Where Is The Voice Of Protest In Today’s Music? Chuck D, Tom Morello Have Ideas

Even as Bush's approval ratings plummet, musicians are mostly mum on political issues.

Looking at daily headlines, you’d think the radio would be filled with songs of revolution and protest.

President Bush’s approval ratings recently dipped below 30 percent — the third lowest of any president in the past half-century. Gas prices have more than doubled since he took office. Plus, the Iraq conflict is more unpopular (nearly 60 percent of those polled say sending troops was a mistake) after three years than the Vietnam War was at the same point nearly 40 years ago (48 percent). Not to mention the lingering public anger over the government’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and concern over the latest wrinkle in the White House’s domestic spying program, a USA Today story that reported that information on domestic calls were being put in a massive database.

When you see footage of demonstrations from the 1960s and early ’70s (usually anti-war or pro-civil rights) on television, it’s almost invariably accompanied by a protest song from the era — by Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon or another activist-minded performer. Such songs were everywhere at the time — so you’d figure, with social unrest at its highest level since the 1970s, that today’s airwaves and charts would be buzzing with angry songs, right?

Right?

Well, Young’s weighed in with a hastily recorded and rush-released anti-Bush screed called Living With War, which came out last week. And in the underground, hip-hop acts such as Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, the Coup and Perceptionists have made strong statements about Bush and the war, as have punk bands State Radio, Sick of It All, Against Me!, Dollyrots, NOFX, Kill Radio and Outernational. Even some notable rap stars, like Juvenile, Papoose and Killer Mike, have addressed Katrina in songs and freestyles.

But other than some recent songs on albums by Pearl Jam, Pink, System of a Down and the Dixie Chicks — and a kindred-spirit effort from Bruce Springsteen featuring protest songs from decades ago — major artists have barely made a peep of protest in song.

What gives?

Are artists afraid to talk for fear of payback at the cash register and/or radio — i.e. getting “Dixie Chicked”?
(see “50 Cent Still Tops; Dixie Chicks Backlash Hits Home On Albums Chart” ) Do they not have anything to say? Do they feel that pop music is simply not an effective forum for fighting the power? Or is it just a collective case of battle fatigue — has everyone been so beaten down by the doublespeak and half-truths of the War on terror that protest feels futile?

We asked artists — from Public Enemy leader Chuck D and Audioslave’s outspoken guitarist Tom Morello to the Dixie Chicks and rabidly political band Anti-Flag — why they think more musicians aren’t making noise about the state of the nation.

The Chicks are the obvious people to speak with first, since they suffered a radio ban and serious backlash three years ago after singer Natalie Maines told a London audience, “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” The comment set off a whirlwind of controversy that has dogged the country act ever since — and led to the term “getting Dixie Chicked” for when an artist gets a commercial and public smackdown for speaking out.

The Chicks’ new album, Taking the Long Way, takes on their detractors with songs such as the first single, “Not Ready to Make Nice” (which some stations have refused to play), and Maines recently told us her band’s experience has clearly cast a chill on dissent.

“After what happened to us, it gave people that idea: ‘We know what happens to you if you don’t like the president. You lose lots of money in album sales, so I’m going to speak to the people who do like him, and then I’ll make lots of money,’ ” she said, before adding that post-Katrina, it seems to have become a bit more acceptable to speak out.

Tom Morello agreed, pointing to bands like the Coup, the Living Things, Bright Eyes and his side project, the Nightwatchman, as acts that are voicing strong opinions.

“It seems like there’s quite a bit of really uncompromised, great, leftist rock and rap happening now,” he said. “Bad presidents make for good art and music.”

However, he noted that the hip-hop world’s contribution to the voices of dissent has been an “enormous letdown,” especially in light of past anti-establishment acts like Public Enemy.

“It’s like Public Enemy and N.W.A were warring for the heart of the hip-hop nation, and a gentrified, blingy version of N.W.A won out,” Morello said. “You listen to [Public Enemy's] ‘Fight the Power’ and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and you can hear America changing. Now it’s just the relentless booty shake of hollow bling. There’s not yet a soundtrack like in the ’60s, when the music of the time was the music of revolution.”

