Sunday, October 12, 2008

Where Have all the Protest Singers Gone?

by Tony Hicks

One would think the time is ripe for an explosion of protest music.

We're witnessing what pundits are calling a historic presidential race at a time when even the party holding the Oval Office admits that a big dose of change is needed. We've been at war on two fronts for years with no end in sight, while there's less than a month to go in the election. The economy appears to be in free fall. The race is close, and the rhetoric is heating up fast as each side lobs verbal grenades at each other almost daily.

So where are all the protest songs, calling for one brand of change over the other?

Protest music is rare from conservative artists, but even the liberals songwriters seem to be sitting this one out.

"People are overwhelmed by the corruption of our government," says Paul Kantner, a founding member of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, who just released a new Starship record, "Jefferson's Tree of Liberty. "They don't think their vote counts "... people don't have enough faith."

In other words, even if we have two new candidates promising change from an outgoing and unpopular administration, it might just be that musicians aren't feeling they can make a difference, especially after the outpouring of activism in 2004.

That was the year John Kerry had the support of Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews, among other big-name artists, performing on the "Vote for Change" tour. Linda Ronstandt was grabbing headlines for speaking out in the face of open hostility at many of her shows. It was the year that gave us songs like Ani DiFranco's "Animal," the Beastie Boys' "It Takes Time to Build," and the Roots' "Why (What's Goin' On?)," among others.

Even two years later, just in time for midterm Congressional elections, there was still an echo of the outrage, most notably in Neil Young's "Living With War" record and his passionate summer tour with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Some of the stalwarts are still around, such as Bruce Springsteen, doing benefits for Barack Obama. And bands that are almost always political, like Bad Religion, are still addressing the issues. Punk singer-songwriter Ted Leo just wrote and recorded a four-song EP after witnessing the treatment of protesters at the Republican convention, the timing of which made it only available on his Web site. And people like John Legend and Billy Joel have also appeared at events.

But all in all, the desperation that was apparent among artists willing to sing protest songs four years ago is largely absent at this year's political crunch time.

"There's baggage to becoming a protest singer," says Chris Walla, guitarist for Death Cab For Cutie and an admitted political junkie, whose band has played Obama rallies. "Because of the media portrayal of the protests, nobody wants to be associated with it. I don't think it would work with our audience all that well."

Plus, Walla says, there's a strong perception that, unlike Kerry in 2004, Obama doesn't need the help. And there's no George W. Bush in the race to focus on.

"When your candidate is a rock star on his own, why does he need Death Cab for Cutie?" Walla says. "What Obama needs is 'Rednecks for Obama.'"

Nathan Berg, a professor of economics and sociology at the University of Texas at Dallas, is the singer for the Halliburtons, one of the few bands out there continuously making political music.

"It's noticeably more quiet regarding the musical discourse this year," he says. "I think there are those of us who thought 2004 was important and thought things would change. It's hard to see strong rebuttal for pessimism."

Berg speculates that Kerry's loss deflated musicians. They're getting change one way or another this year, which de-focuses years of targeting President George W. Bush.

"My band played at Dealey Plaza on the anniversary of the Iraq war, but I'm feeling my time is better spent speaking as an economist and social scientist," says Berg, whose band has toured Ireland and Germany. "There's actually much more of an anti-Bush and anti-war scene in Europe." There's also some low-level recorded activism, coming at a lower profile from groups like metal band Testament and bluegrass group the Del McCoury Band, an indication of big names laying low this year. McCoury's new record is called "Moneyland."

Kanter says that with each passing year, technological distractions and a corporate media unwilling to take chances make it more difficult for musicians to make a difference.

"People are overwhelmed by modern times," he says. "There's an overflow of information and they become confused. In the '60s we thought we could change the world - and we did change some of it," he says. "People today don't have that hope."

Copyright © 2008 - Contra Costa Times

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