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Conflict prompts outpouring of politics, protests from musicians
Musical protests of world events have gone from a tentative trickle following the terrorist attacks of 2001 to a flood of songs objecting to America's invasion of Iraq.
The sudden outspokenness of musicians has inflamed emotions on both sides of the war divide. Radio stations have dropped controversy-stirring artists from play lists and promoted pro-war rallies. Angry fans have denounced and publicly trashed CDs of the biggest-selling country band, the Dixie Chicks, for speaking out against President Bush's war strategy. And a Web site begun by a group calling itself Citizens Against Celebrity Pundits has signed on more than 100,000 citizens protesting movie and recording stars who use their status to speak out against American policy.
For decades, popular music has been one of the most immediate gauges of our society's emotional temperature. But in the past it could take weeks or even months for a song about world events to arrive in the marketplace. Now it takes minutes.
As the nation girded for war, songs protesting Bush's threats to invade Iraq proliferated on dozens of Web sites across the world: New York hip-hoppers the Beastie Boys ("In a World Gone Mad") and Chuck D's Fine Arts Militia ("A Twisted Sense of God" Pts. 1 & 2), Mexico's Molotov ("Ferocious"), Indiana's John Mellencamp ("To Washington"), London's Billy Bragg ("The Price of Oil"), Ireland's Luka Bloom ("I Am Not at War With Anyone"), Pakistan's Junoon ("No More"), Nashville's Nanci Griffith ("Big Blue Ball of War") and San Francisco's Spearhead ("Bomb the World") issued instant musical commentaries that were downloaded by tens of thousands in recent days. The songs span several generations of songwriters -- symbolized by a collaboration between Peter Paul & Mary's Peter Yarrow and his daughter Bethany Yarrow on a haunted version of the folk ballad "The Cruel War" -- and are mushrooming at such a rapid rate that Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore is building a Web site, protest-music.com, to house them all.
Artists are speaking out in other ways, as well. Sheryl Crow posted a long commentary on her Web site denouncing the war, and hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons issued an open letter to President Bush urging, "War on Iraq now is not the solution." System of a Down's new video, "Boom!," includes footage shot by filmmaker Michael Moore at a Feb. 15 protest march. Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour canceled what would have been his most ambitious U.S. tour, a 38-city trek that would have brought him to the College of DuPage on April 5, because "coming to America at this time would be perceived in many parts of the world -- rightly or wrongly -- as support" for the war on Iraq. And Madonna has been playing clips on her Web site from her forthcoming single, "American Life," a song about materialism that will be accompanied by a graphic anti-war video. "I hope this provokes thought and dialogue," she said in a statement. "I don't expect everyone to agree with my point of view."
The burst of songwriting has mirrored the rise of protest rallies from San Francisco to Rome. "It's an exhilarating feeling to see so many people" rising up in opposition, said John Sinclair, former White Panther Party leader who served as the manager of agit-punks the MC5 at the height of the Vietnam era. Tens of thousands were killed in Vietnam before a significant protest movement developed in America, he said. "We're ahead of where we were as a society in the '60s" in terms of building awareness about and opposition to the war.
Artists are also paying more quickly for their outspokenness. Dozens of stations have pulled Dixie Chicks' songs from their play lists because one of the band members, Natalie Maines, criticized Bush from the stage at a London concert.
A few days earlier, the Chicks had sold $49 million worth of concert tickets for their upcoming North American tour. But Maines' remark -- "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas" -- has caused the band's stock to plummet, even on the band's Web site, which has been flooded with posts from irate fans. "I have been a big fan of the Chicks as I love country music and the sound that you bring, although I cannot and will not be a part of anything that supports the ideals of anyone who makes remarks such as that," one fan posted on the Chicks' message board. "Personally, I will not support the Chicks in any way, shape or form in the future."
Crushed by criticism
A Louisiana country station rented a 33,000-pound tractor to crush Dixie Chicks' CDs and merchandise, a Missouri station held a "chicken toss" party where irate listeners were encouraged to dump the group's recordings into garbage bins, and programmers from San Antonio to Nashville pulled the band's songs off their play lists.
Meanwhile, the hottest song in the nation the last few weeks has been Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten," which essentially reads like a Bush position paper for entering Iraq with guns blazing ("We vowed to get the ones behind Bin Laden/Have you forgotten?"). Another country star, Clint Black, has posted a pro-war song, "I Raq and Roll," on his Web site.
