Published Oct 01, 2004In the run-up to next month's presidential election, American musicians ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Bright Eyes to Babyface have produced a new wave of protest music and political activism to mobilise the masses against George W. Bush. The only thing more awesome and unprecedented than their unity is what they're up against.
From the politicians it opposes to the listeners it offends, protest music wouldn't be protest music without its detractors. Acerbic delivery, dogmatic grandeur and literal, topical lyrics can be poison to anyone's ears, whether they're politically disengaged, adverse to the message or simply put off by the sound. But there will always be an audience open to being awakened, emboldened and entertained by socially conscious tuneage, especially in politically electric times.
With the blaring exception of Rage Against the Machine, dissent-driven American bands barely grazed the pop radar in the 1990s. Established acts like Bad Religion and Public Enemy continued to agitate just below the surface and indie upstarts such as Kathleen Hanna and Anti-Flag picked up the torch for the underground. In Le Tigre's "Get Off the Internet," written in 2000, Hanna calls on listeners to leave their computers, hit the streets and "destroy the right wing," commenting that "It feels so '80s or early '90s, to be political, where are my friends?" Well, after four years of George W. Bush, Hanna has a major label to broadcast her preaching to the unconverted, and such unlikely "friends" as P. Diddy, David Crosby and the Dixie Chicks are helping to spread the word.
While the U.S.A. is ideologically and politically polarised by Bush's "war on terror" and a seemingly bottomless scroll of other divisive initiatives, he's united the majority of Democrats, liberals, activists and anarchists against him. Likewise, in large numbers and loud voices, pop stars, punks, folkies, rockers, rappers and country singers are mobilising and organising to amplify the message, in the face of a dirty administration and a collusive media, and in the hopes that young Americans and undecided voters will heed their call and dump "Dubya" on November 2.
But will music make a difference this time? The political influence of music and musicians is roundabout, aside from fundraising efforts and superstar lobbying to his credit, Bono has used his stature to raise righteous issues with world leaders, but he will never sway the likes of Bush. Hanna suggests that music can create a culture of activism, pointing to her support of feminist, queer and peace movements since the early '90s heyday of her riot grrrl band, Bikini Kill.
For his part, country rocker and author Steve Earle has heard enough testimonials to convince him of music's potential to persuade. "I lost count years ago of people that came up to me after a show and said, That song you wrote changed my mind about the death penalty,'" he says. "If music can change people's hearts and minds about that issue, then they can change them about anything."
As difficult as it is to measure, the ability of artists to affect an election draws significant scepticism. Folk and rock contributed to turning the masses against the Vietnam war, albeit slowly, but it didn't topple the president who escalated it to maniacal proportions. Richard Nixon, supposedly the most reviled president of the 20th century, was re-elected by a landslide in 1972.
"The older generation just voted in larger numbers," according to Earle, who was too young to vote in '72, but old enough to recognise the counterculture's detachment. "Our hearts were in the right places, but a lot of us were on drugs and we weren't organised enough to get it together and vote."
Historically, voter turnout in the United States is even more dismal than in Canada, particularly among the largely left-leaning block of blacks, single women, the working class and youth. Since 1990, Rock the Vote has enlisted musicians to promote political engagement, and similar non-partisan voter-registration groups have sprung up during this election cycle. Noble efforts all, and Rock the Vote may have had an impact initially Bush senior went down in the first election after it was founded, when there was a slight increase in youth turnout but the 2000 election drew a record low 29 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds, and just over 51 percent overall.
Hip-hopper Wordsworth is no stranger to voter apathy. The 28-year-old university graduate and MC, seen "debating" the president in a hilarious promo video for the Slam Bush freestyle contest, has never voted.
"I was always aware of things going on in the world, but sometimes people just get into a rut of hopelessness," he says. "But I realised that I can't complain and talk junk when I'm not involved." Inspired by the likes of Def Jam founder and born-again activist Russell Simmons who didn't cast a vote until 1996, at the age of 39 Wordsworth is registered and ready to bring other voting virgins on board. "My voice is a gift and I need to use it for something important. People don't like to be beat in the head with a lecture but if you have the opportunity to speak up and get people involved, I think you should."
What could encourage voters of all ages is the broad range and sheer number of musicians involved in politically-themed, strategically planned contests, concerts, tours, festivals and fundraisers. Voter registration and edutainment are important components in these new endeavours, but unlike Rock the Vote, there's no question where the artists' loyalties lie.
