JUNE 28, 2004
What if they had an anti-war movement and nobody came?
For three nights at the end of April, a few politically conscious punk-rock bands from around the country passed through New York on a tour called Plea for Peace. Punk has included an element of political consciousness since the Clash strummed about the Troubles in the late 1970s, although in peacetime the good service of punks was to plead for anarchy. The entreating in the peace tour's first show at the Bowery Ballroom was appropriately harsh, loud, and vague: a deft quintet from Omaha called Cursive played a set of fierce and almost catchy songs, after which the leader of the tour, the musician and activist Mike Park, implored the audience to "stand up and take action" by registering to vote. A young woman standing near me was wearing a T-shirt silk-screened in pink with a photograph of the president and the words "Lick Bush," and another had a button with the slogan "Peace Not War" in logotype (that being the title of a CD compilation of recent songs protesting the Bush administration's military actions). The atmosphere had a positive charge of high voltage and a quality of connectedness to the world outside the decoratively rotting walls of the Bowery Ballroom that is unusual in the realm of punk these days. But it proved to be ethereal.
Outside the club, the conversations over cigarettes were on largely apolitical topics: bands, the imminent end of the school year, what bars to go to later. Around the neighboring streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side, no one in sight was accessorized in anti-war regalia; and in a taxi headed uptown that night, the radio played "Crazy in Love" by Beyonc, "Yeah!" by Usher, and other hits of the week, none of which has lyrics dealing in any way with world affairs. This is popular culture just as George W. Bush likes it, wherein good citizens support the war by ignoring it.
TO RECALL THE of America's last military venture roughly comparable to the Iraq war, by contrast, is to conjure a Time-Life Library of images of young people mobilized by protest music. Who can picture a peace symbol on the hood of a VW Beetle or a hand rising out of a tie-dyed shirt to give the "V" sign without the accompanying sound of Bob Dylan singing "Blowin' in the Wind" or John Lennon chanting "Give Peace a Chance"? Indeed, the pop music of the 1960s was so infused with anti-war (or pro-peace) sentiment that sociopolitical content became something of a Top Forty craze. Transistor radios squeaked with social consciousness, often explicit (Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction"), sometimes oblique (The Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville"—the title city of which is near a major Army training base in Tennessee), frequently set to a dance beat for social application (The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion"). Artists in virtually every genre of popular music—except country and western, which was and remains a hostel for conservatism—recorded leftist "message" songs touching upon Vietnam, civil rights, or the general havoc of the time: Elvis Presley ("If I Can Dream"), Louis Armstrong (a cover of "Give Peace a Chance"), Jimmy Cliff ("Vietnam," which Bob Dylan called the best protest song he had ever heard), the art-rockers The Fugs ("Kill for Peace"), the bluesman L. B. Lenoir ("Vietnam Blues"), and innumerable others, well known and obscure. Bobby Darin, the 1950s rocker turned Vegas crooner who had proved his ability to re-cut his persona to match the musical fashion of the season, re-re- invented himself as a mustachioed, guitar-picking folkie and started singing original protest material such as "Simple Song of Freedom" and "Long Line Rider" under the name Bob Darin.
As everyone who was in the Bowery Ballroom that April night knows, there is no dearth of music addressing the Iraq war, the Bush administration's military policies, and related subjects. To the contrary, dozens of musicians, some long established and prominent, have recorded songs dealing with each of these topics in recent years. In addition to Mike Park's Plea for Peace, activist groups such as Bands Against Bush, Rock Against Bush, and Tell Us the Truth have staged tours of rock, pop, and folk artists both to incite civil dissent and to promote voter registration among audiences who are unlikely to vote Republican, and several of the organizations (including Plea for Peace and Rock Against Bush) have released or plan to make compilation CDs. The first double- CD set produced by Peace Not War includes thirty-two topical songs (some of them timely but not new, recycled for the CD) by many contemporary performers, among them "Son of a Bush," a pounding critique of both Bush presidencies by Public Enemy; "Nuclear War," a jazz-funk riff piece composed by the late Sun Ra and performed by Yo La Tengo; and "The Price of Oil," a melodic folk-rock number by Billy Bragg. But few of the tunes have had much airplay, and none has caught on with the public like "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," "Blowin' in the Wind," or "Give Peace a Chance," all of which were hit singles (the first two in versions by Peter, Paul and Mary, the Monkees of 1960s protest) and seemed omnipresent in their day.
