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Special Report
Last Updated: 05/12/2003
Is Protest music as dead as Disco?
Joseph Schumacher

A Generation previously protest music both reflected an era of political ferment and helped push the agenda for peaceful change. Joseph Schumacher looks at the current state of protest music and wonders what happened.

A few weeks ago Nina Simone, a great singer who defied categorization, passed away at her home in the south of France. She had lived outside of the US for over twenty years in self imposed exile from the country of her birth and where she had become famous during the civil rights movement of the 60's singing about the events and politics of that desperate era. Known as the 'high priestess of Soul'; Simone is remembered for having one of the most distinctive and evocative voices of all the divas of the twentieth century. However, it's for her melding of her music with an uncompromising championing of the Negro Civil rights cause that she will be best remembered. Simone wrote arguably the angriest protest song of all time, 'Mississippi Goddamn', which she composed in 1963, after the murder of four Black schoolchildren when the KKK burned down a church in Birmingham, Mississippi. The lines, "This is a show tune but the show hasn't been written yet", and "Oh but this country is full of lies/Your all gonna die and die like flies" left no doubt of Simone's feelings on the injustices taking place in the south.

Simone was just one of a myriad of artists who sprang to national prominence, chronicling the turbulent politics of the 60's. It could be said the best art of that decade was the counter cultures reaction against the establishment's wars and values. Bob Dylan and the Beatles sang against war and for peace, and they changed not only music but also the way the world thought.

Unlike the Vietnam era, when protest songs regularly topped the charts, current examples of musical dissent reaching the mainstream are few and far between. The irony of a White House official quoting Bob Dylan "You don't need to be a weather man to know which way the wind blows" when talking about the positive progress of the US army in Iraq, and hardly raising a blink of America's national eyelid if not indicative of the flaccid condition of modern protest music does point to an insidious depoliticizing of popular culture and the appropriation of cultural reference points by the ruling hegemony for its own use.

The sorry state of musical political protest is surprising given that the American, Australian and British Governments joint invasion of Iraq galvanized global anti war sentiment unlike any other single action since the Vietnam War. The millions of people who marched against the war in the weeks preceding and during the Iraq invasion sent a powerful message for peace across the world. What has been conspicuously missing is a soundtrack to the phenomenon. Media pundits and peace activists have been at pains to explain the absence of the chants and anthems, that so enthused and captured the spirit of previous anti war movements. Janis McNair from Caledonian University's centre for political song said about the non-musical nature of the marches in the UK,

"Ironically, it was the sheer mass appeal of the anti war movement that has rendered it so silent", says Ms McNair, "The diversity of people who support the cause, and the swell of what we call political valley virgins, means they lack the camaraderie you would normally expect to find."

Andrew Collins, former editor of Q magazine, agreed. "This movement is so big there's no unity to it except the feeling. It makes it a formidable force but it is also very difficult to supply the soundtrack to"

While the lack of music on the recent rallies and marches themselves is understandable, what is less explicable is the near absence of politically motivated music on the charts in an industry which has traditionally had a strong anti establishment spirit and who pride themselves on creating art that matter to their listeners.

It is more than that issue driven music is out of vogue. Musicians now find a popular culture which is at best wary of loud- mouth, pretentious rock stars boring the world with their politics and, at worst, allergic to any meaningful controversy. The corporate controlled nature of the music industry discourages anything that might stray into the new taboo area of politics. This is particularly so of commercial radio, which is increasingly controlled by a diminishing number of large networks the world over, and is strictly formatted not to offend anyone.

The play-it-safe, keep-politics-out-of-music trend has been demonstrated repeatedly in the period since September 11th. The Country and Western band the Dixie Chicks incurred the wrath of many in the industry and right wing commentators when, at a concert in London last month, lead singer, Natalie Maines said she was ashamed of their fellow Texan, George W Bush. The resulting media furor saw their top selling record tumble out of the charts and some radio stations, hosting Dixie Chick record smashing by tractor events. An even clearer example of the tacit pressure within the American music industry not to rock the boat and get with the programme after the trauma of 9/11, was a leaked memo issued within American commercial radio giant Clear Channel Communications, suggesting certain insensitive songs should not be played. These included such understandable selections as AC/DC's classic 'Highway to Hell', and more ominously 'Imagine' by John Lennon. The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, never one to shy away from trying to shape popular opinion, called for a boycott of artists who express anti war opinions. Artists ranging from Samual L Jackson to Sheryl Crowe, who appeared on the Grammy's wearing a guitar strap that declared 'No War', were condemned for their anti American beliefs.

Even Madonna, who has made a career out of whipping up superficial controversies, axed the video to her new single 'American life'. Purportedly anti war, it featured Madonna dressed as a soldier and throwing a grenade into the lap of President Bush. She told fans she withdrew the video out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces involved in the Iraq war.

Whether its because of fear of damaging careers, apathy, or the view that music has far more important things to be dealing with: like love, fornication and the mysteries of the opposite sex, only a few mainstream artists have been willing to use their public positions to argue against the war in Iraq.

One prominent band that has voiced opposition, are veteran alternative rockers Pearl Jam. Their most recent album includes the song 'Bushleaguer', where the band sneeringly say of their president, 'He's not a leader, he's a Texas leaguer'. On their current concert tour they've enraged some of their audience with lead singer Eddie Venders outspoken comments and antics against the war in Iraq, which has included spearing a mask of George Bush on his microphone, carrying it around stage and then stomping on it.

While other artists, most notably the Dixie Chicks, have been forced to show contriteness for any criticism of George Bush and American foreign policy, Pearl Jam, who have the advantage of not being country and western starlets, have issued statements standing by their onstage politics.

