"Which Way The Wind Blows: What Has Happened To Protest Music?"
Gadfly, 2000-10, by: Grant Rosenberg
"Am I buggin' you?"
With these words, it seemed that the last of the large-scale protest music sputtered out. It's the autumn of 1987, and U2 is playing "Silver and Gold," a recording available on the concert album Rattle and Hum. After a couple of verses, Bono begins to discuss the song's genesis. He speaks of Apartheid; of black South Africans ready to take up arms against their white aggressors; of Bishop Tutu and economic sanctions. And then, either aware that the crowd isn't there to hear him ramble on about injustice-or simply because too much socio-political awareness might not be cool anymore-Bono asks the aforementioned question. It's followed by, "don't mean to bug ya...okay Edge, play the blues." But Edge doesn't play the blues. He plays the same guitar solo he always plays, and he does it well. But it might as well have been the blues.
With the Internet creating a white noise of consumer culture, of hyperlinks inviting us to "click here to buy this CD now!" next to the supposedly objective reviews themselves, of overproduced, pajama party pre-packaged music acts, protest music has all but gone the way of the eight-track. I'm not talking about the trite, vague message songs about "issues" but of the detailed stories of specific incidents or plights of injustice.
What has happened to protest music? The short answer is that the music industry, like the film industry before it, has been co-opted by the lowest common denominator. The product is now aimed for young teens, appealing to their (or their parents') buying power. Because Britney/Christina/Backstreet Boys/'N Sync and the superficial punk-metal-thrash-rap of Korn, Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock are the big sellers, more like them are on the way. Most interestingly, it was rapper Eminem who dislodged Britney Spears from the top of the charts back in early June with an album that, among other accomplishments dubious and otherwise, ridiculed her act. It's a competition of disingenuousness; the innocence of the former Mickey Mouse Club kids versus the faux anti-establishment moxie of frat-boy aggression with chips on their shoulders. Meanwhile, serious, challenging music that appeals to the heart and mind gets left behind. Aside from the bevy of lesser-known bands putting out quality political music and a few other notable exceptions, the most prominent form of protest left is against the industry itself by artists who deliberately avoid playing into corporate hands. This can be in the form of selling albums outside of music stores, offering super-cheap tickets at non-traditional venues, combating Ticketmaster or sidestepping record companies altogether. The statements and stakes of each era may be different, but they are made with no less urgency.
Protest's Pedigree Unraveled
Back in 1961, Bob Dylan was just a scruffy young kid from Hibbing, Minnesota with a new name and a penchant for protest. He sought out Woody Guthrie and soon became his heir apparent. After his self-titled album of old folk blues covers (and the original "Song to Woody"), Dylan released two albums chock-full of protest music. Several songs were about war and the threat of nuclear destruction, each with a different perspective. "Masters of War" was filled with sneering contempt, "Talkin' World War III Blues" with humor and "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" with a sense of despondent nostalgia.
In addition to his iconic songs about the changing tides of politics, Dylan wrote songs like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." A man named William Zanzinger, a 24-year-old society gentleman who had thrown his twirling cane at her, killed Carroll, a Baltimore kitchen maid and mother of ten. Though Zanzinger was charged with murder, he was let off with a six- month sentence. This is the kind of song that protest music is all about. It caused millions, particularly in white, middle-class America, to be aware of a little-known woman for whom justice was not served. If Zanzinger couldn't be given a heavier sentence, Carroll could at least be avenged in this small way and continue to fuel the civil rights fire. The pen, and the guitar, can indeed be mighty.
As Dylan continued recording, each album had fewer outright political songs and more about complicated personal relationships, as well as some tongue-in-cheek hootenanny. By 1966, his famed "going electric" controversy seemed less a shock about instruments and more of an acknowledgment that he was a musician first, a social critic second. Dylan knew that causes come and go and, by golly, he wanted to rock and still be around as the times changed.
Take a look at Bob Dylan today and then look at Joan Baez, whose albums have stayed within the folk/protest genre for the better part of 30 years. Their careers, though both successful, tell markedly different stories. Through the years, Dylan balanced the rock 'n' roll with the protest and consequently brought it into the mainstream, onto radios across the country. Protest is noble, but if a song is sung about hardship and there is no audience, does it make a sound?
Some say it does and that it's more effective precisely when it's playing a tight message to a tight audience. "I think when protest is sprayed out like water over a disinterested crowd, it's utterly ineffective," explains Steve Albini, recording engineer and musician in the indie band Shellac. "And that was the problem with protest in the 1960s. It was a largely softened political agenda that was widely distributed rather than an intense and reasoned agenda that focused on those who would be sympathetic to it. Dylan wasn't popular because he sang protest music. He was popular because people liked him as a personality."
