Friday, March 16, 2007

The Times They Are A Changin': The Shifting Winds of Protest Music

By Alexander Billet

Published by Znet

The subject has been brought up by so many writers that by now that it’s almost cliché. It’s been asked by musicians, activists old and new, and music journalists alike. And as it’s become obvious just how devastating the US’ very presence in Iraq has become, it’s a question with a quickly growing urgency: “where are the protest songs?”

It’s not a simple question to answer. Writers are quick to call up memories of the late 60s and early 70s; the height of the movement against the Vietnam War. Duncan Campbell of the Guardian did when he wrote an article this past February as tens of thousands turned out in London and Glasgow against the occupation, and were entertained by renditions of Edwin Starr’s “War” (what is it good for…? You know the rest) and Dylan’s iconic and still-scathing “Masters of War.”

“These are all great songs,” Campbell pines, “but where is the defining anti-war anthem of today?” Campbell is by no means dismissive of the myriad artists that are putting out good, sometimes great, anti-war material. Instead, he puts forth that there has yet to be an anti-war song that “somehow captures the moment and the mood.”

Nit-picky? Maybe, but he brings up a good point. It’s not that there aren’t any protest songs. It’s that most of them aren’t on the same level as the tunes that conjure up the timeless images of rebellion from the days of the Panthers and SDS. Where is our “Masters of War,” our “What’s Going On,” our “Give Peace a Chance?”

The answer lies in the very fabric of the modern music industry, and in our readiness to take it head on. So, this weekend as tens of thousands will once again turn out all over the country to stick it to Bush and co, it’s worth taking a look around and asking ourselves if we are going to ever hear that perfect soundtrack as we march in the streets.

You Hide Behind Words, You Hide Behind Desks…

But why would any of the major outlets we get our music from ever want to bestow such an anthem upon us? MTV has all but banned most anti-war videos. System of a Down’s “Boom” was neglected airplay because it contained facts and figures about the invasion of Iraq. MIA was told that her video for “Sunshowers” would not be aired until she took out references to the PLO. And was promptly told to screw right off by MTV when they asked to advertise their Rock Against Bush compilation in 2004.

The radio dial won’t yield any better results. Since the deregulation of the airwaves ten years ago, media behemoth Clear Channel now owns around sixty percent of local stations. Bad enough in itself, but the shameless radio tyrant’s hard pro-war stance makes it even worse. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Clear Channel paid for advertising pro-war rallies in Fort Wayne, Philly, Atlanta and Cleveland, and provided the entertainment. And then, of course, there was their infamous post 9/11 do-not-play list, not to mention their ban on the Dixie Chicks.

Moves like this are especially frightening considering the company’s increasing venture into live entertainment. When one of the most outspoken and successful radical artists of our time, Ani DiFranco, played a show the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in 2003, Clear Channel, a main sponsor of the show, told her she would have her microphone cut off if she said anything political!

Free speech? Sorry, only for those who can afford it.

They’ll Stone When You’re Playing Your Guitar

Such censorship has relaxed to a degree in more recent years, but it’s important to recognize the effect that this has had on today’s artists, who some think are much more to blame. After Neil Young released his modern anti-Bush classic Living With War last year he told the LA Times that he felt compelled to record it after “waiting for someone to come along, some young singer eighteen to twenty-two years old, to write these songs and stand up.” Apparently unsatisfied, he decided that his generation, those who had weathered the 60s, was the generation that had to stand up.

This prompted musician Stephan Smith-Said to write a response “Hey, Neil Young, We Young Singers Are Hog-tied, Too,” where he chronicled much of the censorship laid out above. Smith-Said’s response was important, because it also made very clear how much the music industry has changed since the days of Woodstock and Altamont.

The 60s didn’t have mega-companies like Clear Channel, and the idea of MTV was a long way off. The cut-throat record execs were there, as were promoters quick to scam their performers. But over the past forty years, the industry has found itself being divided between fewer and fewer hands. Four massive record companies now release over eighty percent of all albums in the world. And in the 60s, the idea of one corporation controlling over sixty percent of radio was unheard of. To make matters worse, the time-honored tradition of payola is alive and well, making sure that Clear Channel and the Big Four are constantly in each other’s pockets.

Rock n’ roll and Motown, the sounds that personify the 1960s, started as an alternative the old mode of music making, which was then mostly dominated by Hollywood and Broadway. They were profoundly youthful sounds, and in the case of Motown proudly and openly black. They were a sonic rebellion against the old status quo that was sending young people to die halfway around the world, yet couldn’t take care of them at home. But after the struggles of the sixties and early seventies died down, the industry got wise, and like most rebellions, they figured out a way to market it.

