Music In The 21st Century:
The Re-emergence Of Protest Music
Written by Kevin Eagan
Published November 17, 2007
In this month's issue of Paste Magazine, there's a very brief
interview with John Fogerty on how to write a good protest song.
In the interview, Fogerty has this observation of the power of
protest music: "For years, I've said that if any one person stopped
the Vietnam War, it was Bob Dylan. In the '60s, millions of kids
began to hear his songs and discuss their meanings...Eventually that
evolved into a great big protest movement."
Fogerty, of course, had something to do with ending the Vietnam War
as well, since his songs with Creedence Clearwater Revival certainly
revealed the disdain and social unrest of the day.
Earlier this year, Fogerty released Revival, a true return to form.
Fogerty sings of his dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration and
the Iraq War. But his music is not overly preachy; in "I Can't Take
it No More," for example, Fogerty sings: "you know you lied about
WMD's / You know you lied about the detainees...I can't take it no
more." It's his most direct lyrics in a long time, but it reflects a
general feeling of dissatisfaction Americans share with Fogerty today.
Fogerty is only one example of a musician that realizes the power of
protest music, and uses it when the time is right. But Fogerty
represents the old school of protest musicians, and although other
artists (such as Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan) still write music
with reflected social commentary, what can be said of new musicians
doing the same thing?
Thinking of it in this way, I see a new wave of protest music coming
out, and it has the same freshness as Dylan had in the '60s. And it's
not just because there are a couple of popular bands that happen to
be politically minded, it's because most of America is upset and
confused with the state of the world.
Bands like Arcade Fire, Iron & Wine, and Stars have released albums
this year that deal directly with issues like war, religious
ambiguity, and societal change without reverting back to cliché's and
Last night, I watched a recording of Arcade Fire's performance on
PBS's Austin City Limits. The concert revealed a band at their
artistic height with their latest album Neon Bible, an album that
many critics have compared to Springsteen because of its culturally
minded lyrics that show the confusion and division in America.
The band played with an energy that brought the crowd closer, with
fists pumping in the air as if they are yelling "End the War!" When
they played "(Antichrist Television Blues)," singer Win Butler sang
of the fear and uncertainty among Americans today: "I don't know what
I'm gonna do / 'Cause the planes keep crashing always two by two /
Don't wanna work in a building downtown / No, I don't wanna see it
when the planes hit the ground."
The song also shows growing religious confusion: "the world can see
what your true Word means / Lord, won't you send me a sign? / 'Cause
I just gotta know if I'm wastin' my time."
The song seems perfectly relevant in a time of confusion. Just as
Pete Seeger focused on worker's rights in the '50s and just as Dylan
sang of the fear and uncertainty of Cold War America in the early
'60s, Arcade Fire sing of uncertainty in a time of 21st century
terrorism and religious conservatism.
It seems especially appropriate as our current President holds what
would otherwise be two opposing viewpoints of the world: he advocates
democracy and Christian values while also supporting unethical
torture techniques and a war that has crippled the world's goodwill
And it's songs like "(Antichrist Television Blues)" where the true
protest of the state of America lies (granted, Arcade Fire are a
Canadian band, but that doesn't mean they can't hold strong opinions
of modern American society). Members of Arcade Fire aren't the only
ones revealing the state of the world, but their lyrics certainly
suggest a level of protest that rate up there with Creedence
Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising."
Really, all you need to do is look at the history of protest music to
see that, when America is in a time of identity crisis, musicians
respond back and challenge the status quo.
To use an example, Dylan's post-McCarthy, pre-Vietnam lyrics were
prophetic, and as a result, songs such as "The Times They Are
A'Changin'" and "Masters of War" take on social significance whenever
the world seems full of chaos. Equally, Springsteen's songs
portrayals of working-class American families in the '80s took on
significant meaning in a time of Reagan boom that left out the
average Joe, but his songs still have deep meaning for almost all
members of society today.
The 21st Century is here, and we are left with a President who has
carelessly brought us into war by using confusion and fear as a tool.
And we have serious questions too: Are we all crazy and President
Bush was actually right, or is he a reckless demagogue waging a war
Either way, I agree with Arcade Fire and John Fogerty: something is
wrong, and something needs to change.
[See URL for videos.]
The regrettable decline of the protest song.
by David Browne
Post Date Thursday, November 15, 2007
The first time I played Bruce Springsteen's new album, Magic, one of
its songs stayed with me for hours afterward. No big news there;
especially when he reunites with the E Street Band, Springsteen
always plugs back into anthemic mode. What was surprising this time
was that it was the disc's most explicit anti-war number. Arriving
near the record's end, "Last to Die" is driven by mournful-pageantry
violins and a bustling, nearly desperate intensity that recalls
Springsteen's earlier, '70s work. From the opening line--"We took the
highway till the road went black"--it places listeners in the mind of
an American soldier in Iraq going about his job, increasingly numb at
what he's doing and seeing, "stack[ing] the bodies outside the door."
"Last to Die" is neither the best nor worst Springsteen song of all
time, but the fact that it works as both words and music
automatically makes it one of the sharpest of the recent anti-war,
anti-Bush songs. In the last few years, the protest song has been on
something of a comeback tour. Old schoolers (Springsteen, John
Fogerty), alt-rock veterans (Pearl Jam, Green Day, Beastie Boys,
Flaming Lips), and relative newcomers (Bright Eyes, the Roots) have
all become furious enough by what's happening here and abroad to
write their own protest songs. But unless you're a music geek or a
web troller, chances are you've never heard--or heard of--most of them.