WHAT IS KEEPING the new protest songs off the radio? Conspiracy theorists in the music trades, a plentiful lot who may be right as well as paranoid, blame Clear Channel for this (and for nearly every other failing in their business, with the possible exception of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl outfit). After all, the leviathan of commercial radio and concert promotion dominates pop listening through its ownership of more than a thousand stations across the country, along with performance venues in many of the same locations, and it is more entwined with Bush than the Saudis. About a year before the last presidential election, Tom Hicks, a broadcasting investor who later became a top executive at Clear Channel (which is based in San Antonio), bought Bush's interest in the Texas Rangers baseball franchise, providing the future president with one of the biggest paydays of his business career. Later, when the Bush administration rolled out its untested policy of pre-emptive assault, Clear Channel sponsored boosterish pro-war "Rally for America" events in eighteen cities. The FCC graciously suspended long-standing regulations restricting media ownership, freeing Clear Channel to extend its broadcasting empire further. Fearsome expansionists enriched through cronyism, contemptuous of the rules, and intolerant of competition, Clear Channel is to American pop-music outlets what the Bush administration is to the world stage.
At the same time, Clear Channel, which became notorious for replacing deejays with computer-driven playlists derived through test-listening, is a devoutly market-driven enterprise. If the young ears that tune in to Clear Channel's stations and purchase its concert tickets were to respond to Billy Bragg as they do to Britney Spears, would we all be growing sick of hearing "The Price of Oil" on every station of the car radio? (Survivors of the '60s may remember coming to feel the same way about "Blowin' in the Wind.") Would the heads of Clear Channel really ignore their audience to avoid offending the president? Or would they agree with him that the best of old friendships (such as America's with France) are secondary to one's self-interest?
Quite a few artists who have recorded new protest songs have chosen not to release them on CD (at least not initially), but to post them on the Web for free downloading, end-running Clear Channel while forfeiting income. How well such records would sell in today's marketplace remains unknown. The list of acts who have done this includes Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day ("Life During Wartime," which is not the Talking Heads song), the Beastie Boys ("In a World Gone Mad..."), Paula Cole ("My Hero, Mr. President!"), Michael Franti and Spearhead ("Bomb the World"), Lenny Kravitz ("We Want Peace"), John Mellencamp ("To Washington"), R.E.M. ("The Final Straw"), and System of a Down ("Boom!"). Thurston Moore, the guitarist for Sonic Youth, has started a Web clearinghouse for downloading topical songs.
The songs themselves are a ragged litter, related mainly in their lyrical enmity for the Bush administration, the Iraq war, or war as a whole. Since American protest music grew out of the blues and rural folk song (vernacular expressions of the discontent of subjugated and disenfranchised people), it was historically an earthy music, sung or talk-sung in natural voices accompanied by inexpensive, portable stringed instruments. When the left took up folksinging as a way to rally working people in the years after the Depression, the best-used songs were sing-along anthems of protest or solidarity: simple, memorable, and repetitive tunes such as "Worried Man Blues" and "Oh, Freedom." Several of the recent topical songs draw heavily upon those traditions, and their folk-rock spin-off of the 1960s. Mellencamp's cracker-barrel grouse is near mimicry of Woody Guthrie, down to the emphasis on the final syllable of "Washing-TON," and the topical songs by Billy Bragg, John Lester ("Out of the Clear Blue Sky"), and Seize the Day ("United States") could have been done by Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, with a little tweaking. Ani DiFranco's "Self Evident" is a rambling mostly a capella rant--a talking blues without the blues. Otherwise, most of the new songs are wholly in the vein of the artists' usual work, but with lyrics fixed on the military battlefield rather than the interpersonal one. They are idiosyncratic and individualistic works, inappropriate for group singing. As such, they do not represent a revival of the protest-song tradition so much as its death. Appropriated, transformed, and absorbed into other styles, protest becomes a functional element of the music and no longer its elemental function.
