In the world of pop music, there's an odd sort of fascination--a kind of love affair almost--for songs about cops.
Ice-T's side project Body Count would have been a mere blip on the radar if it weren't for the controversy over the song "Cop Killer." Bruce Springsteen's place as a socially minded musician has been solidified by songs like "Highway Patrolman," "State Trooper" and, most recently, "American Skin (41 Shots." Some fans even labeled the Strokes as sellouts after they chose not to release "New York City Cops"--with its offhanded indictment--after the World Trade Center towers fell.
From KRS-One to the Clash to Public Enemy: The list goes on and on, as pop musicians and the police have had a long, tenuous relationship. And that's understandable, as the subject of authority, like love and loneliness, is one of the great universal themes of art.
Now comes an unlikely entry into the popular canon of cop rock, offered up by Soltero. The Boston band plays creaky indie-pop, its songbook filled with an abundance of desperate love songs told to secret crushes, the plotlines complicated by the language of a young man burdened with Catholic guilt.
Soltero is fronted by Tim Howard, whose deep and weathered vocals sound decades beyond his years. He's not a singer of whimsy; his songs are rooted in mundane reality, often flourishing in tooth-and-nail struggles of love and salvation.
Yet in the middle of Defrocked and Kicking the Habit (Handsome Records), Soltero's 10-song LP, there's Howard singing "Fight Song for My True Love." And in just three minutes, Howard uses a song about love to isolate the moment when fear of police authority gives way to something larger: resilience.
Most pop songs detail a face-off with police, after the fact, when resistance is no longer a choice but a given.
In "Cop Killer," for example, Ice-T raps with conviction, "Cop killer, better you than me/ Cop killer, fuck police brutality/ Cop killer, I know your momma's grieving/ Cop killer, but tonight we get even." In "State Trooper," Bruce Springsteen's protagonist has already committed a crime and is ready, but reluctant, to do whatever it takes to evade the law. That's including, presumably, killing a state trooper who might attempt to stop his flight.
In Soltero's "Fight Song for my True Love," however, there's only the innocence of a fearful boy and a tough-eyed girl. Starting with the lyric "Tonight every car on the street is a cop," Howard's narrator tells the story of the woman he loves. The singer makes the proclamation over an even guitar line that slowly evolves into a brilliantly bright pop jangle.
Now the song's story becomes even more unusual: The narrator recounts how his girl faces up to the cops, while he shivers with fear behind her. Even in the moment, she possesses the verbal skills of a debate champ, her speech as eloquently rehearsed as that of a cast member from Dawson's Creek.
"With your violent inclinations and your crude intimidations/ you're the single greatest problem with this problematic nation," the girlfriend is quoted, as she tells off the cops. Later in the song, her words become even more defiant. "You can regulate our lives, but that doesn't mean we trust you/ You can lie to us all night, but that doesn't mean we're listening."
She knows what she believes and she knows what she wants. That confidence is such a contrast to the narrator's defeated stance: "If nothing else I can bleed on them," he sings. The girlfriend's an ideal, an asphalt Joan of Arc, and the singer wants to borrow her backbone. She offers inspiration so that he can take the leap to stand up for himself.
In this moment of a couple's empowerment, Howard's hero expresses the rush of self-determination, of the power that comes from choosing to fight and not look back. A government official or a parent might define this as the precise moment a good apple goes bad.
But in the same moment, Howard transforms "Fight Song" into a love story made real through confrontation. The song fits neatly into the category of cop songs, even as it exposes the genre for what it really is, something even more familiar.
After all, at its core, "Cop Killer" serves as a love story between Ice-T's hero and a black community frustrated by the Rodney King beating, while Springsteen's "State Trooper" recounts the love story between the hero and freedom.
At the end of "Fight Song," Howard sings a lyric so painfully naïve that it's difficult for the listener not to believe its earnestness. "And tonight I will love you 'til they trample us like roses/ we may die, but we won't mind/ cause we'll be right, we're always right."
Just another cop song. Just another love song.
Soltero plays with Young Man Grand, Shelley Short and Kaitlyn ni Donovan on Thursday, Dec. 4, at Nocturnal, 1800 E Burnside St., 239-5900. 8 pm $5. All ages.