Still, in the mid-'70s, his song "Hurricane"-about the boxer Rubin Carter unjustly convicted of triple murder-was instrumental in raising the support that led to a retrial. Like his best protest music, Dylan detailed the events and named names. But unlike earlier lyrically dense songs where the melody was almost an afterthought, this song rocked. For the first time, Dylan confidently used the music to further the cause, pushing himself and the listener to outrage, then to disgusted, impotent resignation. From Protester to Realist.
Picking up the Protest Pieces
At some point, though, the train ran off the tracks. Why? It might be that protest music is by definition the wearing of one's heart on one's sleeve, and, therefore, it lacks a subtlety that some call "maturity." Or maybe now we just like our issues served up real quick with a nice, clean, splashy layout-the byproduct of high-speed Internet connections and ubiquitous e- commerce. Like political speeches at awards ceremonies, all-out protest music seems frowned upon for its nagging insolence; you can wear the ribbons, just don't talk about it too much.
Another possibility is that there isn't much to protest these days with the same unified fervor. We often hear that this generation has no war to fight, and it is likely that protest music is tied to the notion that all that is vital to protest has passed. But, of course, things are far from perfect. Rather, it's that the enemy is diffused and abstract rather than some definite person, place or thing. How do you write a protest song against globalization or the dangers of the homogenizing entertainment, while recording on a corporate label? More on that later.
It's also likely that we the people have sobered up. Is protest music just too na?ve? Has too little change turned us all into cynics? Are we just resigned to the wicked ways of the world? In R.E.M.'s song "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" we hear the lyric, "Richard said withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy." He was referring to a quote from Richard Linklater, the director of the independent cult film Slacker. Or maybe it's what social critics have been saying for almost a decade now; that by and large, this generation is apathetic.
What about the fear of perception on the part of the artist? As soon as a singer sings of tragic events like Bloody Sunday and continues to receive the accolades and the riches that follow, he or she risks looking like a hypocrite. Much like documentary filmmakers must weather criticism that they are riding the backs of their oftentimes downtrodden film subjects to success, famous musicians have their own conundrum to worry about; sing about bubble gum and compromise your integrity or sing about serious, worthy topics for those who don't have a voice and profit from it.
Selling Out Arenas and Just Plain Selling Out
Just as I knew as a child that a working class hero was something to be, even before I ever looked at a history book, I knew what Khe Sanh was. And I knew that the narrator in Springsteen's song "Born in the USA" had a brother who died fighting the Viet Cong.
In many ways, Springsteen was a more logical true son to Guthrie than Dylan. Despite his arena rock, or perhaps because of it, Springsteen has put out literate, understated albums like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad that focus on the trials of the workingman. These songs are less metered lyrics than they are stanzas of short stories. But would Springsteen have had his present career if he had only put out albums such as these?
Just this past June, Springsteen was boycotted by New York's Fraternal Order of Police for his song "41 Shots (American Skin)." In it, he addresses the February 1999 murder of Amadou Diallo, who was shot at 41 times and killed by the NYPD as he stood unarmed in his own doorway in the Bronx. Such publicity brought more attention to Diallo's memory, as well as the gratitude of his family. As of this writing, despite the hoopla surrounding his performances of the song, Springsteen has not made any comment to the press. Instead, he lets the song speak for itself. It's an example of true protest music-where attention has been given in newspaper headlines. Otherwise, aloof millionaire or not, he's got the ultimate forum for an op-ed letter.
One of the major musical trends of the 1970s was celebrities using their fame to bring attention to a cause; John Lennon, with his and Yoko's bed-ins, asking us to give peace a chance and George Harrison and his 1973 concert for Bangladesh, for example. Concerts like Harrison's paved the way for FARM-AID, LIVE-AID, BAND-AID (and the Tibetan Freedom Concerts of recent years) as well as the celebrity saturation of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are The World." More specifically, the new era of the Thatcher/Reagan/ Bush one-two-three punch gave the liberals of the arts plenty of grievances, allowing protest to blossom again. Between The Sex Pistols ("God Save the Queen") and other punk, U2 ("Sunday Bloody Sunday"), Genesis ("Land of Confusion"), Springsteen ("Born In the USA") and so many more, the conservatives of both nations were pummeled like the good old days.
