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.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Think vs. Feel; Know vs. Believe

I have been avoiding this subject for months, because deep down, I don't like to write about these things based on what I "feel". I would rather tell you what I "think". It is easier for me to defend what I know based on thinking.

Writing and arguing based on feeling strives to "persuade through Pathos", and that is the kind of persuasion that has dominated our public discourse for far too long. It's easier to appeal to peoples' fears than it is to appeal to their common sense. True, in a world as complicated as ours is, common sense often fails us; but so many of you claim to rely on it, that I try to base my opinions and beliefs on that, rather than an appeal to your emotions.

Of course, that hasn't ever worked, has it? My thinking predicted most of the awful things that have happened since 9/11. I told people close to me that we would be manipulated by our fears into starting the wrong war, and we were. I always tell people what I think, and they listen with varying degrees of politeness; but then they tell me what they feel, and brush away my thoughts as if I don't have a track record of being correct.

And now, along comes a presidential candidate whose appeal is based in a feeling: Hope. I think that hope is a much better feeling than fear; and I think that I like hearing what he has to say... especially after the last seven years of ignorant stubbornness, paternalistic condescension, and outright lies that we have put up with.

But I don't want to base my choice on a feeling.

And so, I have waited. I've waited for something to really think about. Something to base a real argument on, not just Hope. And I've watched with varying degrees of interest and tolerant patience as candidates have dropped away. Now we are down to a small handful, and while I still don't know quite what to think... I know what I feel.

I missed Barack Obama's speech on race the other night, but someone was kind enough to forward me the link. I won't quote anything here, because the entire speech was significant; I feel that our grandchildren will be studying that speech in school. In his speech, Mr. Obama said things that I have been thinking for a long, long time; that people of all races have legitimate concerns about their lot in life. That we need a leader with the courage - and the audacity - to make the changes we all need. That it's possible to overcome hatred and suspicion with patience and love.

This speech was an important answer to the cynics who criticize Mr. Obama's emphasis on Hope. It was a bold, thorough, and effective answer to questions raised about his background, his loyalties, and his commitment to unity. I don't think everyone will be convinced; too many people still feel afraid of what he represents, and will hide their fears behind words that make them sound thoughtful: "he's a socialist", or "he's naive", or "he's just too inexperienced."

But I don't think those criticisms are valid. He is not a Socialist; he speaks of the rights AND the obligations of our citizens. He speaks of the sins of the corporate culture without condemning all corporations. And, if you compare his attitude with his opponents, you begin to realize that experience itself isn't as important as the lessons you learn from it.

Most important to me, though, is the gentle firmness with which he defends his belief. If his belief in our ability to overcome our problems by working together is so laughably naive, and if there is no hope... then what could you possibly offer as an alternative?

I am sure there are dangers; I am sure there are valid questions that remain to be debated and addressed. But I know what I believe; and I think I can trust what I feel.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Dog Blog: Doots II, the Battle

The dog woke up, and her head snapped toward the sound she heard in the dark.

"Did you hear that?" Mom Lady was asking the Hairy Guy. He mumbled something that might have been a question about the price of prunes. "The mouse is in your trashcan!" That made him lift his head, at least.

The two humans and the canine listened intently, each hoping for a slightly different thing to happen. There was a snap of light, a rustle of plastic, the clatter and scatter of an overturned bedside trashcan, and a tink of radiator tines as a small body disappeared under the baseboards. The two humans cursed, and the dog pretended to go back to sleep.

"He’s getting brave," the Hairy Guy said. "I thought I saw him run across the hallway when I was in the bathroom last night, and tonight he ran under the ottoman while I was playing Zelda. I would have got him, but he ran back under the couch."

"Great, and now he’s in here." Mom Lady looked over at the supposedly sleeping dog, and said, "You better eat him before we get that poison set out. If you decide to eat him after, it’s your own fault!"

The dog was trying not to listen. She almost convinced herself that no one whispered "collaborator!" before drifting off again.