There is a tentative quality to some of the recent topical music--and to the way the contemporary audience has responded to it. In SuparNovar's "When R They Gonna C," the lyrics touch upon the war almost in passing, and the writer's passion on the subject seems uncertain. Chumbawumba's "Jacob's Ladder" is much the same. The dissent is prosaic and feels obligatory. The performers, like many people in their audience, are protesting gingerly, from a remove, as if this whole anti-war business isn't quite for them. Popular music does attach a high value to newness and originality (or to the perceptions thereof), and protest music is clearly a genre to which today's youth cannot lay fresh claim. It has been done before, and in their parents' time--facts that undermine young people's sense of cultural proprietorship and threaten their generational identity. In every era, popular music is communal, an outlet for the expression of shared interests or feelings, whatever they may be at the time: sitting under the apple tree, saying you want a revolution, getting down tonight. Largely because there is no draft, the Iraq war does not overwhelm the waking thoughts of the student population as Vietnam did several decades ago. (My oldest son and my daughter, who are twenty-one and eighteen, scarcely follow the war news, and I never hear them discussing it with their friends, even though he is studying military history and she, the media.) Iraq exists in a realm outside the sphere of young Americans' direct experience; to focus on it—as music- makers or as listeners—calls for a level of selflessness anathema to the culture of current-day pop, which is absorbed with gratification. The adolescent trifles on the singles charts, much like a great deal of hip-hop, trade mainly in the currency of pleasure. In a day when Bob Dylan is doing commercials for Victoria's Secret, it is a marvel that topical songs are being written and recorded, and that anyone is listening at all.
SEVERAL OF THE most forceful and persuasive recent anti-war songs come from hip-hop artists, specialists in outrage: "Bombs Over Baghdad" by OutKast, the smart, inventive duo of Andre 3000 and Big Boi; "In a World Gone Mad..." by the incisive Beastie Boys; and "Son of a Bush" by Public Enemy in vintage form. A common strength of the harder-edged musics to have emerged since the rise of rock and roll has been their readiness to challenge orthodoxy, be it social, moral, or political. The founding notion of rock--and of early metal, funk, punk, and rap--was its very wrongness in the eyes of the mainstream: it was too sexual, too dumb, too evil, or simply too hard to understand. While this thinking may seem to deny a form such as hip-hop the moral authority to criticize the president or anyone else on grounds of principle, it also gives its statements of indignity all the more power. In his recent HBO special, Chris Rock did a routine about the depravity of some hip-hop lyrics: "Fuck her in the eye! Fuck her in the eye!" he rapped. "Blind the bitch! Blind the bitch!" When folks who take that sort of thing in stride are offended, something really nasty must be going on--exactly as it was in Abu Ghraib. Commercial country and western music, with its outlaw posturing and lyrics that romanticize cheatin' and drinkin' and gamblin', has no greater moral authority than rap, of course, although this has never inhibited country singers from jingoistic chest-thumping. In fact, the jingoistic chest-thumper has been a sub-genre of country music since Merle Haggard retaliated against the hippie movement with "Okie from Muskogee." (Haggard, a sophisticated musician and a keen lyricist, stooped to such defensive pandering only rarely.) Nashville has generated a truckload of new contributions to this milieu since September 11, with hits by Lee Greenwood, Aaron Tippin, Toby Keith, the Warren Brothers, Clint Black (who came up with the best title, "I Raq and I Roll"), and the newcomer Darryl Worley, who made number one on the country charts with "Have You Forgotten?" In it, Worley sings, "I hear people saying we don't need this war/I say there's some things worth fighting for." He has said in interviews that he wrote the song prior to the invasion of Iraq, but the tune earned him an invitation to the White House. Somehow, it seems, someone in the Bush administration conflated the war against terror with the war in Iraq.
Shortly after John Lennon moved to New York in the early 1970s, he entered a deep protest phase and started whipping off topical songs like daily journalism- -off-handed diatribes about hot-button events such as the Attica State Prison riot ("Attica State, Attica State/We're all mates with Attica State") and ballads about the radicals John Sinclair and Angela Davis. (He recorded his take on feminism, "Woman Is the Nigger of the World," during this period.) I remember reading in Rolling Stone that Lennon had plans to start releasing 45 rpm singles made of cardboard, a kind of musical newsprint. It was a brilliant idea, in that most topical songs are disposable and best forgotten in time. ("Woman Is the Nigger of the World" was issued on vinyl and is still in print on CD, sadly.) Most of the new songs protesting the Iraq war seem unlikely to escape the destiny of their genre.
In the absence of a significant anti-war movement through which the music could be employed, contemporary protest songs have purpose but not function. Pete Seeger used to say, "It's not how good a song is that matters, it's how much good a song does." What good is the most impassioned challenge to the Iraq war on its own, in the face of public indifference? The protest singers of the 1960s acted out of a belief that a song could change the world. Their children have taken note that wars are raging in the same old way. It is "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" that seems different now.
This article originally ran in the June 28, 2004, issue of the magazine.