These are the questions bubbling up in the current debate over protest music, which has everyone from sociologists to bloggers weighing in on what constitutes effective agitprop. The argument's been brewing since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and picked up steam during the last presidential campaign, when artists who'd never taken an explicit political stance (most famously Bruce Springsteen) joined old-time activists like Patti Smith and Michael Stipe in stumping for John Kerry. The disappointment felt by rockers who'd registered Democrat at President Bush's reelection, and their growing disquietude over the Iraq war, led some into retreat and others — notably Springsteen, with the red-diaper folk of his "Seeger Sessions" album — into politically confrontational projects cast in a very traditional mold.
Breihan, speaking for a constituency more identified with computer hacking than marching on Washington, advocates the "casual, everyday perspective" of hip-hop artists like Lupe Fiasco and Boots Riley of the Coup, who integrate their views on power and the polis into well-woven tales of inner-city life. Though he's right to stand up for the strong wave of opposition that's emerging in both underground and mainstream hip-hop, Breihan's anti-anthem point of view isn't anything new, either; it's been kicking around since the post-punk era, crystallized in the refrain from Cracker's 1992 hit "Teen Angst": "What the world needs now is another folk singer like I need a hole in my head."
With due respect to Young's passion and Breihan's open ears, it's the debate itself that is most stale. The spot where politics and culture meet is vibrating because it's getting hit from so many angles. The field of political sounds is almost too wide to contemplate, encompassing anthem-seeking die-hards, totally wired upstarts, and plenty of concerned citizens in between.
The itch to sing out
In 2005, the folk singer Eliza Gilkyson coined a term for what seems to be happening: normalizing dissent. She wanted to explain songs like her anti-Bush jeremiad "Man of God" to her fans, who she worried might tire of this topical turn. "I guess for those fans who prefer my music without the politics, hang in there (or push the fast forward button) because maybe someday things will be such that we can move on to other areas of interest," Gilkyson wrote on her website in January 2005. A year and a half later, she's still singing "Man of God" in concert, just one of myriad artists who've learned to live with the constant itch to sing out.
Folk music has always been topical, of course, as has its more politically conservative sister, country — one reason, as Chris Willman explains in his fine book on country music politics, "Rednecks & Bluenecks," that Nashville's Bush supporters (and rebel voices like Steve Earle and Merle Haggard) were way ahead of the curve when it came to offering visceral opinions of current events. But as shock at the Iraq invasion and, later, Kerry's failed campaign wore down into a sense of inevitability, artists also changed their idea of political effectiveness: the need to speak out has become constant, therefore less dramatic — and less intimidating. The media-fueled firestorm over Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines' 2003 onstage anti-Bush quip has tarred dissent with a risky red stripe, but artists themselves — including the Chicks, who've suffered from the fallout over Maines' remarks but also arguably used it to redefine their career — seem to be willing to take that chance and confident that the fans who support their views will find them.
Those long dedicated to political music are more visible than ever. Folk-rock icons the Indigo Girls are reaching a new audience via their collaboration with Pink on the young diva's heartfelt tear-jerker "Dear Mr. President" from her latest Top 10 release, "I'm Not Dead." The Coup, hip-hop's most radical agitators, recently released "Pick a Bigger Weapon," a slamming blend of juicy funk, radical diatribes and Richard Pryor-esque humor. Michael Franti, the passionate pacifist behind the band Spearhead, will soon release "I Know I'm Not Alone," a documentary film about his journey to the war zones of the Middle East, which also inspired Spearhead's upcoming "Yell Fire!" In pop-punk, where Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day has led the charge, lesser-known figures are doing the ground work. Fat Mike of NOFX, for example, has set up the organization Punkvoter.com to "form a union against the chaotic policies George W. Bush has put in place," as its mission statement reads; the organization is distributing voter guides on this summer's Warped Tour.
Beyond these explicitly political corners, artists are weighing in everywhere, in statements ranging from the oblique (the title track to Elvis Costello's album with New Orleans great Allen Toussaint, "The River in Reverse") to the highly personal (anti-folk songstress Kimya Dawson's "Loose Lips," with its touching message mixing personal grief and political determination) to the gleefully straightforward (the Flaming Lips' new album "At War With the Mystics," with lines directed at Bush like "Every time you state your case / the more I want to punch your face"). And there are the monster hits — "Hips Don't Lie," which includes a line about immigrant rights that points to the spirit of self-determination pervading Latin music these days, and "Ridin Dirty," with its explicit critique of police profiling.
It's arguable that hip-hop owns protest right now. After Hurricane Katrina, Southern rappers were politicized, and the confrontational brand of outlaw resistance pioneered by N.W.A began to return to the fore. Kanye West's impromptu anti-Bush declarations during NBC's hurricane relief benefit inspired the Houston group the Legendary K.O. to release "George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People," a song that proved the mash-up could be a potent polemical weapon. Mainstream rappers like Juelz Santana and the Cash Money crew have started slipping anti-Bush statements into their bling-happy flows, joining conscious rappers like Mr. Lif and Talib Kweli in realizing hip-hop's potential to reach a powerful youth audience. (And, of course, Eminem was there early, with 2004's peace protest song "Mosh.") But really, identifying protest with one genre would be a mistake.