The next day was gorgeous; no wind, no rain, and the sun shone brightly in the yard. The dog, the kids, and even the Hairy Guy, spent most of the day outside. The children played ball, and chased the dog around. She barked, chased sticks, sniffed around for vermin, and had a grand time. Except when the neighbors’ dog came out, and she tried to eat his face.

"What is your problem with other dogs?" Hairy Guy demanded, as he dragged her back to a neutral corner of the yard. "You know, half the reason we got you was so we could make some friends around here. The old ’hey, we both have dogs, let’s stand on the corner and talk’ icebreaker? Doesn’t work so well with all the blood and fur flying."

The dog would have said something in her defense, but she was still straining to see if the other dog was still there. And if he was...

If she really thought about it, though, maybe Hairy Guy did have a point. Maybe she wouldn’t be reduced to befriending the bane of the household if she had some canine friends. She just couldn’t help herself. Not being a creature of great self control, she tended to go with the gut reaction in most situations.

And not being a creature of great introspection, she forgot about the remark before they went inside.

That night, Doots was happily nibbling some kibble under the hutch, while the dog ate her dinner. The kids were in the living room, and the grownups were in the office. "You need to cool it," the dog was saying.

"Don’t worry," Doots said. "I’ve been watching them. They never look at the floor. I’m around all the time, and that Hairy Guy is the only one to notice. And that was a fluke; he’s in his own little world most of the time, anyway."

"I don’t know," she replied. "He can be scary."

Doots made a dismissive squeak. "Who are you kidding? You told me yourself he was slow, and dumb, and the only thing he’s ever done to you is yell. I think I can handle a bellowing fat guy if it comes to that. Here, watch; I’ll do a lap in the hallway and they won’t even know!"

The dog’s heart stopped as he disappeared around the corner. She braced herself for a scream or something; but nothing happened. Maybe he was right. Sure enough, the grownup voices droned on. And then...

"Hey, I just saw him!"

"What? Where?"

"There... he ran behind you. Either into the closet or behind the shelves!"

They each dove for wherever they thought a mouse might hide, and tore the place to bits. The Mom Lady called the dog: "Trixie! Come get the mouse!" But the dog was frozen, transfixed by the mayhem, and she stayed put under the table, just out of sight.

There was a moment when she thought he might have made it down some unseen hole, but then one of the humans shrieked, and the dog saw her friend scrambling frantically down the back side of a pile of rags the Hairy Guy had pulled out of the hall closet.

Doots didn’t look quite so confident as his tiny claws scrambled for traction on the hard wood floors, but the Hairy Guy just flailed helplessly after him, babbling something about a hammer, and they both bumbled into the bathroom, where Doots apparently dove under the baseboard radiators and from there, under the sink.

The humans seemed energized by the incident, and spent an hour seeking out and plugging holes with wads of copper scouring pad material. The Mom Lady ranted about poison, glue traps, and even borrowing a cat. The Hairy Guy suggested something to do with lengths of pipe, electrical wires, needles, and a 5 gallon bucket of hydrochloric acid.

When the Mom Lady finally spotted the dog, she waved a finger in her face. "Your little friend had best make himself scarce, little dog." She was smiling, but it wasn’t a nice smile. "You tell him we’re about to get really serious."

The next morning, a single mouse turd sat on the window sill above the headboard. A mute, mousey gauntlet that said, "I accept your challenge."

Sunday, March 9, 2008

We Now Join the Revolution Already In Progress...

Some of you might remember something called "Napster" from about 10 years ago. If you do, you might recall that it was a phenomenon that swept the "Internets", attracting millions of users with the simple lure of easily sharing files - mainly music mp3s - which was declared to be illegal under U.S. law. (And, by extension, of course, that meant that NO ONE was allowed to do it.)

Exhibiting the sort of wisdom that any radical change brings out from an established "industry", the Recording Industry Association of America spent millions of dollars on a multi-year legal campaign to take the moral high ground by prosecuting debt-ridden college students and 12-year-old girls for "piracy", and forced the previously successful Napster company to become an emasculated and enslaved shadow of its former self. Apparently, they believed that doing so would somehow "recover" the imaginary 2 billion dollars per year they claimed was being stolen from them by those of us who were downloading stuff for free that we would have never in a million years have paid money for.