"When you do the whole bipartisan thing, you're just beating around the bush," says Davey D, a San Francisco-based hip hop historian, journalist and activist whose contribution to the book How To Get Stupid White Men Out of Office inspired Slam Bush. "You spend more time trying to walk this thin line than really saying what's on your mind, and I think walking the middle of the road turns people off."
Toby Keith may be MOR, but the Okie country singer doesn't mince words when it comes to politics his latest album, for example, is titled Shock 'N Y'all, a little play on the Pentagon's promise to deliver a killer show with the war's first bombs over Baghdad. Other artists who flap the right wing include Johnny Ramone, Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Gotham Road, a metal band whose singer Michael Graves briefly fronted the Misfits.
For the most part, however, politically aware musicians hang left, often further left than John Kerry, whose support is predominantly fuelled by the "anyone but Bush" mentality. Spoiler candidate and once-respected activist Ralph Nader was the musicians' darling when he led the Green Party in 2000 with enthusiastic endorsements from Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Ani DiFranco and Jello Biafra, among others but this year they're thinking strategically.
"He's a wonderful man but I wouldn't dare waste my vote on him this election," says Ministry's Al Jourgensen, currently registering voters and skewering Bush on the band's Evil Doer Tour. "I certainly don't think Kerry's the messiah, but the arrogance of the Republican regime cannot go unchecked."
What is it good for?
"There are a lot of issues that touch each artist differently," says Wordsworth, "but nothing hit as close to home as the 9/11 tragedy and how the president handled it."
At its inception, the so-called war on terror didn't provoke massive musical protest. Apart from a few solemn elegies and patriotic tributes to 9/11's victims, most musicians stayed mum until the administration's attention shifted inexplicably from Afghanistan to Iraq.
The phoney justifications for the invasion, mismanagement on the ground, the spectre of George Orwell's nightmare, perpetual war, and the resulting possibility of a draft make Iraq a dominant issue for voters, and the tie that binds the anti-Bush brigade.
"Sometimes it takes a war and a lot of body bags coming home to coalesce public opinion," says Jourgensen. Each song on Ministry's House of the Molé starts with W (except the lead track, simply "No W"), taking a shot at the president while tearing into the cultural and political fallout from 9/11, but modern music fans don't have to wait for a record to hear a band's reaction to war and politics.
As with subversive grassroots groups like MoveOn.org, the internet has proven itself invaluable to concerned musicians, who've recently uploaded a wealth of protest songs on sites like ToppleBush.com and Sonic Youth's Protest Records. Not only does it offer a public arena for amateurs to express themselves, but it allows big boys like R.E.M. to bypass their corporate-owned major labels, if need be, to issue anti-war songs like "Final Straw."
The big five record companies (Sony, Universal, Warner, EMI, BMG) may not be the music world's most progressive forces, but they'll still release, or at least distribute, protest music, particularly by major artists. Recent and upcoming albums by Le Tigre, Green Day, Patti Smith, Crosby & Nash and R.E.M. all come by way of major labels, as does the Wake Up Everybody compilation. Artists such as Babyface, Missy Elliot, Mary J. Blige, Eve, Jadakiss and Wyclef Jean are hoping to repeat history with an all-star cover of the record's title track, a 1975 soul hit by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign employed the original song to reach the black electorate, who may or may not have titled that race in his favour. In light of the African-American love affair with Bill Clinton (the "first black president," according to author Toni Morrison), it's ironic that Melvin and friends reformed to play "Wake Up Everybody" at the Republican convention in 2000.
Bruce Springsteen has also jumped aboard the anti-Bush bandwagon this year, but at the peak of his popularity, he refused to endorse either Ronald Reagan or Walter Mondale, whose 1984 campaigns both coveted his misunderstood working-class anthem, "Born in the U.S.A." Springsteen's lyrics have often addressed social issues, but Bush's handiwork has also motivated artists whose music sweeps the real world under the rug.
"We've always made it a point not to be a political band," says My Morning Jacket's Jim James. "I don't write political lyrics, I don't get up on stage and make speeches because I think music should be a beautiful escape for anybody, regardless of their politics."
