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Where Have All the Protest Songs Gone?

John-Paul Bruno

the anti-war movement growing today has produced activism on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War. Once again, the American people are being told that they are fighting an ideological war, upon which their so-called freedom may rest. This time the supposed enemy is Terrorism, as opposed to Communism. Like the Sixties, there is a strong anti-war sentiment is beginning to take shape, as evidenced by the protests held worldwide on January 18 and February 15. However, unlike the sixties when protest songs provided the soundtrack to the demonstrations, today’s Rock and Roll drums of peace seem oddly quiet. However, bubbling underground, we can look to the independent musicians and labels, where the lion’s share of current protest songs can be found, and a truly alternative scene is being born. Obviously a direct comparison between the Vietnam War and the potential use of force against Iraq is impossible. Protesting in the current times can be a daunting task for performers who are image conscious. The danger of being branded as Anti-American, or as a sympathizer of real or perceived terrorists can put an artist in a difficult position, even if they do harbour misgivings about attacking the Middle East.

In the immediate aftermath of 9-11, popular musicians were falling over themselves to involve themselves in benefits and record tributes to the fallen. Within days huge benefit concerts were staged, telethons featuring a who’s who of popular music were miraculously organized, singles were released and videos hit store shelves. This shows that musicians are more than eager to make a statement on the issues of the day. The current state of technology and the potential speed at which information and media can travel in today’s world makes popular music very quick to respond to current events. Today, we are months into a crisis between the United States and Iraq which is being widely denounced all over the world, and it would seem as though the usually outspoken world of Rock and Roll is afraid to speak out. Granted, there is little point of comparison between the terrorist attacks of 2001, and the current much lauded “Showdown With Iraq”. Both situations do, however, represent a potential rallying point for artists, and in the past few years it has been difficult to find many issues that would not attract at least some musicians to their cause. However, most artists seem more concerned with attaching their names to humanitarian movements, rather than political ones. At first glance, this appears to be the case with the burgeoning anti-war movement, even as it gains steam day after day. Popular music has a history of reflecting the times in which it is born. Be it the political nature of the sixties, the excesses of the Seventies and Eighties, or the general malaise of Generation X who came of age in the Nineties. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before someone comes up with a mainstream anthem for the anti-war movement.

Popular music in the sixties began to speak out against the intervention in Vietnam at a very early stage. America’s involvement in the war was gradual and consistently escalated. Likewise were the songs that questioned the war. Protest music did not begin to really enter the mainstream music scene until 1965, very early on in America’s involvement, with Barry Maguire’s “Eve of Destruction”. In a sense, this top twenty single ushered in the mainstream acceptance of Counter-culture ideas. By the late sixties Rock and the anti-war movement were seemingly inseparable. Music festivals doubled as peace rallies. High profile artists, such as John Lennon and the Beatles, became actively involved with the peace movement. As of yet, no contemporary artists have stepped forward to become the standard bearers of the new anti-war movement, even though many have been expressing doubt about American foreign policy since the “War on Terror” began in earnest with efforts in Afghanistan. Even Jimi Hendrix, a former paratrooper for the U.S. Army and self described patriot, who had as late as 1967 spoken in support of American intervention in Indo-China seemed to have had a change of heart by the time of Woodstock. Aside from his rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner”, his “Machine Gun” was an obvious plea for peace both at home and abroad.

Sneaking in under the radar we find many independent artists speaking their minds and talking out against the “war on Terrorism” and the current political atmosphere. Independent Mother Superior Ani Difranco included a tirade against the Bush clan entitled “Self -Evident” on her newest double live set. America is “under the thumb of some blue blood royal son who stole the oval office and that phony election” she proclaims. Difranco has long been a social critic, and her prolific string of rapid-fire releases always keeps her targets current. She also manages to sell a respectable number of CD’s, without the benefit of the major label juggernaut of promotion. Independent artists, such as Difranco, have the relative freedom to record and issue material as they see fit, allowing them to tackle current issues, while they are fresh in the listener’s mind.

Even more to the point, Billy Bragg’s recently recorded “Price of Oil” single is a no holds barred attack on what he perceives as America’s true interest in the Middle East. Much like Country Joe and the Fish’s “Feel like I’m a Fixin’ to Die Rag” was a straightforward rant on current events. While the Bragg track does not take the tongue-in-cheek attitude of Country Joe, both are a clear example of blatant protest. Unfortunately, in most cases independent artists and labels have neither the advertising nor the industry clout of the majors, and in many cases deserving artists have a difficult time of making an impression on the general consciousness. Both the Difranco and the Bragg tracks can be found on the recently released “Peace-not-War” compilation, put together by an organization of the same name to raise funds for anti-war groups. Unfortunately for us in North America it is only available as a pricey double-disc import, but for all Billy Bragg fans it is, so far, the only commercial release of his new track.