But as many of us said then, and still believe now, Napster signaled the end of the old ways of giving the business to musicians. Many established artists are perfectly happy to stay with a label, and operate that way; and as long as the system works in their favor, there's no reason for them to change. Change is inevitable, however, and the last two years especially have seen some important results.

Among my favorite examples of the progress of this change, Dream Theater,
have been extremely successful with using the internet to drive their business. Drummer Mike Portnoy has channeled his hyper-active energy into active participation on the band's fan forums, and the band has taken a proactive approach to providing official "bootlegs" of their concerts in a way that a label couldn't afford to do. Their personal relationship with their avid fans worldwide has propelled their success despite flaccid support from radio airplay, or videos. In twenty years, and more than a dozen studio and live albums, they've only managed one "chart hit" - a fact that they've humorously acknowledged by naming their 2-disc compilation "Dream Theater's Greatest Hit (and 21 other pretty cool songs)".

(Prince is another artist who has embraced the net for getting his stuff out to his fans.)

The most significant change, though, has been the creation and use of the Creative Commons License. I used to tell people about the CCL, and how artists were now able to release their own work on the Internet for free, and they sneered at me. "Who would do that? How do you make any money at it? That will never work!"

Exhibit A: Escape Pod, a science fiction short story podcast edited by Steve Eley, who started out with a simple idea: offer writers $100 dollars* for stories, which he would read and post as a weekly mp3 on his podcast feed. The audience was asked for whatever donations they felt appropriate, which Steve uses to pay the authors. After only two years, as he explained in his third Escape Pod Metacast, Escape Pod is the 2 market for short science fiction stories.

Just in case you don't understand what I'm saying: Escape Pod, a free weekly podcast supported only by its listeners, has surpassed all but one traditional science-fiction short story magazine, as well as the other similar podcasts that have sprung up in the last couple of years.

Exhibit B: Jonathan Coulton, who quit his software development job and began posting his music free on his website. Again, he asked for donations, and he offers his CDs for sale, but you can have any mp3 you like for free. Between the donations and concerts (which he books when enough fans demand him via, he is making more than he did as a software developer.

(UPDATE: In a May 2011 "Planet Money" story on NPR, JoCo admitted his song sales had topped one million dollars.)

Exhibit C:, the "social music revolution", has begun paying royalties to the artists that make their songs available via the site. Some artists go as far as letting you download, but most are only comfortable allowing you to stream their songs. But go to the site, look up your favorite artist, and look at the number of plays they have; even the miniscule royalty rate (a fraction of a cent per play via can quickly add up when spread across the growing, and already global, membership boasted by the service.

Clearly, there is a way to go, yet; TV is starting to catch up with the YouTube model, though ( does a decent job of hosting their content for free with minimal ads), and the Daily Show has released all of their content via their website.

It's only a matter of time.

*Edit: Escape Pod initially offered $25 for stories, but that was increased to $50 and later to $100 thanks to the generosity of the listeners.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Dog Blog: Doots

The dog was trying out third person, and it made her feel strange. It was like she was talking about another dog altogether, yet the things that happened were happening to her. She would beg pardon for being confused, but the Mom Lady and Hairy Guy had been increasingly agitated about begging, and she wasn't sure what she could get away with.

Being in third person (third canine? canis tertius?) also made her feel lonely. It didn't help that everyone in the house was on edge from the lengthy winter. It hadn't snowed or done anything worth looking out the window for; it had just been cold for months on end, keeping them all inside with a series of colds and sniffles. Her only solace and excitement were derived from the not-quite-daily walks, and those had become rushed, cursory affairs.

The dog was experiencing ennui. So when the little voices started, she didn't mind them very much.

They were soft, and mostly distant. Muffled. She heard them in the living room, and would perk her ears up and watch the couch. After a while, she heard them in other parts of the house; in the baseboards, under the hutch, and in the bathroom. Eventually, they found the kitchen. By that point, they had started to sound normal to her.

