Published May 01, 2003"I was born with the voice of a riot," rasps Zack de la Rocha on the recent "March of Death," a raucous track that puts the rest of today's protest pop to shame. The former Rage Against The Machine front-man's collaboration with DJ Shadow is the best of a bad lot of antiwar songs posted on the internet since the Iraq war began. Beyond Shadow's drums of death and de la Rocha's trademark howls, pop's well of dissent has run dry, drained by corporate media hegemony, an indifferent population and half-assed artistry.
You'd never know it if you rely on the radio, but this year has seen an explosion in the number of musicians setting their politics to a beat. Not since the Vietnam War have we witnessed such a widespread expression of dissent, as today's stars attempt to replicate the transcendent activism of tunesmiths like Marvin Gaye. One reason why this generation hasn't been able to produce a song as ubiquitous as, say, Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" is that today's protest pop has earned no support from mainstream radio.
After the liberalising Telecommunications Act was passed in the United States in 1996, corporations were set free to buy as many radio stations as their deep pockets would allow. A few big players emerged, most notably Clear Channel Communications, which owns over 1,100 outlets in North America. In what New York Times columnist William Safire has called the "ruination of independent radio," small stations that once played edgy music have been gobbled up by corporations with no wish to rock the political boat.
No mere conspiracy theory, the increased concentration of station ownership has unquestionably impacted what gets played on your FM dial. After 9/11, CCC sent to its affiliates a list of songs with "questionable lyrics," including such, um, radical anthems as Elton John's "Daniel." When the Iraqi war started, the memo was re-circulated, and while CCC claims the list is only as a tasteful suggestion, it's hard to imagine a local programmer defying his overseers by play-listing an antiwar tune.
As if the corporate policing of the airwaves weren't bad enough, the recent experience of the Dixie Chicks has shown how risky it is for established artists to express any amount of dissent, no matter how moderate. A public relations fiasco erupted after the trio's March concert in London, where singer Natalie Maines told the audience, "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." Reaction to the comment was swift on the home-front, where radio jocks held rallies at which the group's albums were smashed by tractors. Once the voice of the poor and disenfranchised, the country scene is emblematic of America's movement to the right, to a place where folk music doesn't exist.
Writing in London's Guardian, Blur's Damon Albarn recently laid the blame for protest art's infirmity at the feet of listeners. "The way people listen to music has changed," he wrote. "Ideas don't stay in the ether long enough to have the impact that songs might have had 30 years ago."
While it may be true that people these days have shorter attention spans, artists themselves must ultimately bear the responsibility for protest pop's current malaise. A short tour of the internet reveals just how awful today's antiwar offerings are. Take the Beastie Boys' "In A World Gone Mad," quite possibly the trio's worst-ever outing, wherein they spit some of the daftest raps this side of Nelly. Public Enemy's Chuck D, meanwhile, mines rock-rap clichés on "No Boom Boom," a reworking of bluesman John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" with none of the original's primal energy.
Elsewhere, we get unspectacular acoustic fare from Billy Bragg ("The Price of Oil"), John Mellencamp ("To Washington") and R.E.M., whose lovely "Final Straw" is carried by Michael Stipe's appropriately haunting vocal. For all its strengths, that tune, like all the others discussed here, seems to have been hurried through the production process. In rushing these songs to the net, the artists haven't shown the same attention to craft as on proper commercial releases, thus confirming the cynical maxim: if it's free, it probably sucks.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore has started his own web-based music label, Protest Records (www.protest-records.com), home to a raft of freely downloadable songs from indie heroes like Cat Power and Jim O'Rourke. Here, where stature and sales don't matter, the protest movement's heart beats on, faint but sustained. Listen closely.