 'Long Road Out of Eden' is released tomorrow on Polydor

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