Johnny B. Goody-Goody

On Feb. 1, Sinead O'Connor pulled out of Wednesday's Grammy Awards ceremony. "As artists," she reasoned, "I believe that our function is to express the feelings of the human race - always to speak the truth, and never to keep it hidden, even though we are operating in a world which does not like the sound of truth. I believe that our purpose is to inspire and in some way guide and heal the human race, of which we are all equal members." And that was just by way of clearing her throat.

In the past, such piety from a rock star might have seemed embarrassingly goody-goody. John Lennon may have declared the Beatles more popular than Jesus, but he never confused the two. But in 1991, piety - excessive, conspicuous piety - is rock's growth industry. From Don Henley to Phil Collins, from Sting to just about any rapper you'd care to name, pop stars are taking the weight of the world on their own padded shoulders and shooting it from arty angles in their videos. As Michael Hutchence of INXS puts it, "The people playing the music now are the upstanding citizens trying to save the world. And the straight businessmen are the evil guys."

Rebellion is out; fussy sanctimony is in. Natalie Merchant of the band 10,000 Maniacs professes to be more interested in nuclear-arms depots than in boys, and says of one of her songs, "I've taken upon myself the obligation of making a public plea to Central America for forgiveness for what has been done to their country." Central America, are you listening? The rapper Ice Cube, who spins grisly, vicariously exciting tales of urban homicide, holds himself righteously above his critics. He is, he says, "a hero - like Spiderman." Bono, messianic singer of U2, claims that even the fun element in rock is just a smoke screen for righteous do-goodism. "Partying," he has said, "is a disguise, isn't it?" Today's pop star is better suited to a PBS documentary series than to "American Gladiators."

For years, Sting was the undisputed leader of the pious posse: Sting, who wore body paint among the Kayapo people of the rain forest and nonprescription glasses among the North Americans, who said he would never appear in a movie that featured guns; who stipulated that his beer commercial run only in Japan; whose global concern could be measured in frequent-flier miles. But on his new album, "The Soul Cages," a bookish rumination on the death of his father, Sting retreats into more traditional, self-absorbed pretension.

In his absence from the pulpit, O'Connor has stepped up. Skating from one pious empty gesture to the next, she refused to appear on "Saturday Night Live" with Andrew Dice Clay last May and refused to sing at New Jersey's Garden State Arts Center last August if the national anthem was played before her concert. She is the good girl who says no. "If I were to win an award," she told the Grammy board, "I would feel it necessary to decline it in order to voice my rejection of the values which I think are destroying our work and which, I believe, are destroying the human race." O'Connor is definitely No. 1 with a flower.

But she's not alone on the hill. There are rock stars for peace, for the environment, for animals, for Walden Pond, for the Long Island fishermen, for hungry people and political prisoners across the globe. Even the cardboard boxes that new CDs come in bleed for our earth. A copy of the 2 Live Crew's flagrantly misogynous "Banned in the U.S.A." CD, for example, demurs "Car-pool when possible" as one of 10 "Action Steps for a Better Environment." These packages, or longboxes, added around 18 million pounds of waste to the environment last year.

"It's politics for the apolitical," says Frank Owen, music editor of Spin magazine. Though the stumping can get tough, the issues are always easy: who, after all, is against the rain forest? Often, pious pop isn't so much a call to activism as a substitute for it. Playing a green record is the next best thing to saving the rain forest yourself. What you get, according to Hutchence, is "40 minutes with the band that cares, while you chuck your Budweiser can out the window of your hot rod."

Typical of the new sincerity is the Peace Choir, a gang of concerned musicians gathered by Lenny Kravitz to remake John Lennon's anthem "Give Peace a Chance" - presumably because the first version worked so well. Singing new lyrics written by Sean Lennon, and making each line a celebrity cameo, the choir captures the feel-good nostalgia for the '60s, but loses the meaning of the song. The original ran down the various isms of the left, and called for an end to sectarianism; the remake runs them down ("Everybody's talkin' 'bout / Planet Earth / Rebirth / United Nations / Good relations") and awards each a gold star. All sanctimony is good sanctimony. But even more typical is the new piety of George Michael. A pinup and video star, Michael renounced his old, impure image on his recent album, "Listen Without Prejudice," and appeared so earnest in a Los Angeles Times interview that Frank Sinatra wrote in, urging him, "Come on, George. Loosen up. Swing, man." Michael refused to appear in any videos for his album, singing, by way of explanation, "There's something deep inside of me/There's someone I forgot to be." No telling just what he's sincere about, but he sure does crow that he's sincere.

It isn't always easy to man the high ground. Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go's, for example, stumps for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a group that opposes animal testing, furs and leathers. She scrapped a concert at last year's Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo in Wyoming, protesting, "I'd be ashamed to have my name associated with such blatant cruelty. " But since joining PETA, Carlisle has endorsed Agree Shampoo, which is tested on laboratory animals, and L.A. Gear, which manufactures leather sneakers. Last fall, 25 celebrities shot public-service announcements urging people to vote. "If you don't vote, you're going to get a spankee," warned Madonna. But Madonna didn't vote, nor did participants Lenny Kravitz, M. C. Hammer and Mellow Man Ace. Iggy Pop, a pitchman at 43, has never even registered. Sting, who did appear in a film that featured a car bomb, recently sermonized in Rolling Stone about the need to limit population growth. "We have too many people," he said. "We have to use birth control." Sting is the father of five.

Even when it isn't hypocritical, pious pop runs into contradictions. No matter how hard it may try, rock music isn't green. At its core, it opposes the austerity and patience of environmentalism. Instead, it celebrates rapid change and accelerated obsolescence. That's what makes it exciting: the insatiable appetite for the new - new records, new stars, new formats, new styles - with the old ones dumped like last year's Simpsons T shirts.

The various causes have given successful rock stars, mostly older and isolated from the trials of their youths, something to grouse about. Don Henley in Beverly Hills crusades to save Walden Pond; Sting, in London, agonizes over the Amazonian rain forest. Unlike a Phil Ochs or a Bob Dylan, the new pop philanthropists aren't trying to save their audience or themselves. They're tending to the less fortunate below - hefting another man's burdens for as long as it takes to write and perform a pop song. It's presumptuous, but it makes for good material. As John Cougar Mellencamp told The New York Times, "In the past, I've tried to sing about overlooked Americans. On the new album, I'm trying to speak for them." You no longer need to suffer to sing the blues. That's what poor people are for.

On the other hand, for all their vanities, the pious do have right on their side. That's why they're the pious. And the world will have its hall monitors. "Yeah, it is boring," said Paul McCartney, a Friend of the Earth. "But unfortunately if we don't get boring, we're going to get dead." Who says you can't make a pop ditty out of that?