Unlike Fat Mike of NOFX who penned a song about Bush called "Idiot Son of an Asshole" James refuses to bad-mouth the Republicans, preferring to let his band's inclusion in the Vote For Change tour do the talking. But that doesn't mean he's not critical of their imperialist endeavours and deficit-dilating policies, which My Morning Jacket's generation (and their kids) will pay for.
"If I can't afford health insurance and rent, I'm gonna be too busy thinking about that to meander on my couch all day, playing guitar and writing songs," says James. "I try to make my life and my music into as much of a fantasy as possible, but if I don't try and help the real world, I'm not gonna have a fantasy world to come back to."
The Media Against the Message
Bush's heavy footprint on the economy, the environment, education, national security, civil liberties, health care, gay rights, abortion laws and the separation of church and state are some of the fundamental domestic issues inspiring songwriters and driving John Kerry's campaign. With so much stacked against Bush and his repugnant neo-conservative henchmen, you'd think this election would be in the bag. Figuratively speaking.
"People were really demoralised after the election was stolen last time," says Hanna. "It's kinda scary to think that this year's results could already be decided."
Thanks to Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State/Bush campaign chairwoman Katherine Harris, the stench of dirty tricks settled over Florida in 2000 with the well-documented disenfranchisement of black voters and corruption of the vote recount.
"It was really sad to watch the last election slip away from us," laments James. "I would hope and pray that, for the love of God, there be some iron-clad system to keep all the votes tallied this time, but there's so much room for error with electronic voting." He's referring to the paper-free, hacker-friendly machines that will tally 30 percent of this election's votes machines made by the steadfast Bush supporters at Diebold Inc.
If Clinton was almost impeached over adultery Bush's job is secured by a Republican congress and House, for now why is the furore over Florida only seething out on the fringe? Another society might revolt under the same circumstances, but the dominant American media outlets refuse to acknowledge Bush's election fraud, leading a lethargic public to dismiss the notion of the 2000 theft and the possibility of a 2004 encore as a crazy conspiracy theory.
Millions of Americans enjoy being bullied into consent by right-wing radio demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and his televisual brethren on Fox News, infamous for their militant patriotism and allegiance to the administration. Underdog liberal station Air America Radio emerged last spring to bring some balance (and anal-retentive fact-checking) to the airwaves, with Steve Earle, Chuck D and comedians such as Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo hosting shows. However, the majority of Americans get their news from mainstream TV and newspapers, which may or may not be coloured by partisan forces within their parents companies, but clearly favour sensation and spin over journalistic principles.
"The news media has gotten to the point of ridiculousness," says Jourgensen. "You get three minutes of spin to the left and three minutes of spin to the right, but what's lost in translation is the truth."
Americans have also lost diversity in programming since the 1996 Telecommunications Act opened the door for consolidated ownership. No corporation exemplifies the trend like Clear Channel Communications, which owned 40 radio stations before '96 and over 1200 today. Clues about Clear Channel's politics, aside from several Bush family ties, include a suggested ban of "potentially offensive" music after 9/11 (including purely pacifist songs like John Lennon's "Imagine") and its sponsorship and organization of pro-war rallies and "Straight Pride" parades. In addition, the regulatory body that polices the airwaves the Federal Communications Commission is chaired by Secretary of State Colin Powell's son. American media isn't state-controlled, but the level of influence held by top-tier Republicans and their corporate cronies is depressing by modern American standards.
Davey D was fired by a San Francisco Clear Channel station within a month of 9/11, after interviewing a series of controversial guests such as the Coup's Boots Riley and anti-war Congresswoman Barbara Lee. D, who currently hosts a show on Pacifica radio, voices the familiar complaint that the media doesn't promote or accurately portray demonstrations, such as the half-million-man march in New York City the day before August's Republican National Convention. Likewise, Harlem's subsequent anti-Bush demo didn't happen as far as local "urban" radio stations were concerned, even though it moved through the heart of their 'hood.
"What you're seeing, in my opinion, is the media trying to slow the momentum by the sin of omission," says D. He also points to a double standard for the promotion of protest music, from the "Wake Up Everybody" single to his Slam Bush contest.
"This is a pretty novel idea, this is newsworthy. I've talked to maybe 15 newspapers around the country since Slam Bush started, and a big radio station can't talk about it? They can't bring Wordsworth on to ask him about his video? What do they want him to do, go shoot somebody, then he can come on? You know, they'll talk about freestyle battles all day, but when it comes to a freestyle battle with purpose, suddenly everybody's absent."