"Dissension is nothing we shy away from", Pearl Jam said after one recent concert. "It should just be reported about more accurately. Ed's talk from the stage centered on the importance of supporting our soldiers as well as an expression of sadness over the public being made to feel as though the two sentiments cannot occur simultaneously"

The few bands and artists who have protested the war have gamely made up for their lack of numbers by pooling their talents. One of the boldest efforts of the current anti war movement is the 'Peace not War' compilation album, which features the likes of Billy Bragg and Public Enemy. But while their musical sentiments may be in tune with the millions who took to the streets, the album failed to sell well, perhaps from a lack of airplay. Other artists who have protested the Iraq war include Fred Durst, perennial protest rocker Bruce Springsteen and Columbian sizzler Shakira who criticized Madonna for her lack of backbone. She has backed up her words by projecting images of Saddam Hussein and Bush as puppets that morph into the grim reaper as a backdrop to her recent concerts. One of the most commercially successful protest songs has been System of a Down's 'Boom', the video for which documents the recent anti war protest marches across the globe. It was produced by the filmmaker and current anti establishment darling du Jour Michael Moore.

Though these efforts have provided welcome balance they generally add up to potshots from the fringe of popular culture. Rock has apparently abdicated its once cherished vocation of political and cultural provocateur. Instead over the last decade many artists have switched their energies to promoting humanitarian causes, rather than political ones. The best example of this is Bono of U2 who is often described as politically active. However, his early musical ragings about war, epitomized on the raw and brilliant album 'war', apartheid and central American repression have given way to a worthy but safe leadership role on third world debt forgiveness and African Aids awareness.

Bono's main contribution to the current Iraq situation has been his support of the United Nations High Commissioner for refugees and the U2 front man is to join Pavarotti on stage in Modena, Italy on May 27th to raise funds for the unfolding refugee crisis in the Middle East.

The torch of protest music has passed to the alternative music scene, with independent artist such as Ani Di Franco and Billy Bragg virulently expressing their opinions in razor sharp lyrics. More commercially Rap music is now the music of militancy and dissidence young people are most likely to listen to. During the 80's while rock was stuck in a cul de sac of hair spray heavy metal and the first pangs of manufactured pop, artists such as Jelly B Afro, NWA and Public Enemy were building on raps legacy of indignation and vocal dissatisfaction with the status quo while still having a booty shaking time.

The grand old daddies of Hip Hop political activism, Public Enemy are still at it. In 1991, around the time of the first Gulf war they took aim at George Bush senior with hits 'Fight the Power', and 'Don't believe the hype', now their latest single 'Son of a Bush', released on may 6th, they squarely take aim at George Bush Junior, setting themselves up once again as the nemesis of the uber-white-guy-in-power.

Other rappers who have expressed opposition against the war are the Beastie Boys, Zach De La Roche former lead singer of Rage against the machine and the political rhyming of new British hip hop artist Ms Dynamite.

Its clear the political dynamic in music has shifted from rock and pop to rap and hip-hop. And positive as this may be for young people, its bad news for those seeking any kind of musical moments of togetherness while marching.

"Your not going to get a crowd rapping at a demonstration says Andrew Collins. It's almost impossible to sing. That's the point of rap - it demands skill"

So what's behind the dearth of political music in mainstream music? Perhaps it's as Prince said, a Sign of the Times. The musicians of the 60s were still somewhat bohemian characters; they had grown up inspired by the boho culture of the preceding beat generation and then the truly groundbreaking hiss of rock'n'roll. The current crop of stars grew up grooving to the self glorifying excesses of the 70s and 80s, listening to Madonna sing "I am a material girl" and the 'fun first' funk of disco, stadium rock and the personal angst of grunge.

As such youth music is no longer the vanguard of counter culture, rather it's an expression of the dominant commercial culture, hijacked and packaged for easy digestion in malls across the land. The major labels are naturally wary of promoting an artist who protests the way the world is as they are singing against the very corporate powers whom they work for.

Given the newfound mass political activism of the last six months, what is the likelihood of a new flowering of protest music? Has rock music changed? Discarding the emphasis on melody and lyrical intimacy that marked the best anti war music of the 60's.

Current artists protesting mostly sing about the generally lamentable state of the world rather than focusing on specific events. This is in contrast to the sixties when artists tended to find material in the individual dramas and occurrences of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. Events such as the 68 Democratic convention riots in Chicago, the shooting at Duke University and the unjust imprisonment of Rueben 'Hurricane' Carter were immortalized in some of the classic protest songs of all times. This focus on the 'personal is the political' lent itself to incisive rock lyrics.

A few contemporary efforts, such as Billy Braggs 'Oil' hark back to that tradition, before the wane of the singularly personal musings of the singer songwriter.

Why didn't we sort this out last time?
Was he less evil than he is now?
The stock market holds the answer
To why him, why here, why now
Because it's all about the price of oil
Don't give me no shit about blood, sweat, tears and toil
It's all about the price of oil
Saddam killed his own people
Just like General Pinochet
And once upon a time both of these evil men were supported by the USA
Whisper it, even Bin Laden once drank from America's cup
Just like that election down in Florida
The shit doesn't all add up

Are such efforts the spawning of a new era of political consciousness music? It would be nice to think so. The issues have not been as clear cut for along time: military invasions, civilians dying the world over and cluster bombs are a lot easier to write about than Nike factories in Vietnam and the inequalities of liberal market economics. It depends if the small amount of momentum built up by the current crop of political conscious musicians can be maintained.