Worley's song is getting widespread airplay on commercial country stations nationwide, while most of the anti-war songs have been reaching listeners via the Internet, but programmers insist they're not biased.
"You take them, pro or con, on a case by case basis," John Ivey, vice president of programming at Clear Channel, told the Los Angeles Times, "but I don't think anybody is looking to fill up the airwaves with songs about the war."
Rather than playing songs protesting the war, Clear Channel stations in Atlanta, Cleveland, San Antonio, Cincinnati and other cities have sponsored rallies endorsing Bush's strategy for ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Clear Channel owns 1,200 stations nationwide, by far the largest radio conglomerate in the nation, and owners of the San Antonio-based conglomerate have close personal and financial ties to the Bush administration.
"The corporations that own radio have a vested interest in not rocking the boat," said REM's Mike Mills at a panel on activism [moderated by this writer] at the just-completed South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas.
"Thank God for the Internet, because we're fighting against a corporate culture that makes it practically impossible to get a protest song on the air."
Other media corporations are pulling back from overt anti-war programming. VH1 didn't air Neil Young's anti-war remarks, made while inducting former Warner Brothers executive Mo Ostin to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, during its recent replay of the New York ceremonies.
And the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences reportedly urged artists to tone down the rhetoric during its recent nationally televised Grammy Awards; the ceremonies went off with nary a whimper from the artists, save for Fred Durst's off-the-cuff remark about anti-war "agreeance."
Artists weighing whether or not to speak out against the war face other public-relations obstacles. Lori Bardsley, a North Carolina homemaker, has begun an organization called Citizens Against Celebrity Pundits "where the average American like myself could come out . . . and stand against wealthy Hollywood celebrities abusing their status to speak for us." A petition on her Web site (www.ipetitions.com) denouncing the outspoken stars has drawn more than 100,000 signatures.
Nonetheless, at South by Southwest, rockers made small but pointed gestures that suggested they would not be intimidated. New Jersey punk rocker Ted Leo duct-taped the words "No War" on the guitar he played at several appearances. A handful of bands, including Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers, performed at an art gallery's "Play for Peace" concert. The conference was punctuated by a 7,000-strong protest rally in front of the state capitol, which blocked traffic for several hours and was briefly led by the 24-member Dallas rock band the Polyphonic Spree, which traipsed down Congress Avenue dressed in the white gowns they wear for their typically celebratory concert performances.
"We wanted to make some kind of contribution, if only to inspire people to think about what's going on around them," said singer Tim DeLaughter.
In addition to covering the protest rally, Austin newspapers, radio stations and panels were abuzz with news about the Dixie Chicks' Maines, an Austin native.
"When the Dixie Chicks made their statement, I went to their bulletin board and became a fan club member so I could say, `Way to go,'" said singer-guitarist Britt Daniel of the Austin rock band Spoon. "The reaction to these sorts of statements seems to have gotten worse in recent weeks. Celebrities or not, they should have the right to say what they want without fear of getting busted."
Yet not all musicians were so sympathetic. At a South by Southwest panel, Texas singer-songwriter Lyle Lovett said, "I absolutely trust President Bush's sincerity, and at the same time trust there is more information" yet to come out. "Just because [pop musicians] have the forum to speak out doesn't mean they should."
Whereas the months after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon had artists feeling skittish about exactly what to say and how to say it, leading to a dearth of substantive topical music, the onset of war is starting to harden beliefs, and steel courage. Mills said REM resisted writing topical songs after gaining a reputation as a "political band" in the '80s for lyrics addressing U.S. involvement in Central America. But he says the band is writing songs that "are very overtly political."
"Desperate times call for desperate measures," he said.
Works of art
Not all of the new protest songs are works of art, but several are, notably Spearhead's "Bomb the World," which evokes one of John Lennon's anthems with its mix of anger and yearning: "We can chase down all our enemies/Bring them to their knees/We can bomb the world to pieces/but we can't bomb it into peace."
It is likely just the beginning. As Billy Bragg, one of the few artists who has consistently been writing politically conscious songs for the last two decades, said in an interview from London, "I think September 11 cast a long shadow, made artists hesitant to put pen to paper for fear of being deemed anti-patriotic or not being fully respectful of the dead. But that hesitation is quickly dissipating, and it will be gone completely when young American men and women start coming home in body bags."