You Don’t Need A Weatherman…

But it would be wrong to say that all hope is lost. By the time the seventies hit, the fight against racism and war had reached its highest levels. Millions in the US considered themselves revolutionaries, and even the record industry couldn’t ignore it. Dylan’s recordings were flying off the shelves and The Stones had chronicled the exploits of a “Streetfighting Man.” Marvin Gaye was experiencing his greatest success with a beautiful and conscious album, and five young troublemakers from Detroit known as the MC5 were starting to earn the notice and hatred of the establishment with their calls for revolution. These were artists that embodied that 60s’ spirit of pitched resistance and gave us the feeling that another world is possible.

Today, anti-war sentiment has crystallized. While we have yet to see the massive upswing in protest from the sixties, it is undeniable that we have reached a turning point. The disaster in Iraq is obvious to most people with a brain in this country, and the anti-war movement has seen some long awaited signs of life.

Similarly, this opposition has poked its head into mainstream music. While MTV refused to give PunkVoter a slot, Green Day’s punk-opera American Idiot has gone five times platinum since its release. The Dixie Chicks, whose fates Clear Channel attempted to seal with their ban, took the Grammy home for Album of the Year last month. Quite an achievement considering many country stations still won’t play their material. And, of course, Rage Against the Machine have announced a reunion. About damn time!

Might these artists be the ones to deliver that iconic tune of the rebellion to come in 21st century America? Only time will tell. But one thing is sure. The more we build our open resistance to their power, the more they will be forced to take notice. The day the president looks out his window and realized he’s lost control of us, the record execs will realize the same thing. That will be the day when our ship finally comes in.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Not One Red Cent: Bono's Bullshit

I know I'm not the only one sick of seeing Bono trot out his moralistic and sanctimonious language about "poverty relief" while not actually doing anything about it! Marsh slices through all the crap about the Red Campaign, and pretty damn well at that. -AB

By Dave Marsh

From CounterPunch

I read with growing dismay each successive paragraph of David Carr's fawning New York Times business section piece on Bono, the Red Campaign and Vanity Fair yesterday morning. Later, I read the more interesting piece from Advertising Age that shows that all the sturm and drang from Red has generated $18 million for African relief-I wonder if that'll even be enough to replace the condoms Bono's "effective" friend the Shrub refuses to allow U.S. government-supported agencies to deliver. You can be dead certain that it is hardly a match for the combined profits that the corporations for which Red fronts expect to pull out of all those products.

What maddens me most is that articles like this are built upon a cascading series of false premises, so I thought I'd catalogue the ones in the Times column.

· Bono is a "rare" rock star. Almost every rock star has some kind of charitable endeavor.

· Only the opinions of celebrities (the Pope, Bill Gates) are of any consequence in getting the job done.

· Wealth and charity are somehow a "contradiction." Unless there is wealth, there can be no charity in the sense that Bono and Carr use the term (which is quite a bit different than, say, St. Paul's definition).

· Bono is not part of the "Sally Struthers" thing. But of course, his entire project depends on sustaining the image of Africans as unable to fight for themselves, which is one reason one encounters no Africans-certainly no poor ones--writing for these Bono guest edits. It also depends quite a good bit on their continuing to be humiliated by their poverty (presuming they are, other than in the minds Bono loves most).

· "The crucial role that commerce will play" as a new thing. That has been the barking sales pitch of imperialism and its missionaries from the first day that Europeans landed in Africa. (If Bono didn't think that history began when Jeffrey Sachs conned his first Russian, he'd know this.) Bono doesn't really contend that corporations have a "crucial role," anyway. He premises this statement on his insistent, addled idea that they are the only vehicle by which the problems of African poverty and disease can be solved, despite the fact that everywhere on Earth that these corporations exist, there is a great deal of poverty and disease.

· The bizarre assertion that, in this case (but there is always something equivalent to this), China wants to invest in Africa as somehow a boon to the poor. It is either the opposite (the Chinese invest in Africa because they can exploit African workers even more than Chinese ones) or irrelevant (since the profits will go to China, not whatever part of Africa the Chinese are invested in.) By the way, Bono knows that there are a couple dozen nations that comprise Africa and that Chinese and other corporations invest in one or more of those, not the continent as a whole, right? I read the whole Independent issue and never heard a peep about this reality.

· "Africa is sexy." How many hundred years of racism does that tightly packed cliché contain?

