Reasons musicians might hold their fire

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Here, in 2006, the rhythm of politics and music is making for a complicated composition.

Take John Mellencamp, who for weeks sat at his kitchen table in Bloomington, Ind., and channeled his rage and heartache into a few dozen songs about war and politics. But now he's decided to scrap every one of them, even the ones he loves.

The heartland singer is rethinking more than just his songbook. Mellencamp got a call not too long ago from an aide to Baron Hill, an old high school chum and a prominent Indiana Democrat. Hill is looking to reclaim his lost seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and he invited Mellencamp to bring his guitar to some stump events. Mellencamp turned him down flat. "Tell him I won't be there," the singer told the aide.

Does this mean that Mellencamp — an activist artist of the first order— is shedding his side career as a political troubadour? Far from it, he says. It just that now, unlike in the 2004 election season, he thinks the wise thing to do is to occasionally turn down the volume or quietly step off the stage.

The reason he has shelved "Commander-in-Chief" and his other new agitprop songs is because he believes his core audience is hearing too many war songs right now ("Neil Young just did a whole album, Paul Simon has his new songs," he said, starting a small list of recent recordings). And as for Hill, Mellencamp's old Seymour High School classmate, he is learning that not every Democratic candidate can expect liberal rockers to amplify their campaigns.

"I told his people to tell Baron that he voted for the war, so I can't do it," Mellencamp said, referring to the congressional vote in 2002 on the invasion of Iraq. "I sat next to him there in Sunday school and I never heard anybody tell us that it was OK to kill people as long as there were a certain set of circumstances."

Back in 2004, divining what to do was pretty easy for liberal-leaning rock stars. With President Bush seeking a second term and the roiling situation in Iraq, a gallery of top music stars came together for the Vote for Change concerts. It was an "all hands on deck" moment for the guitar crowd.

Bruce Springsteen, who had always kept above or away from partisan politics, led a small army of musicians who teamed up and toured battleground states to raise money and attention for the cause of ousting Bush. Perhaps they made a difference, but they certainly didn't bring about change. Not surprisingly, it didn't silence the common criticism of celebrity activism.

Kenneth L. Khachigian, a noted political consultant and veteran of the White House under both Nixon and Reagan, said among campaign strategists there is a building cynicism about these public exercises in star power.

"I don't know anyone who can say whether these types of things actually help, and I know that, if they are speaking confidentially, they will tell you they would rather have the celebrities doing private-event fundraising rather than some of the public speaking," Khachigian said. "I think most of them don't do any great harm, but at the end of the day they also don't move the ballot."

Dealing with aftermathWhile an election wasn't won, Vote for Change did create a new and tighter circuitry among a group of artists, their managers and politically minded organizations that put a high premium on the presence of stars for reasons of celebrity, fundraising and simple inspiration. Some insiders say that circuitry will intensify activism by the amplifier-stack crowd for years to come. This year, though, with the presidency off the table, it will feel like a stripped-down, unplugged version of 2004.

"I'm not sure you will ever see anything like 2004 again," says Jeff Pollack, a consultant for television and radio who also was among the producers for the Live 8 benefit concerts in 2005, which targeted world poverty and Third World debt. Pollack believes, at least for the artists, "It was a combination of a hugely unpopular president, an unpopular war and a focused moment of interest for these artists."

And, in the end, an election night of bruising defeat. Not only did Bush win, there was a fair amount of artist-bashing among pundits who ques-tioned their qualifications and suggested that they had done more harm than good.

One of the key organizers of the Vote for Change shows was Bertis Downs, longtime manager for R.E.M. Downs rejects the notion that the artists who came together then somehow rankled workaday voters. He said Vote for Change "raised a lot of money, they got a ton of press and they highlighted what the issues were for a lot of people and communicated that this was the time to vote." The concerts raised about $8 million for voter outreach efforts.

Downs also pointed out that Springsteen's presence in Wisconsin at a memorable appearance with Sen. John Kerry was perceived as a valuable part of the Democratic nominee's narrow victory in that state.

"No, I certainly never heard anything from anyone that would suggest sour grapes or resignation," Downs said. "I mean, what was the other option? Do nothing? People were incredibly bummed, worried and concerned after the result, but I don't think they had regrets."

No musician has been asked about political regrets more than Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. Her band scored a No. 1 album this year, but to do so it endured a huge churn in its fan base as many of its core country followers walked out after Maines took a potshot at Bush on stage and triggered a full-fledged career crisis for the trio. The Chicks joined in on Vote for Change; unlike Downs, Maines was profoundly discouraged by Bush's victory, and that shadow still lingers.

"I don't regret participating, but I have to say that I have lost a lot of faith and optimism," she said last month.

So what happens this year? Maines said she will be cautious about stepping on stage to sing at a purely political event simply because her group now needs to define itself with reduced rhetoric. "You don't want to become completely defined by politics," she said. "It's not who we are or what we do."

Springsteen is on tour now singing the folk and protest music of Pete Seeger, which underscores his left-leaning heart — but it would be surprising to see him step back into a partisan music setting, especially after he characterized the 2004 foray as "trying to make a difference in an election that is among the most important in my lifetime." It's hard to do that every two years.

Downs said the likely scenario as November draws closer is for fans to see regional, one-off events for specific candidates and causes.

A show is one thing, but what about that other classic option of rock music, the recording of a politically charged song? With the frenetic "World Wide Suicide," Pearl Jam joined a long recent parade of music about Iraq or the Bush administration.

