The Times They Are a Changin’: The Shifting Winds of Protest Music

The subject has been brought up by so many writers that by now that it’s almost cliché. It’s been asked by musicians, activists old and new, and music journalists alike. And as it’s become obvious just how devastating the US’ very presence in Iraq has become, it’s a question with a quickly growing urgency: "where are the protest songs?"

It’s not a simple question to answer. Writers are quick to call up memories of the late 60s and early 70s; the height of the movement against the Vietnam War. Duncan Campbell of the Guardian did when he wrote an article this past February as tens of thousands turned out in London and Glasgow against the occupation, and were entertained by renditions of Edwin Starr’s "War" (what is it good forâ€Â¦? You know the rest) and Dylan’s iconic and still-scathing "Masters of War."

"These are all great songs," Campbell pines, "but where is the defining anti-war anthem of today?" Campbell is by no means dismissive of the myriad artists that are putting out good, sometimes great, anti-war material. Instead, he puts forth that there has yet to be an anti-war song that "somehow captures the moment and the mood."

Nit-picky? Maybe, but he brings up a good point. It’s not that there aren’t any protest songs. It’s that most of them aren’t on the same level as the tunes that conjure up the timeless images of rebellion from the days of the Panthers and SDS. Where is our "Masters of War," our "What’s Going On," our "Give Peace a Chance?"

The answer lies in the very fabric of the modern music industry, and in our readiness to take it head on. So, this weekend as tens of thousands will once again turn out all over the country to stick it to Bush and co, it’s worth taking a look around and asking ourselves if we are going to ever hear that perfect soundtrack as we march in the streets.

You Hide Behind Words, You Hide Behind Desksâ€Â¦

But why would any of the major outlets we get our music from ever want to bestow such an anthem upon us? MTV has all but banned most anti-war videos. System of a Down’s "Boom" was neglected airplay because it contained facts and figures about the invasion of Iraq. MIA was told that her video for "Sunshowers" would not be aired until she took out references to the PLO. And PunkVoter.com was promptly told to screw right off by MTV when they asked to advertise their Rock Against Bush compilation in 2004.

The radio dial won’t yield any better results. Since the deregulation of the airwaves ten years ago, media behemoth Clear Channel now owns around sixty percent of local stations. Bad enough in itself, but the shameless radio tyrant’s hard pro-war stance makes it even worse. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Clear Channel paid for advertising pro-war rallies in Fort Wayne, Philly, Atlanta and Cleveland, and provided the entertainment. And then, of course, there was their infamous post 9/11 do-not-play list, not to mention their ban on the Dixie Chicks.

Moves like this are especially frightening considering the company’s increasing venture into live entertainment. When one of the most outspoken and successful radical artists of our time, Ani DiFranco, played a show the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 2003, Clear Channel, a main sponsor of the show, told her she would have her microphone cut off if she said anything political!

Free speech? Sorry, only for those who can afford it.

They’ll Stone When You’re Playing Your Guitar

Such censorship has relaxed to a degree in more recent years, but it’s important to recognize the effect that this has had on today’s artists, who some think are much more to blame. After Neil Young released his modern anti-Bush classic Living With War last year he told the LA Times that he felt compelled to record it after "waiting for someone to come along, some young singer eighteen to twenty-two years old, to write these songs and stand up." Apparently unsatisfied, he decided that his generation, those who had weathered the 60s, was the generation that had to stand up.

This prompted musician Stephan Smith-Said to write a response "Hey, Neil Young, We Young Singers Are Hog-tied, Too," where he chronicled much of the censorship laid out above. Smith-Said’s response was important, because it also made very clear how much the music industry has changed since the days of Woodstock and Altamont.

The 60s didn’t have mega-companies like Clear Channel, and the idea of MTV was a long way off. The cut-throat record execs were there, as were promoters quick to scam their performers. But over the past forty years, the industry has found itself being divided between fewer and fewer hands. Four massive record companies now release over eighty percent of all albums in the world. And in the 60s, the idea of one corporation controlling over sixty percent of radio was unheard of. To make matters worse, the time-honored tradition of payola is alive and well, making sure that Clear Channel and the Big Four are constantly in each other’s pockets.

Rock n’ roll and Motown, the sounds that personify the 1960s, started as an alternative the old mode of music making, which was then mostly dominated by Hollywood and Broadway. They were profoundly youthful sounds, and in the case of Motown proudly and openly black. They were a sonic rebellion against the old status quo that was sending young people to die halfway around the world, yet couldn’t take care of them at home. But after the struggles of the sixties and early seventies died down, the industry got wise, and like most rebellions, they figured out a way to market it.

You Don’t Need A Weathermanâ€Â¦

But it would be wrong to say that all hope is lost. By the time the seventies hit, the fight against racism and war had reached its highest levels. Millions in the US considered themselves revolutionaries, and even the record industry couldn’t ignore it. Dylan’s recordings were flying off the shelves and The Stones had chronicled the exploits of a "Streetfighting Man." Marvin Gaye was experiencing his greatest success with a beautiful and conscious album, and five young troublemakers from Detroit known as the MC5 were starting to earn the notice and hatred of the establishment with their calls for revolution. These were artists that embodied that 60s’ spirit of pitched resistance and gave us the feeling that another world is possible.

Today, anti-war sentiment has crystallized. While we have yet to see the massive upswing in protest from the sixties, it is undeniable that we have reached a turning point. The disaster in Iraq is obvious to most people with a brain in this country, and the anti-war movement has seen some long awaited signs of life.

Similarly, this opposition has poked its head into mainstream music. While MTV refused to give PunkVoter a slot, Green Day’s punk-opera American Idiot has gone five times platinum since its release. The Dixie Chicks, whose fates Clear Channel attempted to seal with their ban, took the Grammy home for Album of the Year last month. Quite an achievement considering many country stations still won’t play their material. And, of course, Rage Against the Machine have announced a reunion. About damn time!

Might these artists be the ones to deliver that iconic tune of the rebellion to come in 21st century America? Only time will tell. But one thing is sure. The more we build our open resistance to their power, the more they will be forced to take notice. The day the president looks out his window and realized he’s lost control of us, the record execs will realize the same thing. That will be the day when our ship finally comes in.

Alexander Billet is a Music journalist and activist living in Washington DC. He is a regular contributor to ZNet, and has also appeared CounterPunch, MRzine, Socialist Worker and Dissident Voice. He is working on his first book, The Kids Are Shouting Loud: The Music and Politics of The Clash.

His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at [email protected]



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