Friday, March 28, 2008

Nobody Sings Protest Songs Anymore

28 Mar 2008, 20:01 (edit | delete)
I hear this idea a lot. I hear it from people I know who sneer in general at peace protesters; from people who disagree with war, but don't want to appear "weak"; and from people who don't think, but feel that looking cynical is edgy and makes them seem smart. Sadly, I even hear it from people who actively protest; even they seem to feel that the outrage of the public is lacking in the face of the outrageous events of our day.

It's an insidious meme. The idea that our generation doesn't care enough to protest has crept across the media - the accusation ranges from Bill O'Reilly's assertions that "only stoned slackers" are watching The Daily Show, to stories on CNN about how many protest songs there used to be, and a widely repeated story by Jimmy Chang that accuses contemporary artists of burying their protests for the sake of sales.

But I say those characterizations are wrong. Dead wrong. As I said in my own blog, the Revolution is already in progress. It has also been described in an NPR story: "...the new generation is protesting in its own very modern way -- by recording protest-oriented music and posting it for downloading on Web sites, for free."

That was happening five years ago, when Lenny Kravitz released an online-only single recorded with Iraqi pop-star Kadim Al Sahir; you can still download "We Want Peace" orsee Lenny's clip discussing it on YouTube.

Protest is as strong as ever. Strong enough for Spinner to not only list the 20 important protest songs, but to come up with songs from each of the last four decades. Acts like Pearl Jam (World Wide Suicide) and Green Day (Minority and American Idiot) have always been vocal about their politics. Some have built their reputations on shouting their beliefs, like System of a Down with B.Y.O.B. (Explicit Album Version) and Serj Tankian's Empty Walls.

Some of the "elder statesmen" of rock have made protest their central theme, made even more significant by their artistic reactions to 9/11. Take Neil Young, who pulled no punches with the tribute to Flight 93, (Let's Roll), and has since release Living With War. Or Bruce Springsteen, who publicly mourned on The Rising and then championed the Kerry campaign in 2004. Maybe they haven't touched off the kind of popular reaction ofMarvin Gaye's classic What's Going On or become cultural touchstones like Bob Dylanand Joan Baez; but it is, after all, a different world.

Today's fires smolder under the upholstery.

Today's protest audience doesn't want platitudes; we have all the marching anthems we could want. John Lennon's Imagine and Give Peace a Chance, are all the slogan we need; Jimi Hendrix's wordless re-claiming of the Star Spangled Banner still strikes the same chord it has always struck.

These days, we know what the problem is; what we are hungry for is the solution. And this is where the modern protest song is hiding. Think of the subtle courage it takes forNada Surf to suggest to our world that we should Always Love. Consider the late Ofra Haza who sang about peace to Arabs and Israelis. And look at how hungry we are in America for someone like to share with us a song about Hope.

A protest doesn't have to be fiery; John Mayer proves that by Waiting For The World To Change. A protest can be Fun and Games, thanks to the Barenaked Ladies. The Indigo Girls are a constant act of defiance, in their way, and their music reflects that hope for a more Perfect World.

And what about you? What if you do speak up, and they tell you to shut up? What if they tell you that you're just a stoned slacker who doesn't know what you're talking about... even if it's true... you have every right to reply:

Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me.Because, thanks to our protesters - like Rage Against the Machine - defiance is still alive.

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