I buggin' you?"
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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."
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
up the Protest Pieces
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.
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.
also likely that we the people have sobered up. Is
protest music just too naíve? 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 is what social critics have been saying for
almost a decade now; that by and large, this generation
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.
Out Arenas and Just Plain Selling Out
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.
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?
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.
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.
Power of Present Day Protest
October 3, 1992, Sinéad 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
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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
Rise and Evolution
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.
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.
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
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."