From a purely commercial perspective, rapper/poet Saul Williams — whose lyrics are often extremely political — suggested that some artists might be avoiding commenting on the war and Bush because, unless you’re a legend like Neil Young who can get a label to rush-release an album just months after your last one dropped, it can instantly date your music.

“The war could end two days after you do a record on it,” he said. “But in the face of political strife, there should be more artists speaking up.”

Hip-hop legend and professional agitator Chuck D said the music business is so focused on sales and results these days that it scares young artists away from doing anything controversial.

“Young groups are not paid to take chances,” he said. “Someone like Neil Young has more references and perspectives from a different time. Young bands are clouded by weapons of mass distraction. But I don’t buy that it’s apathy: Bands are still looking to be loved, but there aren’t a lot who compare themselves to bands who have prospered by saying something that needed to be said, like Green Day or [Public Enemy] or Neil Young. But why take a chance on making music a certain way if they don’t believe the media will cover it? People like Neil Young are from a time when you felt one man can make a change, whereas young people in society today feel invisible.”

Other artists, like Walkmen singer/guitarist Hamilton Leithauser, said they simply don’t expect pop stars to offer political commentary.

“I don’t look to Pearl Jam or R.E.M. for politics,” he said. “We’re all very politically conscious in our band, and we all grew up in Washington, D.C., but I don’t really want to hear it. We used to go to Dischord [Records, which featured politically motivated bands like Fugazi] shows when I was younger, and 80 percent of the concert would be somebody up there with, like, a clipboard reading furiously in a blind rage about every f—ing topic you can possible imagine. And two and a half hours later, Fugazi [would] rant about the sh– too.

“After awhile you’d be like, ‘I didn’t come here for this!’ I mean, if they want to do that, great; more power to them. But I’m not gonna get involved in that. I think you can do that in a different way.”

Battle fatigue has also definitely had its effect, said Kirk Huffman, guitarist for the punk band Gatsby’s American Dream. Huffman said he’s not out in the streets shouting slogans because he skipped his 10th-grade English class to do that at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999.

“I was exceptionally talented at holding a fist in the air and saying the same phrase monotonously over and over again, but pepper spray hurts like a motherf—–,” he said. “My point is, do you have any idea how deep this thing really is? Trying to ‘turn over the system’ by talking about it and voicing your opinion was an idea that died at Woodstock — and it ain’t doin’ so well in the nonprofit-organization sector of things nowadays either.”

In some cases, it’s simply a matter of not knowing what to say, according to Rock and Roll Soldiers singer Marty Larson-Xu.

“I write the songs for our band and I can tell you why I don’t focus on politics,” he said. “I feel music is a creative avenue that I use to get away from everything and try to express ourselves in a way that gives people an avenue to escape reality.”

Larson-Xu said there are already enough places to get the news besides his band’s albums. Plus, he thinks a lot of young bands simply don’t know enough about what’s going on in the world to write about it. “I don’t feel like I’m knowledgeable enough about politics to write songs for or against anything,” he said. “There are many people who are so much smarter than me, and I couldn’t deliver a message like Kill Radio or Anti-Flag.”

The latter is one band that said it has definitely not given up the fight. The decade-old punk band’s latest salvo, the highly charged For Blood and Empire, is packed with virulently political songs such as “The Project for a New American Century,” the anti-war anthem “I’d Tell You But …” and the current single, “The Press Corpse,” which decries the media for toeing the White House line.

“It’s been shocking to me over the last couple of years to see so few bands questioning the White House in any way,” said Anti-Flag singer Justin Sane. “I’ve always been a person who believed there’s room for all music — pop bands that sing about relationships and love, and hip-hop bands who sing about bling and the police. That said, I have found it frustrating and concerning that no one in the mainstream is taking a hard stance and questioning the policies of this regime. Why? I think a lot of these bands have been following the lead of the news media, who have failed terribly in their job as watchdog of the powerful.”

Sane said he’s witnessed an “either you’re with us or against us” stance that has stymied a lot of dissent and public debate. “Because in the height of nationalism in the months and years after 9/11, people are very worried about appearing unpatriotic,” he said. “There’s been an overt message in the mainstream media that if you criticize the president, you’re criticizing America and you’re unpatriotic — which is ridiculous, because this country was founded on dissent.”

I'm so fancy.