Michael Franti and Spearhead have penned what could well become the catch-phrase for the current peace movement with “You Can Bomb the World to Pieces (but you can’t bomb it into peace)”, which has yet to see a commercial release, but, has already become a fan favourite at live shows which are available (and band sanctioned) on the internet. The latest proper album release from Spearhead was a concept album entitled “Stay Human”, which mixed equal parts Soul, Hip-Hop, Rock and social commentary to stunning effect. The album told the story of the fictional “Sister Fatima” on the eve of her execution for murder through staged radio segments inter-cut with the music. In many ways this recording was a concept album much in the same vein as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, tackling a feeling of general dislike at current events and policies. The album was released on his own “Boo Boo Wax” imprint, and while it did garner a great deal of notice from Spearhead fans and critics, went largely unnoticed by the general public.

We can also look closer to home to find some examples of politically motivated music. The fine Canadian independent label G-7 Welcoming Committee, is home to a host of bands intent on using their music to comment on the social landscape. The recently released Warsawpack album contains many references to our society’s use of oil as a political tool and the willingness of Western Governments to use whatever means necessary to ensure that they have control of the precious supply. “Year of the Car Crash” talks about the upcoming drying up of the oil wells. As they say “I’ve got the proper Metaphor for your disease, a sinking ship like the Exxon Valdez.” Propaghandi, founders of G-7 records, latest release “Today’s Empires, Tommorow’s Ashes”not only included such musical statements as “Bullshit Politicians” and “Albright Monument Baghdad”, but an enhanced portion of multi-media content focusing on the work of political activists. With a hard edge sound, and unapologetic political stance Propaghandi is using not only music, but also CD-ROM content to partner music and video protest. With content ranging from an exposition of the FBI’s investigation of the Black Panthers and a scholarly look at American Foreign Policy, it shows the broad approach to social commentary taken not only by Propaghandi, but also by many contemporary artists. In many ways this mirrors the activism of the music festivals merging with political ideas, albeit in digital media, rather than a live setting.

All of these are a far cry from the troubadours of the sixties. Current artists tend to take a more generalized approach to protest, rather than focusing on a specific problem or course of action, whereas in the Sixties artists tended to focus on the war in Vietnam. While there are exceptions, one would think that the numbers of people showing up at protests would seem to cry out to the desperate music industry. One needs only to look at the Anti-globalization protests in Quebec City to see the large numbers of target audience record buyers with a lot on their minds. Yet, in these turbulent times, the major labels seem to be ignoring artists with a social agenda. It may be that releasing an artist who protests the current state of the world is in conflict with the powers that now own the Major Labels - Large Corporations. A record company owned by a media conglomerate (Warner), or a multinational utility company (Universal Music) can only be expected to tow the corporate line. The major label system of the sixties was in many ways much more akin to the independent music business of today. Labels tended to be stand alone businesses rather than divisions of a larger entity. In the nineties the airwaves became inundated with what could best be called “McMusic”. Mass-produced, nutrition free, high calorie creations, which clogged the airwaves. An endless supply of them seemed to be waiting under the heating lamps for the next customer. Ironically, the career of the Beatles still serves as the blueprint for turning an artist into a cultural sensation. The Beatles had been one of the anti-war movements most vocal adherents as “Give Peace a Chance” summed up the feelings of the anti-war movement of the day. Today, television shows like American Idol show us just how manufactured these Pop stars can be, and how interchangeable they all are. The Backstreet Boys, Nsync, or any of their counterparts could trade songs and clothes without any difficulty. Instant profit is the mantra and artist development has been shelved in the interest of the easy dollar.

So, where does that leave those who are looking for some music with some sort of a political message? The success of Rage against the Machine shows that people are interested in (or al least ambivalent enough) about a political message in music even when marketed by Sony long renowned as one of the examples of “the Machine”. Yet, in an odd move for cash hungry corporations, they ignore this market. Obviously, from the standpoint of a large multinational corporation rocking the boat is not encouraged any longer. Looking back again to 2001, when rap group “The Coup” released their Party Music CD. Due to artwork portraying the Twin Towers in flames, the release was pulled from store shelves. Perhaps the major labels are concerned that they could end up in a situation where art mirrors reality in not only an embarrassing, but also even more costly situation.

For those looking for music which reflects the current political landscape there is still the approximately fourteen percent of the music sold in North America which is released through independent labels. Obviously not all independent artists are in it for political purposes, and not all sing songs of protest. However, the proportion is much higher than under the major label system. It is here where we need to look to find the few gems of the tradition of musical protest. The artists mentioned above provide only a brief look at the burgeoning musical underground. But, if you are interested, be prepared to dig deeply, as you probably won’t hear many dissenting views on the radio any time soon.

John-Paul Bruno is a resident of Toronto, currently employed (and suitably jaded) in the Canadian Music Industry.

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