· "People need to know it." If, after all these years of grandstanding, even the kind of person who reads Vanity Fair doesn't know it, what does that say about the Red approach?

· Changing the subject as soon as the topic of extreme wealth comes up-changing it to AIDS, the only time (it would appear) that AIDS comes up in the interview. Talking from both sides of his mouth as usual: If 5000 people a day are dying, as they are, for what, exactly, do Bush and Blair and Bono's other powerful cronies earn their high marks?

· Refusing to discuss his ownership of Forbes, ostensibly because it's off the topic. It couldn't be more on topic given that Capitalist Tool Bono is about to edit a slick magazine, claims he lives in the world of media, claims that such commerce-friendly publications have a "crucial" role to play.

· Bono sees the world through rose-tinted glasses. The Red campaign is based on an entirely cynical view of what motivates humans.

· Bono would have been a journalist. In fact, he did freelance a few pieces, universally undistinguished ones; his more obvious career choices would have been either a priest or a pimp.

· "Striking fear in the hearts of writers." As if this piece weren't an example of how he carefully selects easily intimidated stenographers to do his bidding. (Would a real journalist have stopped at "I don't want to talk about" Forbes or let him get away with changing the subject to AIDS when the topic of his own arrogance comes up? Or that if he did quote Bono in those cases that he shouldn't have written a little detail about the contradictions Bono is avoiding, as I have managed to do in about a sentence each here?)

How long before people will call a con a con? How many more people have to die in Africa before we acknowledge that this process is a fraud and a failure and that the evidentiary trail is not short but quite long (it's been 22 years since LiveAid)?

Dave Marsh (along with Lee Ballinger) edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch's favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: : Marsh's definitive and monumental biography of Bruce Springsteen has just been reissued, with 12,000 new words, under the title Two Hearts.

Marsh regularly hammers out rantings like this one for Holler If Ya Hear Me, the new collective blog about the music industry.

Marsh can be reached at:

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Bloc Party's A Weekend in the City: The Beauty and Ugliness of Modern Life

By Alexander Billet

Published by ZNet

Bloc Party have definitely made a huge mark on modern music. Their debut album Silent Alarm displayed an energy and emotional honesty that clearly set them apart from most of the too-cool-for-school attitude of most "indie-rock" bands. It was this that prompted the NME to claim Bloc Party as "the band of 2005, no contest. As vital as The Clash in '77…"

Big shoes to fill, and the London-based outfit didn't disappoint. But despite this comparison, Bloc Party noticeably shied away from political issues. They denied that their song "Helicopter" was about George W Bush, and lead singer Kele Okereke also criticized Green Day for jumping on the "anti-Bush bandwagon." Rather, it was their sheer openness and basic humanity that had young people clamoring for their records.

But a lot has happened since Silent Alarm's release. Just ask Okereke. Rather than focus on the group's music, the mainstream music press zoomed in on the singer's ethnicity; he's the son of Nigerian immigrants. Then, they hounded him about rumors of his bisexuality, which he confirmed after a few months. Okereke, known for his reserved and shy personality, was visibly frustrated by all this.

It's this kind of coverage that has the potential to make artists fear for their creative sanity. But rather than do that, or lash out at the press (which they would be completely justified in doing), Bloc Party have let those experiences shape their new album, A Weekend in the City. In doing so, they have released a shockingly deep and powerful record.

A step forward from Silent Alarm, the band has expanded its already intricate and layered sound, combining softer melodies with their raw frenetic power; a perfect compliment to Okereke's lyrics, which dare to venture into very heavy and often taboo subjects. The same range of emotions are expressed on this album: alienation, despair, hope, anger, etc. But Okereke has clearly put them in a frightening and confusing world: modern London. "East London is a vampire/it sucks the joy right out of me," sets the tone in the album's opening track "Song For Clay (Disappear Here)."

Bloc Party's London is especially alienating and hard for groups seldom mentioned or represented in pop music today: gays and people of color. It's a badly needed shift from the straight white boys club that seems to be the face of modern rock n' roll. "I just feel that every non-white teenager will know what I'm talking about when I say that certain avenues in this country are closed to you," Okereke told the Guardian in reference to the new album. "Whenever I walk into a pub in London I feel frightened. There are certain activities that are still predominantly white."

This is the world-one of inequality and bigotry-that Okereke has unflinchingly written into Weekend. The track "Where is Home?" highlights this in a gut-wrenching way as it starts at the funeral of Christopher Alaneme, a black youth stabbed to death last April, whom Okereke knew well. In a country where ASBOs ("Anti-Social Behavior Orders") are used to scapegoat anyone with dark skin, this song hits hard.