For someone plugged into the pop world, it's harder to avoid political music than to uncover it. Consider a typical morning for this critic: I open a promotional CD package, and out falls an advance for "The Body, the Blood, the Machine" by Oregon-based indie rock group the Thermals. The August release's lyrics "envision a United States governed by a fascist Christian state, and focus on the need (and means) to escape," says the press release. Next, I check my messages. There's one from Texas singer-songwriter Todd Snider's publicist, noting the positive response he's been receiving for his anti-Bush song "You Got Away With It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers)," and another from the press agent for Philadelphia hip-hop vets the Roots, saying that their upcoming release will be full of commentary too.
I jump onto the Web to troll for fresh downloads and find " Georgia ... Bush" from New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne. In this track from a mix tape collaboration with DJ Drama, the man behind "Hustler Muzik" snarls a warning: "Now — this song is dedicated to the one with the suit thick white skin and his eyes bright blue ... he ain't gon drop no dollars but he do drop bombs." Woody Guthrie would have approved. I surf over to MTV.com. The news page has a report of an onstage brawl between St. Louis alternative rockers the Living Things and crew members for Alter Bridge, the band formed by Creed members after singer Scott Stapp's departure, incited by an anti-Bush (Alter Bridge maintains, anti-American) rant by L.T.'s singer Lillian Berlin. It took place, ironically enough, in Switzerland.
This is how protest music flows now — it's part of the same stream that brings us hot new booty calls, " American Idol" ballads, and neo-punk declarations of puppy love. Artists are addressing "serious" issues as a matter of course and not worrying about the consequences. In a multimedia age, this means going beyond songs. Pointed videos have as much impact. Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends," depicts a young couple torn apart by the boy's decision to enlist in the military; Juvenile's "Get Ya Hustle On/What's Happenin' " follows a trio of children through a devastated New Orleans, wearing masks of Bush, Dick Cheney and Mayor C. Ray Nagin, carrying a box of relief supplies — empty water bottles and cans.
And then there's the onstage gesture, Natalie Maines' fatal move. This summer artists seem either unfazed or inspired by the Dixie Chicks affair. It's rare for artists to not state their position from the stage, from Madonna to Ice Cube.
Picking up the message
Are these artists just preaching to whatever choir prefers them? If so, they're definitely in a dialogue — and the chorus is rising up and taking control. Unknowns are making as much protest music as their pop heroes. Agitprop videos and satirical mash-ups are easily available all over the Web, as do-it-yourself auteurs transform others' songs into powerful messages of their own. Rapid-fire collages created by high school kids and weekend activists use cuts by old politicos like the Clash or unlikely suspects like 1980s hard rocker Aldo Nova to convey wholly contemporary messages. The results can be incredibly poignant: In one clip distributed by the archive Global Free Press, James Blunt's "No Bravery," a melodramatic ballad about a totally different conflict — Kosovo — mourns anew when set to images of wounded and dying Iraqis.
These copyright-defying, often anonymous works are part of a wave of self-expression that has the audience making its own kind of noise. "Music and video from the spare room. I did everything you hear ... and the video. Only spent a few hours on it though," writes Youtube.com user "limitedwave" about his rap-rock song "Rectify," which takes stabs at Newt Gingrich and "that governor of Texas and his thousands of kills." The music comes nowhere close to Neil Young's genius, but it does represent democracy in action. And it's one of hundreds, if not thousands, out there.
The 1960s counterculture may not even be the most relevant precursor to the growing outcry infiltrating pop. It's closer to what happened in response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, a similarly long and confusing struggle. Then, too, many artists felt an urgent need to address what they perceived as a political crisis. Voices rose in protest, and great works were created, like Tony Kushner's theatrical masterpiece "Angels in America" and visual artist David Wojnarowicz's memoirs and paintings. Public interest in art about AIDS surged and eventually peaked, but as the worldwide crisis persisted, artists continued to address it. It became a part of life, and of art.
For many artists today, the war on terrorism and its ripple effects are becoming the new status quo. In "Bullet," a new song based on Citizen Cope's 2004 college-radio hit "Bullet and a Target," the Chicago rapper Rhymefest connects the AIDS crisis to the war in Iraq. In one verse, he describes a reckless lover laid waste by the disease; in the other, he adopts the voice of an unwitting ROTC recruit sent to face the bombs of Baghdad. Both scenarios offer Rhymefest a way to explore the place where personal choice and political forces intersect. Today's most effective dissenting artists are making such connections, finding in pop's multilayered expressions a potent way to capture complexities that require more than sing-alongs.
Ann Powers is The Times' pop music critic.