"Oh, crap," said the Mom Lady one morning during the bustle of breakfast.

"What?" asked the Hairy Guy, not really paying attention. The Mom Lady pointed at the counter, and said it again. He looked up from his coffee and email, walked over and looked. "Oh... crap," he agreed.

Mom Lady sagged, and the cleaning began. After a couple of days, the children (and even the Hairy Guy) were pressed into service, but it was mostly Mom Lady wiping down counters, and checking cupboards, muttering a strange word to herself over and over again: "fuggenmice." Apparently, the fuggenmice were in the house, and she was not pleased.

But the dog stopped paying attention to the people, because the voices started speaking. To her.

"Hey, dog," whispered a little, but tough sounding something from under the hutch. It was just out of sight from where she stood eating her breakfast. The Mom Lady was stomping around that morning complaining that something had eaten her soap. Normally, that would have been entertaining, but this voice was a curiosity.

"Who is that?" the dog whispered back at the voice.

"I'm the 'fuggenmice'," the voice answered, chuckling. "Listen, that Mom Lady is trying to starve us so we'll fall for her traps. Can you help out by leaving a couple of nips of that kibble?"

"Um, I don't know," said the dog. She adored her kibble. And if the Mom Lady was doing something, she must have a good reason. "I don't know what traps are, but the Mom Lady is nice. Maybe you should do what she wants. And why can't I see you?"

An adorable little face with round, black eyes peeked out at her from under the hutch. "You don't know what a 'trap' is? Well, imagine you were going to take a bite of the best smelling treat ever and WHAM... a big stick snaps down out of nowhere and snaps your spine."

"Oh, my dog! That sounds horrible!"

"I am told that it is," said the creature wistfully. "My great-uncle twice removed on my mothers' side had one take off a leg and his tail. We called him Tripod for the rest of his life."

After hearing that, the dog left five chunks of kibble in her bowl, her appetite completely gone.

A couple of weeks passed, in which the children became increasingly belligerent about all the cleaning they were being asked to do, and the Hairy Guy (after being informed that he wasn't holding up his end of the chores) was doing a lot more of it. The two grown-ups had begun watching for evidence of the fuggenmice, which the Hairy Guy had started referring to as "Doots".

"No doots in the bathroom this morning, honey!" he would say. Then he would go into the kitchen and check. The dog tended to follow him around, wondering if this new ritual would mean any extra walks or snacks. It didn't.

Her only real company was the voice. "Are you Doots?" she asked it one morning.

"Sure, sweetpup," Doots replied around a mouthful of chicken flavored cereal filling. "Doots McFuggenmice, at your service." She giggled in return, and shoved part of a biscuit under the hutch for him.

"I didn't know you were Scottish," she said.

Then one afternoon, a stranger came to the door. He had a big, red box and brown coveralls; he smelled... different. It wasn't a bad smell, exactly; it had a kind of sweetness to it, but it made her think of fear and screams. The man was friendly, though.

"Hey, buddy," he said, scratching her behind the ears. "You a nice dug? Yeh, you bet you are." Mom Lady and the man walked all through the house, talking about mice. They talked about holes and food containers; they talked about poison and prices. The man said he wouldn't use poison - whatever that was - but then he said he'd set traps, and the dog's blood ran cold.

Then the Mom Lady turned and looked at her. "What about the dog? Wouldn't she chase a mouse if she saw it?"

"Not necessarily," the man answered. "A dug will sometimes make friends with the mouse, and I've seen 'em leave food and let the mouse come up in their bowl."

Mom Lady turned a cold, cruel eye on the dog. "You wouldn't dare, would you?" The dog shrank back. "I better not find out I have a traitor in my house!"

Overcome by a stew of guilt and defiance, the dog slunk out of the room and curled up in her kennel. She heard a scuffling noise, and Doots was there. They curled up listening to the man make plans with the Mom Lady, and the dog realized what she had smelled on the man when he came into the house.

That smell was the smell of death. Death for her only friend.