Illustration by Tavis Coburn
"BALL OF CONFUSION (THAT'S WHAT THE World Is Today)," the Temptations' apocalyptic 1970 hit, recently popped up on a local oldies station and set my mind a-stewing. That a protest song railing against war, racism, rising unemployment and an indifferent government should still be deeply resonant, 33 years after it was first recorded, was sad enough. But what really depressed me was that the song dissected the ugly state of our nation far more effectively and explicitly than anything currently on MTV, commercial radio or the Billboard charts.
Where are the new protest songs? Over a million Americans have already taken to the streets to protest President Bush's insane war on Iraq, so there's clearly an audience for musical dissent. It's not like there's a lack of other pressing issues to write about, either, with our civil liberties getting rolled back in the name of preserving freedom, and Bush and John Ashcroft attempting to return America to the God-fearing values of the '50s the 1650s, that is. The environment, affirmative action and Roe v. Wade are all under direct assault from the Bush administration; the economy stinks; millions of Americans have fallen below the poverty line; and the Enron and WorldCom scandals are still unresolved. You'd think that a substantial number of our prominent recording artists might be pissed off enough to pen a song or two about any of the above, right?
Wrong. In the year and a half since the World Trade Center attacks, there's been no shortage of jingoistic, flag-waving songs. But disappointingly few "name" artists have wrestled on wax with the deeper implications of the post-9/11 world, with the notable exceptions of Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and System of a Down. But System vocalist Serj Tankian, whose band has never shied away from sociopolitical commentary, isn't surprised by the current lack of dissent in popular music.
"Except for certain instances in the '60s and the '70s, that's pretty much nothing new, so it's hard to be disappointed," says the singer. "I don't listen to the radio, generally, and I don't watch television, because there's not a lot of interesting stuff there for me. The more pop culture gets stale and glacial, the more it loses its meaning, and the more the songs that you hear make no sense whatsoever."
Or maybe they just take on chilling new meanings. Certainly it was unsettling to hear Shania Twain's "I'm Gonna Getcha Good" blaring from a newsstand radio while scanning headlines about the Pentagon's plans to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Iraq. But though I don't really expect Shania to rush-release a new single called "That Idiot Bush Will Get Us All Killed," it sure would be nice to see more influential pop, rock and rap stars making music that reflects the fears and uncertainties of our contemporary existence, be it on the grand scale of Marvin Gaye's 1971 album, What's Going On?, or the more modest level of "Out of Work," the Springsteen-penned 1982 hit by Gary "U.S." Bonds.
"With the artists that are at the top of the charts, I think it's an open question whether they care less about world events, or they just have less access to accurate information," says Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello. "One of the crucial differences between now and the late '60s and early '70s, when there was a lot of protest music reaching the top of the charts, is the access of the average American to information about what is really going on. In 1971, you were able to see firsthand TV news footage of little naked Vietnamese girls who had been burned by napalm paid for with U.S. tax dollars. You won't see the Afghanistan equivalent or the Iraq equivalent on TV today; instead, it's all this kind of sanitized, Orwellian talk of 'freedom' and 'hope' and 'desert flowers blooming.'"
Morello, along with Serj Tankian, last year founded Axis of Justice, a political-action organization whose Web site (axisofjustice.org) includes world news reportage offering a considerably wider perspective than you'd get from what Morello calls "the corporate stranglehold of U.S. media." Of course, that corporate stranglehold extends to radio, as well; Morello's previous outfit, Rage Against the Machine, was famously name-checked in a September 2001 memo from the major-media conglomerate Clear Channel Communications, which suggested that the band's songs along with such radical anthems as John Lennon's "Imagine" and Elton John's "Daniel" were too offensive for transmission on the company's 1,170 radio stations in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. In other words, with the FCC allowing media companies to own multiple stations in major markets, the airplay prospects for dissent-minded artists have narrowed considerably since the early '90s.
"A big record company will still put out a 'subversive' record if they know they can make a lot of money off of it," says Anthony Castillo, leader of L.A.'s politically charged power-poppers Slow Motorcade, "it just won't get played on the radio. Profit is the media's motivation, not breaking new artists with a point of view." Still, Castillo says, "There are folks out there who are making music that is relevant to the grave state of the world today, like Saul Williams, Michael Franti, Ani DiFranco, KRS-One and Public Enemy; you just have to dig around to find them." Morello agrees. "There's a long list of more underground artists who may not have the 'hit-making apparatus' behind them, but are definitely voicing opinions of dissent that are important to listen to," he says.
Dennis Lyxzen, vocalist for Sweden's anti- capitalist soul-punks the (International) Noise Conspiracy, speaks highly of recent records by Bruce Springsteen and rappers the Coup, but he'd still like to see more young rockers venture into political discourse. "It's weird to see all these new bands talking about how they love the MC5," he says. "The MC5 were part of the White Panther Party, a really radical, revolutionary group, but no one mentions that; it's more about the guitar solos. I like the guitar solos, too, and I don't expect everyone who plays in a band to be outspoken about politics, or to be well-read on the economic structures of the world. But when you have a case like George Bush, you need to say something. 'We oppose the war in Iraq,' or 'We oppose a war on civilians' you don't need to be a professor of sociology to say that."
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"I THINK THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A GREATER need for voices of dissent to be raised, and for thought-provoking questions to be asked," says Morello, "whether it's in the classroom, or the workplace, or on the turntable." Or perhaps even on the awards-show circuit: Sheryl Crow, who's never exactly been rock's answer to Rosa Luxembourg, appeared at the recent American Music Awards in a T-shirt reading "War Is Not the Answer." It was a simple gesture, but a gutsy and refreshing one, coming from an artist of her mainstream stature.
Hopefully, some of Crow's peers will follow her lead; maybe a few more multiplatinum pop stars will ask the questions that beg to be addressed, loudly and publicly, instead of quietly crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. Get your licks in now, folks; you never know when the First Amendment might be suspended "in the interests of national security."
"See, it isn't Hitler you've gotta hate; that's not who you've gotta watch out for," Motorhead's Lemmy Kilmister told me last year, when asked about "Brave New World," a searing track from 2002's Hammered that takes issue with the Bush administration's use of fear to manipulate the electorate. "We have to watch out for the people who did it for Hitler, without any questions asked; the normal people who were afraid to speak up and lose their jobs. Those are the people you have to watch out for, and the world's always been full of them."
As our planet teeters on the brink of annihilation, millions of us turn to music for solace, for the strength to face down our demons and for proof that we're not alone in the universe. Will our artists rise to the challenge, speak out and give us the courage to do the same? Or will they simply stand in mute witness to the madness of King George?