The problem could be radio's reluctance to play these songs, some
type of veiled censorship. (Let's not forget that after September 11,
the monolithic Clear Channel dispatched a memo to radio stations
suggesting they suspend playing such incendiary songs as ... "Fire
and Rain" by James Taylor.) But the under-the-radar quality of modern
tunes of dissent points to an artistic problem as well. Compared with
so many topical diatribes that came before (and a few current
exceptions, like Springsteen's "Last to Die" and a good chunk of Neil
Young's riled-up but grabby Living with War album last year), too
many rely more on bile than beat. Which means the protest song has
arrived at an odd place: more necessary than ever, and more marginal, too.
I was reminded of this situation last month, when I took part in a
panel discussion on war and popular culture at the New Jersey Vietnam
Veterans' Memorial complex. To prep for a talk on the way pop music
has (or hasn't) influenced public opinion on war, I listened again to
the Vietnam-era standards: Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marching' Anymore,"
Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," Edwin Starr's "War"--you know the
list. I was struck by the way the songs grew angrier and more heated
by the year. The gentle anti-violence sentiments of Seeger's "Where
Have All the Flowers Gone?" from 1961 gave way by decade's end to far
angrier missives like Creedence Clearwater Revival's scathing
"Fortunate Son." The transition is similar to what we're seeing now.
Paul McCartney's mixed-message, post-September 11 "Freedom" ("I will
fight for the right/To live in freedom," it declared, over a
lackluster, nursery-rhyme melody that telegraphed its ambivalence)
has been replaced by the rattled, angry likes of Bright Eyes' "When
the President Talks to God."
But something else about the old hits struck me as well: how
musically strapping and vibrant they still were. From all of the
above to the Temptations' "Ball of Confusion" and even a hokey bit of
cash-in apocalypto like Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," the
songs stayed with you in every way. It was protest as pop, a
tradition that continued into the '80s with Nena's anti-nuke "99
Luftballons" and Little Steven and company's rabble-rousing,
rock-to-rap "Sun City."
Although the current batch means well, it also includes some of the
worst songs--topical or otherwise--of the last decade. The Beastie
Boys openly question the link between warfare and corporations in "In
a World Gone Mad," but the sludgy track is borderline unlistenable.
Green Day's cover of "Life During Wartime" has wonderfully sarcastic
lyrics about the absence of national sacrifice ("Doing
something/We're making changes/Like changing the brand of crap we
buy"), but a melody you'll forget the minute the song ends. The
Rolling Stones' "Sweet Neo Con" was more a publicity stunt than a
good song; Pearl Jam's "World Wide Suicide" was another example of
the band's largely shapeless bluster; and Pink's "Dear Mr. President"
was the first and hopefully last time we'll hear Bush bashing done
with a folksy, adult contemporary twist.
The near-misses are even more exasperating. Eminem's "Mosh" had
brilliant imagery and atmosphere--it felt like a march right into the
end of the world, and his line about a "mosh pits outside the Oval
Office" was terrific--but three years on, I had to play the song
again to remind myself how it sounded. (Warning: explicit language)
Bright Eyes' "When the President Talks to God" is a self-conscious
attempt to follow in Dylan's, Ochs', and Woody Guthrie's footsteps,
yet like too much of Conor Oberst's work, it's labored and strained.
Country music has weighed in with some decent entries--Darryl
Worley's "I Just Came Back from a War" and Tim McGraw's "If You're
Reading This" come to mind--but since the genre is more of a
storyteller's medium, it doesn't do societal rage as well as it does
personal heartbreak (in these cases, tales of soldiers who've died or
returned in a faith-shattered haze).
The closest thing we've had to a topical pop hit in the last few
years, improbably, has been the Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is the
Love?," which paired a sing-songy, lite-rap chorus with rhymes that
dared to equate the CIA with terrorists. Even if the song wasn't that
teed off--it was mostly a laundry list of generalized societal ills
and didn't even have anything approaching Eminem's quick-cut take on
America's role in emboldening Bin Laden in the '90s--the mere fact
that it made the pop charts at all was remarkable.
Why haven't any of the others joined it there? It's easy to rattle
off a list of possible explanations: a decline in pop songwriting, a
form of elitism that feels pop hooks cheapen the message, audience
(and radio) fragmentation that prevents one genre-specific song from
reaching a truly mass audience. Maybe it's psychological: In the way
the new songs are almost defiantly tuneless, they seem
self-defeating, as if musicians have faith in themselves as
spokespeople but have lost faith in the power of song. They appear to
accept the notion that only the converted will hear (and like) these
songs, a thought that never seemed to have occurred to Pete Seeger
and Lee Hayes when they wrote "If I Had a Hammer," or to Peter Tosh
and Bob Marley when they worked up "Get Up Stand Up."
Whatever the reason, modern rockers seem to have forgotten that
protest songs shouldn't be the equivalent of homework, and that the
message goes down a lot easier when the "song" is as powerful as the
"protest." As another old-timer, Dick Clark, might have put it: It
helps if it has a beat, and you can demonstrate to it.
David Browne is the author of Dream Brother: The Lives & Music of
Jeff & Tim Buckley. His biography of Sonic Youth, Goodbye 20th
Century, will be published next spring.