Another highlight of the album comes in the menacing "Hunting for Witches," directed at the racist backlash following the London bombings in July 2005. "[That song was] written when I was just observing the reactions of the mainstream press and I was just amazed by how easy it'd been to whip them up into a fury," remarks Okereke. "I guess the point about the song for me is that post-September 11th, the media has really traded on fear and the use of fear in controlling people."

But it would be wrong to portray Weekend as overwhelmingly bleak. The beautifully Cure-esque "I Still Remember" is a vivid portrayal of modern love; more explicitly one about a secret gay rendez-vous. When so many "love songs" trade in on cheap cliché, this tune is especially refreshing: "You should have asked me for it/I would have been brave/You should have asked me for it/How could I say no?" Love does take bravery, and doubly so when it's forbidden.

If one characteristic could sum up this diverse album, it would be the very thing that has set Bloc Party apart from the beginning: their willingness to be honest and open in their music. In an image-obsessed industry, this band has been bold enough to eschew pretension and speak their mind. In doing so, Weekend manages to capture perfectly what it feels like to be alive-truly alive-in frightening and frustrating times. That the album's lyrics are pulled directly from their songwriters' own experiences only highlights this.

It is a hard thing to wear your heart on your sleeve. Bloc Party wear theirs with style. And this has lead them to produce one of the most poignant records in a long, long time. This is a flat-out incredible album. And if Bloc Party continue on this path then they will indeed end up one of the most important bands of our time.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Bashing Britney: The Face of a Shameless Industry

By Alexander Billet

I am loath to defend the likes of Britney Spears. I, like many others, cringed when MTV dressed her up as the sexist stereotype of the naughty schoolgirl and billed her as "wholesome." I shuddered when the media subjected us to the minutiae of her personal life, from her tour squabbles to K-Fed. I almost vomited when I heard her thoughts on the Iraq war: "I think we should trust the president." And when Rolling Stone or MTV names her the “best female artist” of any year it makes me want to blast my Janis Joplin records out of sheer protest.

But this needs to be said: the coverage of Spears’ very public meltdown is disgraceful. It is depraved, sexist, and exploitative. And while it may go without saying that she has always represented the most shallow and shameless side of the entertainment business, this whole debacle has given us a chance to see how sinister and ruthless that business can be.

Over the past several weeks, we have played the role of accidental voyeurs as Spears’ sanity has dissolved like alka-seltzer in a pool of lava. The in and out stays in rehab, the late night emotional breakdown in front of her ex's apartment, and of course the head shaving and tattoos, all with photographers in tow. Every outlet, from Entertainment Tonight to People, has signed up with the newly formed Bash Britney Brigade. Never to be outdone, the online section of Maxim magazine (that shining beacon of post-post-post-feminism) has compiled a list of roles that Spears can attempt now. Needless to say, it’s not too flattering.

And yet, this same magazine at any other given time would be salivating to plaster her across their front cover. It is profoundly sick and twisted that the same publications that ogled Spears’ breasts and asked if they were real, that chronicled her status as a virgin with pornographic fascination, and somehow assumed the right to declare her an unfit mother can now be laughing with such glee over her obvious distress.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this, and it won’t be the last. Millions of teenage girls dream of making it big as a pop star. Record execs have their pick of the litter when finding “the new teen sensation.” Spears was just lucky enough to fit into their Barbie-shaped mold. But in the record business, dreams are only important as long as they make money. At age 16, when most kids are worrying about their driver’s license and getting caught drinking by their parents, Spears was being thrown into Catholic schoolgirl and Lolita outfits on the cover of every major music magazine on the planet. What's worse, she was presented as an example for young girls.

Playing two conflicting roles—the available sex kitten and the virginal role model—all under the constant watch of an unscrupulous and intrusive press would drive anyone up the damn wall. But now that she has buckled under the weight, Spears has become a pop diva pariah. And despite the lurid details the tabloids are willing to share about Spears’ life, the one thing they won’t touch is their own longtime role in driving her to the edge.

The message is clear: if she’s disposable, so are the rest of us.

It's hard to believe that Britney Spears would have cured cancer in a different world. But when dealing with an industry and a society that exploits the hopes and dreams of ordinary people, it is worth asking ourselves what people like her would amount to if those dreams (both hers and ours) were fostered and nurtured.

Pity Britney. Screw the industry.