Beasties, Audioslave Say Protest Songs An Important Part Of Our Culture

'Voicing one's opinion is generally democratic and American,' Mike D says.

"War! What is it good for?" soul singer Edwin Starr asked in his 1970 classic.

"Absolutely nothing," according to the song, although as Starr himself proved, war is at least good for inspiring socially conscious music, if not timeless anthems.

And just as the Vietnam War prompted John Lennon to write "Imagine" and Bob Dylan to pen "Blowin' in the Wind," the conflict in Iraq has motivated artists from the Beastie Boys to Robbie Williams to express their views via song.

As America continues shipping troops to the Middle East, a new generation of artists seems to have found its voice with a string of singles and videos released in recent weeks promoting peace.

"It just kind of felt like to not speak out now would be a real mistake," said Mike D of the Beastie Boys, who released the anti-war tune "In a World Gone Mad" on their Web site. "There's definitely been a concept put out that to speak up is potentially unpatriotic, [but] voicing one's opinion is generally democratic and American, and that's one of the things that compelled me to speak up."

During previous conflicts, if a musician wrote a protest song, he or she had to schedule studio time and then convince a label to release the track and radio to play it — all time-consuming efforts. Modern technology allows artists to record songs in their homes and place them on the Internet for little time or money, which may explain why several tracks have surfaced before an invasion has even begun.

Similar to the Beasties, John Mellencamp is offering a song called "To Washington" on his Web site. It compares "eight years of peace and prosperity" under Bill Clinton to the current climate under President George W. Bush. And Yusuf Islam, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, has recorded new versions of "Peace Train" and "Lady D'Arbanville" (now called "Angel of War") that he has placed online.

Other artists are taking more traditional, less hurried routes. Williams' "Happy Easter (War Is Coming)," a nod to John Lennon's 1971 hit "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," will be the B-side to his next single, "Come Undone," due in April.

Madonna fans have been waiting weeks to see her upcoming "American Life" video, which will address the pending war (see "Madonna Defends Her Violent 'American Life' Video").

And System of a Down took so long to release their anti-war anthem "Boom!" that it no longer pertains to the war it was written about, Operation Desert Storm.

"It's easy to criticize anyone making an opinion about anything and ... if someone does, I always say, 'I don't have to do this. ... I'd rather not talk, but there's a lot of sh-- that's wrong,' " System singer Serj Tankian said. "I actually appreciate Madonna or anyone else making a statement of our times right now, because a lot of people are too scared to or they just don't care enough."

In many cases, such as with System of a Down, artists do not intend to write protest songs, they just come out. Musicians tend to write about personal things, and to songwriters like System's Daron Malakian, who has family in Iraq, war is personal.

"We're not trying to point fingers or anything, but there's a lot of unjust feelings and sadness in the world, and personally, in my writing, a lot of that is coming out in a very frantic way," the guitarist said. "I can't explain it. It's definitely influential times to live in, and that's why it frustrates me to see some cheese balls coming out there and saying absolutely nothing with their music."

"As artists, if we truly believe in what we do, we don't really own what comes through us all the time," Tankian added.

While the Beastie Boys have come to be known as a political band, "In a World Gone Mad" did not just flow out. The group intended to write a protest song because they thought they could make an impact.

"We have the opportunity of putting a song out there that people around the world are going to hear," Mike D said. "And I think it's important for people around the world to hear what the people's views are, because I think right now they're probably just mostly reading headlines and seeing in the newspapers what President Bush's ideas are and what his mission is and what his agenda is without seeing where a lot of the opinion lies, which is quite different than that."

Whatever the motivation, protest songs are important during times of conflict and have been for centuries, as was noted by Tom Morello, whose band Audioslave recently added a cover of Elvis Costello's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" to its live set.

"Whether it was the field calls of slaves in the South or the protest music of the union organizers in the early 1900s, to the '60s anti-war protest music, to the music of the Clash, Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine, artists have often commented on their times. It can be a very potent way to get a message across and for people to gather around ideas and try to make a difference together," Morello said. "Protest music and different bits of culture that express political opinion are very important, in not necessarily changing people's minds but often reconfirming to them that they are not alone."

 Let your politicians know what you think: You Tell Them

 Back To Conflicts In The Middle East