There have been songs (and, in some cases, entire albums) by Springsteen, U2, Green Day, R.E.M., the Dixie Chicks, the Rolling Stones, Eminem, Steve Earle, Tom Waits, John Fogerty, Barbra Streisand, Madonna, the Beastie Boys, Bright Eyes, NOFX, Billy Bragg, Michael Franti and many others.

But of that whole list, only Green Day had a true radio sensation. The band's "American Idiot" CD also led to seven Grammy nominations, including album of the year, and has sold 5.5 million copies. The video for "Wake Me Up When September Ends" has also become a touchstone image for many young music fans with its depiction of a couple, fresh from high school, split apart by the boy's deployment to the war zone.

The empty air at radio is viewed with cynical suspicion in some quarters, especially after the Chicks were publicly blacklisted by country radio programmers for the anti-Bush comment and remain so in some regions. But Mellencamp says he thinks radio's contemporary corporate culture doesn't generally take any chances and that the shrinking sector of modern rock stations nationwide has more impact on the relative silence.

"Hey, far as rock 'n' roll, you're not going to hear these songs because, other than classic rock stations, there's fewer places playing it," Mellencamp said. "It's just not what radio is playing now. Green Day was one of the few that cut through to Top 40."

In the Vietnam era, a radio hit such as Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" or Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" could put lyrics on the minds of young America that made them mull over the distant war and its home-front heartache. For Americans of a certain generation, hearing few or none of those types of songs today is cause for concern — including Neil Young, who has publicly grumbled about the lack of commentary by young bands. But in 2006 the radio is not the only place to tune in to music of dissent and protest.

The Chicks might have had trouble getting on country radio stations, but their music (with clearly political songs such as "Lubbock or Leave It") was the top download on iTunes. Eminem's intense, animated mini-movie for his anti-Bush song "Mosh" was a major hit on websites that stream music videos. Franti has a new album about his experiences in Iraq and other war zones and a full-length documentary of his travels.

There are also a large number of artists who use websites or e-mail to reach out to fans on topics that veer deeply into politics. Take Flea's "Fleamail." The bass player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers keeps an online journal at the Peppers' website that also pings out across the Internet to fan club members. In it he posts dispatches from the road, talks about his music school and sometimes dips into politics. Earlier this month, for instance, he went off on Bush's stand against gay marriage. After rattling off all the concerns of the day — the war in Iraq, hunger, disease — Flea wondered how Bush could be so focused on the bedrooms of America. "What an idiot," he wrote. "This guy is just absurd."

He was surprised at the result. "Suddenly there's stories out there about 'Flea says Bush is an idiot' and it's being covered as news. I'm just some knucklehead writing what I was thinking about that."

Living amid warThere is also the learning curve for young artists who want to write and sing about things they know. It has taken this long to recognize and process the moment in history, according to Jenny Toomey, a key organizer of the Vote for Change concerts.

"It's happening now because the young artists are seeing what a war is like and learning what it means to them, now it's informing their point of view," Toomey said. She spoke of being at an event early in the war where Patti Smith looked around and asked young artists why they weren't talking about the conflict. "The answer was that Patti Smith knew right away what it was because she had been there during Vietnam, and she recognizes it when she sees it happening again. The artists she was talking to couldn't see it yet and understand it. Now, unfortunately, they can."

Toomey also said that she believes people reflect on the Vietnam era with a rosier view of activist music than perhaps it deserved. "Most often, artists reflect society, and right now there is tremendous politicization in our society, politicization over the war, over poverty and the propaganda and payola in the media."

What about those liberal anthems of the Vietnam Era that braced a generation against the war? That's selective memory, according to Mellencamp. "We think that we did all this and that but, you know, really, one of the very biggest hits about Vietnam was 'The Ballad of the Green Berets.' "

The biggest political concert event on tap in Southern California at the moment is the Freedom Concert at Coors Amphitheatre in San Diego in early August. The bill features Hank Williams Jr. and Lee Greenwood as well as the less musical lineup of conservative voices Sean Hannity, Oliver North and Ann Coulter. The concert will benefit the Freedom Alliance Scholarship Fund for the children of disabled and dead veterans. In the two featured singers the event brings together the two dominant schools of country music's modern war songs: Williams is the boot-wearing hawk, Greenwood the air-brushed patriot.

That's the superficial take, but on closer inspection, the modern political life of country music is more complicated than that. If you tuned into country radio between the Sept. 11 attacks and the ramp up to war in Iraq, there was a call-to-arms sensibility best defined by Toby Keith's growling "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)." Now, though, the songs in the genre are veering toward the home-front and emotional issues of family and women.

"Before, we had songs of bravado and things like Darryl Worley singing 'Have You Forgotten?' which was right in the wheelhouse of most country fans, but now you don't hear that as much," said R.J. Curtis, general manager of country music giant KZLA-FM (93.9). Curtis pointed to songs such as "Come Home Soon" by SHeDaisy and "Bumper of My SUV" by Chely Wright as the newer life-in-wartime songbook. "There's less chest-thumping," he said.

In country music, silence may also be a substitute for protest. Mellencamp says he knows half a dozen country artists who have swallowed their political views and will continue to do so. It seems that today in music as a whole, there is careful attention paid to the backbeat of times. "And one of those stars who told me that, he is as big a star as there is in country today. Everybody has to make up their own mind about what to do. Or what not to do."

Sarah Dougher, a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore., contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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