The Power of Present Day Protest
On October 3, 1992, Sinead O'Connor appeared as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live. After singing the Bob Marley song "War" a cappella, she held out a photograph of Pope John Paul II, said the words "fight the real enemy" and ripped it apart. Later, she said it was a protest against the Catholic Church, not the frail, old pope himself. But was it really protest music? Strictly speaking, yes, though many would disagree with its validity and fairness. A week later, at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden, she took the stage to sing a Dylan song, where she was booed-causing her to abandon the Dylan song and again sing "War" before leaving the stage.
There is no need to comment on the irony of being cast away for dissenting views at a Dylan concert, any more than there is to comment on the violence and destruction at Woodstock '99. In the past eight years, O'Connor has put out a handful of albums and retains a loyal fan base, but her career has never been the same. She was protesting an institution that she believed was corrupt, but her action crossed a line for too many people.
It cannot be denied that protest music is made with one licked finger in the wind, checking that court of public opinion. If rock 'n' roll is a religious revival, then protest music is a political rally-preaching to the choir. Marilyn Manson, for all his shock value, is really just playing into a safe demographic. "I'm sure millions of kids think of him as the ultimate protester against conformity," says Brett Grossman, music buyer for Reckless Records stores in Chicago. "But he's just protesting for the sake of protesting. As much as you might want to write him off, if I was a 12-year-old boy who hated my parents, I can't say that he wouldn't move me as much as Dylan might if I was a 19-year-old in Greenwich Village in 1961."
"It's funny," continues Grossman, "whereas in the late '60s, high gas prices would have resulted in marches through the city. Now, in the year 2000, I'm participating in a gas strike via e-mail. I don't even have to get out of my chair or talk to anyone. It seems that there is less of a need to protest in a unified way nowadays. I think that attitude is quite evident in music." This kind of lackadaisical protest is rebellion without a cause and not much different than the idea of art for art's sake, which can smack of boredom and laziness.
Along with other major label socially/politically active bands like Pearl Jam and Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals, it seems that Rage Against The Machine has always been forthright in their political convictions. Self-described socialists, they record for Sony Music and, unlike the other two bands, make videos and even play shows exclusively for MTV. The band has given much to charity, including all the proceeds from the song "Freedom" toward freeing Leonard Peltier. The song's video was a short history lesson, explaining the circumstances of Peltier's wrongful imprisonment. To critics of the band, their individual wealth doesn't jibe with their Marxist point of view.
Important questions need to be asked: Is Rage Against The Machine cheapening its message by appearing on MTV, the source of much of the culture that the band criticizes? Or is it like Rush Limbaugh's defense of his Playboy interview as "going where the message most needs to be heard?" Albini doesn't think this protest music strategy works. "The most effective use of political energy is to focus the attention on those sympathetic to your cause, rather than try to win converts. Because winning converts, as Religion has found, usually doesn't work. People will convert themselves or not at all."
Having her own record label-Righteous Babe Records-Ani DiFranco has proven to be a fearless protester. Often criticized for being too...everything, DiFranco consistently puts out albums that call attention to the troubles of the day, from gun control to abortion to general hypocrisy. There are plenty of small bands that sing this stuff, but they don't appear on The Tonight Show. And yet DiFranco, on the gun control-commenting title track of her most recent album, To the Teeth, sings, "open fire on Hollywood, open fire on MTV, open fire on NBC and CBS and ABC." Part of the reason DiFranco is able to talk about these things is the frequency of her output; whereas most established musicians release new material every three or even four years, DiFranco, like Dylan in his prime, puts out an album almost every year. This is one of the necessities of protest-timeliness. The Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song "Ohio" was in stores and on the radio within two weeks after the shootings at Kent State.
Contrast this with the 1991 Grammy Awards, during the Persian Gulf conflict, where Dylan sang his 1963 song "Masters of War." It rang hollow, trying in vain to recapture the ire 28 years hence. It was just too much of an Establishment moment to impact the national goings- on. After all, President Bush had his highest approval rating since taking office, and the public by and large supported the military. So Dylan's defiance, no matter how heartfelt, fell on deaf ears.
Still, attempting to recapture the glory days of noble pursuits can be admirable, regardless of the outcome. Yet what are we to make of hearing these songs in commercials? Even the most idealistic listener must sink into cynicism when hearing songs like The Beatles' "Revolution" and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" in ads for shoes and beer, respectively. Popular songs used in commercials cause purists to sigh and perhaps chuckle, but selling a song that expressed the outrage of a generation is a slap in the face to those with convictions in its content. Commenting on Dylan selling the rights to "The Times They Are A-Changin'" to a financial company, Eddie Vedder told Spin Magazine in 1996, "I can only hope it's some kind of ironic joke."