The Dixie Chicks were forced into absentia on 41 Cumulus Media-owned country music stations last year after singer Nathalie Maines told a London audience that she was ashamed to share a home state with Bush. Some Clear Channel stations also pulled the trio's songs, though the company claims the ban was self-imposed by a few bad-apple DJs. One Louisiana station went as far as organising a rally where Dixie Chicks CDs and merch were crushed by a tractor.
"They were threatened with the demise of their career and they were literally coerced into an apology," says Earle. "That should have scared the fuck out of everybody, but at the time people were just afraid to say anything."
Incidents such as these added to an atmosphere where dissent seemed dangerous, even though the Dixie Chicks saw a spike in record sales after the controversy. A sedative cocktail of fear and laziness stifled everyone who remained complacent about a war they disagreed with, from the politicians who could have intervened to the musicians who could have spoken up to the public who could have joined the protests. It's telling that the biggest anti-war protest in North America happened in Montreal, where half a million people marched in Arctic temperatures, while the American demos were under-attended, under-reported and over-policed.
"You almost have to admire the Republican party for the way they're playing people," says Jourgensen, whose initial career choice, incidentally, was history professor. "The climate of fear permeates everything. Like Marx said in the communist manifesto, the most efficient way to govern a society is to keep them at their windows, meaning keep them paranoid, looking out at your neighbour, ratting out your neighbour. And, somehow, instead of people being upset that 9/11 was allowed to happen, they're paralysed by the fear that it could happen again."
Although there's a sense that the pendulum is slowly swinging left, the presidential race is painfully close and the weight of the right, the apathetic and the submissive media, with the Bush administration sprawled on top of them, is overwhelming, as is the contention that this election could be the U.S.A.'s referendum on democracy itself.
Musicians of all stripes, some of them activist veterans, others newly politicised, have stepped up to the plate and stepped into history as the American music world's most massive, focused and organised movement against a president. Whether or not they'll make a difference by informing or influencing voters, all they can do is speak and sing and hope for the best.
"I can't predict anything," says Wordsworth. "Voting is for the future, but it's based on what we know now, and we know Bush. Maybe four years from now, we're gonna say the same things about Kerry, but I wanna know that at least I tried and I helped. Hopefully I helped. It's all about having hope."
What's Going On
A look at this election year's coalition of the willing.
Organisations and Concerts
Axis of Justice
Founded by Tom Morello (Audioslave, ex-Rage Against the Machine) and Serj Tankian (System of a Down). Aside from staging shows and demos, www.axisofjustice.org is a major online resource for political info, action and entertainment.
Bands Against Bush
Inspired by '80s Rock Against Reagan shows, Tobi Vail (ex-Bikini Kill) sparked this zine-producing, show-organising coalition, which has chapters all over the U.S. and one in Ontario.
Summer concerts in Toronto, Montreal and NYC, staged by Artists Against the War, helped fund the Canadian caravan to the Republican Convention protests.
Concerts For Kerry
This grassroots group raised over $200,000 for Kerry this summer with comedy and music shows. Artists included Moby, Freezepop, Ted Leo and DJ Spooky.
October 4 in NYC (for $100 to $250), courtesy of the American Civil Liberties Union. Artists include Patti Smith, Philip Glass, Lou Reed and Mos Def.
Music For America
This voter registration group has toured with dozens of acts, including Usher, Kanye West, Fly Pan Am, Electric Six and Antibalas.
No Vote Left Behind
Organised by Mudhoney's Mark Arm and friends, this four-day Seattle festival raised money for the Democratic National Committee. Artists included Pearl Jam, Queensryche, Pansy Division and Hedwig vs. Elvez.
Launched by NOFX's Fat Mike, this group has released compilations and registered voters on the road.
Vote For Change
Raising funds for Move On PAC and America Coming Together, this tour targets "swing states" from Oct. 1 to 11. Artists include Bruce Springsteen, Keb Mo, Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes.
Axis of Justice: Concert Series Volume I (Columbia) Recording of an all-star L.A. show and a DVD of goodies, out Nov. 2. Artists include Tom Morello, Tankian, Jurassic 5 and Chris Cornell.
Election Day USA (Sea Lion) The 20 best protest songs by obscure and amateur artists from the MP3-heavy www.topplebush.com, compiled for radio use (not for sale).
