Friday, May 05, 2006

The Songs, They Are A-Changin'

"A great song is a hammer that shapes the time you live in."

-- Tom Morello (Nightwatchman), Rolling Stone, Apr. 17, 2006
Four years ago Jeff Chang, writing for San Jose's Silicon Valley Metro asked, "[W]hy, since Sept. 11, have we heard so little new music protesting Bush Junior's war on evil?" Glancing backwards, he reminisced over anti-war classics of yesteryear:
During the Vietnam era, songs like Edwin Starr's "War," Jimi Hendrix's cover of "All Along the Watchtower," Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain" and "Wars of Armageddon," Jimmy Cliff's "Vietnam," Country Joe and the Fish's "Fixing to Die Rag," Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" and Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" turned defiance into a raging, soaring, brave and melancholic gestures of community.
He might have mentioned dozens of others, many of which provide the soundtracks for Vietnam War era movies. But in the post 9-11 era, so Chang wrote--
We've seen dozens of acts quietly bury their edgier songs. We've seen radio playlists rewritten so as not to "offend listeners." And we've seen Republican officials and the entertainment industry -- long divided over "traditional values" issues such as violent content and parental advisory stickering -- bury the hatchet.
Writing just a couple of weeks ago, AP's national music reviewer Nekesa Mumbi Moody agreed: "Songs with a political context remain in the minority, and there hasn't been an overwhelming indictment of the war or Bush in a multitude of songs."

We're happy to defer to the expertise of Mr. Chang and Ms. Moody -- or for that matter almost anyone else since we don't follow pop music all that closely. But on the flip side there is some evidence that Mr. Bush has inspired a library of new protest songs in the past five years.

Some are by familiar names (Mick Jagger's "Sweet Neocon") and others by a new generation (e.g., Justin Sane's Anti-Flag). Still others, the vast majority it would appear, are by musicians who seem to be in between. Some are conventional CD albums, but many more are in new formats like "podcasts" and MP3 files that can freely trade user-to-user, which makes it more difficult to assess how deeply they are sinking in with the public audience.

Certainly, one thing that distinguishes the Vietnam "then" from the Iraqi "now" is media attention. The popularity of new protest music has largely been met by overt hostility from the corporate media giants and radio station networks whose ownership is increasingly concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, as this site and this site and this site and this site explain in detail. These entities play a heavy role in promoting pop music and, some would say, dictating popular taste.

The Dixie Chicks are a well known example, the victims of a concerted boycott campaign by radio station networks over the last three years that started when they were at the top of the pop charts. Another is Burt Bachrach, who published the CD "At This Time" two years ago. Several songs on the album were widely understood to be anti-Bush. Breaking with the usual marketing strategies, he had to release it first in England rather than the U.S. Even so, when word of the Bachrach album's anti-administration theme surfaced in the U.S. he says a corporation "fired" him from "a rich, lucrative date for rich people."

But 'the times, they are a' changin' as someone once said -- along with the music. In the next few days, Neil Young issues his latest album, "Living With War." Already, a digital copy of the entire album is available in streaming audio at a web site that shares the same title. The unofficial Neil Young web site has much more. So does the official Crosby, Stills, & Nash web site, in preparation for the group's reunion with Young for their upcoming Freedom of Speech Tour.

David Fricke of Rolling Stone reports, astonishingly, that "Neil Young recorded the nine original songs on this album in six days, just a month ago. He wrote four of those songs on the day he cut them."

Pearl Jam also is issuing an anti-war album this week (similarly free for web listening) called, appropriately enough, Pearl Jam. The Rolling Stone's reviewer, Fricke, says of it, "Wartime, for all else that's wrong with it, brings out the best in Pearl Jam." And a new rock band (new to us, anyway) known as Elmer Creek Conspiracy has an independently-produced CD on the market titled "America In Denial" that seems to be drawing more attention.

Bruce Springsteen "gets in some licks," as David Corn puts it, in his new album celebrating "The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome." And John Fogerty, once of Creedence Clearwater Revival, starts a summer tour with Willie Nelson in south Florida next month. No doubt, those two will have a few choice songs for the Bush administration, too.

In the Vietnam war era, it was always open to debate whether anti-war music galvanized public sentiment against the war or merely reflected it. In the Iraq war era we find ourselves in now, it seems that disgust with the incompetence and willful public deceptions of the administration in power finally is reaching the corporate boardroom.

That can't be good for Bush administration officials but it well might be good for the popular culture.

1 comment:

Ginny in CO said...

Great review of the changing times on protest songs. I am an Elmer Creek Conspiracy fan. "America in Denial" is likely to appeal to a broad spectrum of listeners. Although their music is clearly in the 21st century, they remind me of Peter, Paul and Mary in the beauty of the music and how the words are clear and true but not done in an angry or ugly tone.

There is humor, pathos and a quality that is really amazing for an amateur band on their first CD. On their site you can check out the lyrics, link to the audio samples and to my full review at The Democratic Daily.

I've had the CD for 5 days and can sing along with every one. Started dancing to it and the dog got into it too :)