Rap's Rise and Evolution
Born out of the disenfranchisement of the early 1980s and leading into today is rap music. Like protest, it was concerned more with words than melody, and it let the rest of the country know about the ills of the inner city. Starting as messages that White America didn't want to hear, rap reached its peak in the wake of the L.A. riots. Songs like "Fuck tha Police" by N.W.A, "911 is a Joke" by Public Enemy and "Cop Killer" by Ice-T all spoke about community and government that were supposed to be helping the people but had failed. Unlike earlier protest music, which was for the most part mild mannered and temperate, rap's aggression scared the rest of the country into paying attention.
Then something changed. Much like protest music searching for its own identity after the end of the Vietnam War, rap began to draw out its short sampling of other songs until it arrived at what we have today-rapping new lyrics over famous songs in their entirety, usually changing the song's meaning in the process to suit its intentions.
And what with its extravagance and pageantry, the rap/hip-hop world has shown that it can be as materialistic as Beverly Hills-and all that rap formerly reserved its rancor for. With Puff Daddy, Missy Elliott, R. Kelly and Will Smith, it seems there is no such thing as selling out anymore; it's a status indicator to show that you've arrived. Phil Sheridan, writing in Magnet Magazine, speculated that "so much rap was about how much money the rapper was making and how nice his car and clothes were, there was no reason for rap fans to equate making money with giving up credibility."
I Have Seen the Future and It Is Polarized
People used to make records As in a record of an event The event of people playing music in a room Now everything is cross-marketing It's about sunglasses and shoes Or guns and drugs, you choose. "Fuel" by Ani DiFranco
With all the corporate mergers, with record labels owned by larger corporations that have a forest of subsidiaries, most major musical acts, lyrically, are playing it safe. The only mention I've ever heard of Microsoft in a song was by Will Smith, and that was for the purpose of self- aggrandizement. Are there now more toes to step on than there used to be?
Albini doesn't think so. "The market pressures and political pressures are exactly the same as they have always been. There is no difference between now and the '60s, or even the '40s. The topics of discussion are different, that's all. Everything else is the same. Big record companies want to consolidate their power and influence. They don't want to lose their market share, so if something causes them trouble in a political arena they will do everything they can to wash their hands of it."
Despite knowing this score full well, there is no shortage of those eager to step up to the plate to play in these majors. And with so many songs being used in television commercials, with such heavy windfalls to be gained from appearing on soundtracks of uninspired films-when so much of the industry is for sale, it seems like it's hard to avoid being swallowed up by the commercial machine. Albini denies this. "To be part of the mainstream music industry requires active participation," he says. "You have to go out of your way for it to happen. People have to exert effort to be part of all that. Shellac doesn't exert any effort in that regard; we organize shows, we make records and put them out. That's the extent of our involvement. We don't participate in the business on any other level. We don't have a lawyer manager or booking agent. Our record label is run by an old friend. It's all personal relationships precisely as you may have them in any environment."
A band like Fugazi exemplifies protest against the industry. The band releases albums frequently, at a lower cost than the rest of the business. Likewise, Fugazi's live shows are inexpensive. Their music isn't played on corporate radio, and they don't do publicity with corporate magazines. Still, they have thrived and continue to, along with other bands on the Dischord (and Southern Records) label. Though some of their songs (such as "Smallpox Blanket") are protest music, it is their actions, their-for lack of a better phrase-business plan that puts them at the fore of making a statement on the downward spiral of the music industry itself. And they do all this without self-congratulatory commentary. Depending on the trajectory of things, a day may come when the strongest form of protest music will be silence.
So where are we, then? In a rather interesting irony, it is the Internet, that beast of commerce whose success directly related to that of Microsoft's, that provides an escape plan. It's in webtools like Napster making music available for free. It's in established, radio-friendly major label musicians like Courtney Love, Kristin Hersh, Grant-Lee Philips and Aimee Mann all trying to make their living independently and cutting out middlemen like record companies and (in some instances) retailers. As Love said in a speech at the Digital Hollywood Online Entertainment conference last May, "major labels are freaking out because they have no control in the new world. Artists can sell CDs directly to fans. We can make direct deals with thousands of other Web sites and promote our music to millions of people that old record companies never touch."
These singers are getting closer and closer to the true freedom of protesting anything they damn well please. And it's the Internet, technology's unpredictable double-edged sword, which is bringing with it the revolution-political, technological and artistic. We said we wanted one, didn't we?