Future Soundtrack for America (Barsuk) Proceeds go to Move On and Music For America. Artists include the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Tom Waits, Sleater-Kinney and Flaming Lips.
Peace Not War (Independent) Two double-disc volumes released by a U.K. organisation of the same name. Artists include Sonic Youth, Jane's Addiction, Michael Franti and Paris.
Rock Against Bush (Fat Wreck) Nearly 60 songs on two volumes, both with DVDs featuring music videos, political shorts and comedy. Artists include Bad Religion, Flogging Molly, Jello Biafra and Denali.
Songs and Artists That Inspired Fahrenheit 9/11 (Epic/Sony) Out on Oct. 12, compiled by Michael Moore. Artists include Little Steven, Bob Dylan, the Clash and Jeff Buckley.
Wake Up Everybody (Bungalo) CD/DVD compilation featuring the Babyface-produced all-star cover of the title track; proceeds benefit ACT (America Coming Together). Other artists include Yoko Ono, Emmylou Harris, Everclear and Seal.
Anti-Flag The Terror State (Fat Wreck)
Beastie Boys To the 5 Boroughs (Captiol)
Crosby / Nash (Sanctuary)
Steve Earle The Revolution Starts Now (Artemis)
John Fogerty Déjà vu All Over Again (Geffen)
Green Day American Idiot (Reprise)
Le Tigre This Island (Universal)
Ministry House of the Molé (Sanctuary)
Moby and Public Enemy "MKLFKWR" single (Mute)
Radio 4 Stealing the Nation (Astralwerks)
This Machine Kills Fascists
A brief history of American protest music
"Until the movement is marked by the joyous, defiant singing of revolutionary songs, it lacks one of the most distinct marks of a popular revolutionary movement; it is a dogma of the few, and not the faith of the multitude." James Connolly, introducing "Songs of Freedom," New York, 1907
Labour-movement mouthpiece Woody Guthrie pinned protest music to the American map in the 1930s when he wrote "This machine kills fascists" on his acoustic guitar. Followers such as Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs later championed civil rights and protested the Vietnam war, when Ochs felt it necessary to "sing the news" in the media's absence. Guthrie protégé Bob Dylan criticised Ochs' topical prose, but John Lydon later took a shot at Dylan's abstract poetry, saying he always thought "Blowin' in the Wind" was about a fart.
Classic lyrics: Woody Guthrie, "All You Fascists" (1942)
"I'm gonna tell all you fascists, you may be surprised
People all over this world are getting organised
You're bound to lose
You fascists are bound to lose."
At its inception, rock'n'roll inspired a lifestyle revolution, not an overtly political one. Rockers have certainly tackled social issues, as in the '80s gaggle of all-star songs and benefits, but few devoted their careers to dissent the way folkies did. However, the Vietnam war inspired a slew of protest songs by the Fugs, Country Joe and the Fish, Barry McGuire, Buffalo Springfield, and soul singers Edwin Starr and Marvin Gaye, and the gauzy mythology surrounding that protest period is undoubtedly driving the movement today.
Classic lyrics: Credence Clearwater Revival, "Fortunate Son" (1969)
"Some folks inherit star spangled eyes,
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord,
And when you ask them, How much should we give?'
Ooh, they only answer More! more! more!"
Despite its escapist streak and whiny tendencies, punk and protest will always be linked thanks to the DIY-dissent precedent set by the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, Fugazi and "White Panther" proto-punks the MC5, who were the only band with balls enough to show up at the 1968 Democratic convention/riot, and possibly the only band ever to live by its own radical manifesto.
Classic lyrics: The Dead Kennedys, "California Uber Alles" (1981 version)
"I am Emperor Ronald Reagan
Born again with fascist cravings
Still you made me president
Human rights will soon go 'way
I am now your Shah today."
Like punk, hip-hop came out of disaffected urban centres, and even though most early hip-hop was party music, the first mainstream rap song ("The Message" by Grandmaster Flash) reflected the ongoing black struggle. Degrees of political hip-hop, which co-exists with the "bling-bling" thing, range from Public Enemy's militancy to the post-frat, pacifist Beastie Boys to socially "conscious" acts like KRS-One.
Classic lyrics: Public Enemy, "Rebirth" (1991)
"Then I sing a song
About what the hell is goin' wrong
You never know
If you only trust the TV and the radio
You can't see who's in cahoots
Cause now the KKK
Wears three-piece suits."