By Alexander Billet
Published in Dissident Voice
There was something striking about the April issue of Rolling Stone. In this, the 40th anniversary edition, icons from those heady, rebellious days of 1967 were interviewed. The counterculture figures involved in the New Left or anti-war movements: Mailer, Fonda, and of course Dylan. Living and breathing proof of the intersection between popular culture and popular resistance. But in the front of the magazine, there was a striking parallel to be seen: a story on the sizeable chunk of anti-Bush, anti-war material now seeping into mainstream music.
For about four years now, music journalists have been asking where the protest music is. Well, if it’s not here now, it’s most certainly starting to rear its head. What is surprising is that it is coming from previously apolitical acts; artists who would seem like the last to foray into activism or anything beyond a catchy beat.
A few highlights:
Tori Amos: though Amos has long been synonymous with the strident and outspoken modern woman, her new album American Doll Posse starts on a combative note asking, “is this just the madness of King George?”
Nine Inch Nails: Trent Reznor has long been considered one of the most prolific and innovative recording artists of our time, but political he’s not. Until now. His recent Year Zero album takes place in a not-too-distant-future police state presided over by a dictator who “signs his name with a capital G.”
Linkin Park: the standard bearers of nu metal shift their emotional vitriol from failled relationships to the pain and frustration of watching New Orleans washed away “as the nation simply stares.”
The White Stripes: “Icky Thump,” from their upcoming album, makes a pretty open declaration on the state of immigrant rights: “well Americans: what, nothin’ better to do? Why don’t you kick yourself out? You’re an immigrant too!”
It’s a far cry from four years ago when the Dixie Chicks were almost burned at the stake for having the gall to say they were ashamed Bush is from Texas. Now, four years since they were banned from the airwaves, four years since the US commenced a slaughter in Iraq, two years after watching an entire city of black and poor people being left to drown like rats, and seven years after the biggest sham election in recent history, the chorus of “we’ve had enough” has never been clearer. Are we really to believe that this will not rub off on even the biggest artists of our time?
To listen to the naysayers, one would think that no, it doesn’t, and if it does it shouldn’t. Stances like this from artists are already provoking an onslaught from the right. Hannity & Colmes dedicated a whole segment to decrying Rage Against the Machine for calling the Bush administration war criminals and saying they should be “tried and shot.” And Green Day’s cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” has earned more scorn than praise on the blogosphere. “To ‘rock against Bush’ is to scream for attention,” says Windsor Mann in a 2005 National Review article, “and screaming for attention is, in many ways crying for help.”
In other words, an artist only takes a stand when he or she is desperate. Music and politics don’t mix. Or so we are told almost every single day by what passes for “common sense.” In the cartoon logic of mainstream America, politics are somehow hermetically sealed from all other realms of our culture. Film, literature, painting and sculpture, sports and music have no room for the political unless you somehow want to sully the culture. In other words, if you’re a musician, you should shut up and sing, and be content with an existence of minstrelsy.
But there’s just one small problem with that formulation: it’s wrong. It denies a fundamental truth: that musicians are themselves human beings with intellect and emotions in the context of a changing world. And it’s no coincidence that we hear this line of reasoning when there is the most social turmoil in any given era. Does anyone hear these same right-wing pundits decry the racist bilge of an established musician like Ted Nugent? No. Despite what we may hear from naysayers about protecting the integrity of the music, this is an argument designed to stifle dissent and deny musicians their humanity. Bottom line.
Which is precisely why these songs and albums are so important for both music and the nascent culture of resistance brewing in this country right now. From the streets of LA to the military brig, the amount of repression meted out to anyone willing to stand up and fight is significant. That the White Stripes and Tori Amos aren’t meeting the same bloody-murder cries of treason that the Dixie Chicks did is a welcome development.
Will these songs be looked back upon as the iconic protest anthems of the early 21st century? Hard to believe for most of them. And for some, I sincerely hope not. If the best our generation has to offer is John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change” then I’m tempted to give up music writing right now. But while all of these songs share a dissatisfaction with the current state of things, what most lack is a way forward, a sense of struggle and possibility.
That must come from us. Just as it took a decade for the left of the ’60s to learn its lessons and radicalize hundreds of thousands, so it took that same decade for the sounds of the British invasion to transform into Woodstock. The idea that music could be an open forum of rebellion and resistance was spurred by the actual rebellion happening in the world at large. Musicians that saw themselves as artists only were suddenly compelled to lend their voices to the growing movement for a better world. And a whole new crop of artists and musicians came along that saw their music as an active part of that struggle.
That’s what makes this point in time so exciting. These musicians are coming to grips with what it means to be living in scary times. And in doing so, they are giving a long awaited release to what most of us in this country are grappling with ourselves. And if that is any indication, then the only way from here is up.