Times Staff Writer

IS Chamillionaire’s hit song “Ridin’ ” a political anthem? What about Shakira and Wyclef Jean’s “Hips Don’t Lie”? When seeking anthems for a new political age, should those critical of the Bush administration be turning toward a Dirty South rapper mad at the cops for disturbing his cruising game or a belly-bared dance music queen who slips a line about immigrant rights into a nightclub seduction? Or does today’s political climate demand voices raised with an urgency that can be inspired only by old-fashioned protest music of the kind country stars like Toby Keith have produced for their conservative fans?

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.

Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, Neil Young -- these artists constitute the roll call of protest stars, hailed by pundits across the country for revitalizing the form. Yet as great as some of their efforts can be -- and as quirkily true to their own vision, as in the case of Young’s joyfully jarring guitar-and-choir declamation on songs like “Let’s Impeach the President” -- they’re hardly the only options out there. When Young recently stated that he made the album “Living With War” because no younger artists were picking up the countercultural torch, he unfortunately associated his efforts with a generational attitude that drives Generations X and Y crazy. “It’s a cliched Rolling Stone boomer-idea, that pop culture managed to stop a war, that musicians once had power as galvanizing figures,” wrote twentysomething blogger Tom Breihan in a May 17 Village Voice column decrying such views.

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 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

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 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.



The lyrics

Here are excerpts from selected contemporary artists’ songs on politics, President Bush and the war in Iraq.


Green Day

“American Idiot”

I’m not a part of a redneck


Now everybody do the


And sing along to the age of


Welcome to a new kind of


All across the alien nation

Where everything isn’t meant to

be okay

Television dreams of tomorrow

We’re not the ones who’re meant

to follow

For that’s enough to argue.


Pearl Jam

“World Wide Suicide”

I felt the earth on Monday

It moved beneath my feet

In the form of a morning paper

Laid out for me to see

Saw his face in a corner picture

I recognized the name

Could not stop staring at the


I’d never see again

It’s a shame to awake in a world

of pain

What does it mean when a war

has taken over

It’s the same everyday in a hell


What can be saved, and who will

be left to hold her?

The whole world ... World over

It’s a worldwide suicide.


Rhymefest featuring Citizen Cope and Mark Ronson


I joined the army airborne, got

my uniform,

went to boot camp, got some


Iraq was where they shippin’


I’m in the midst of where bullets

flying and missing

wishing I was a kid again with

my family in Michigan.

In the midst of fighting


walk ‘round took down six of


I ain’t really a killer don’t be

takin’ a lot of risks,

this is what a poor person do

for a scholarship.

I turned around, got a face full

of hollow tips.

But don’t be mad, I died for the




“Dear Mr. President”

Dear Mr. President

Come take a walk with me

Let’s pretend we’re just two

people and

You’re not better than me

I’d like to ask you some

questions if we can speak


What do you feel when you see

all the homeless on the street

Who do you pray for at night

before you go to sleep

What do you feel when you look

in the mirror

Are you proud

How do you sleep while the rest

of us cry

How do you dream when a

mother has no chance to say


How do you walk with your

head held high

Can you even look me in the eye

And tell me why


Bruce Springsteen

“Devils and Dust”

Now every woman and every


They wanna take a righteous


Find the love that God wills

And the faith that He commands

I’ve got my finger on the trigger

And tonight faith just ain’t


When I look inside my heart

There’s just devils and dust


The Legendary K.O.

“George Bush Doesn’t Like Black People” (to the beat of “Golddigger” by Kanye West)

Dyin’ ‘cause they lyin’ instead of

tellin’ us the truth

Other day the helicopters got

my neighbors off the roof?

Screwed ‘cause they said they

comin’ back for us too

That was three days ago, I don’t

see no rescue ...

Five damn days, five long days

And at the end of the fifth you

walkin’ in like, ‘Hey!’

Chillin’ on his vacation sittin’


Them black folks gotta hope,

gotta wait and see

If FEMA really comes through in

an emergency

But nobody seems to have a

sense of urgency


Rolling Stones

“Sweet Neo Con”

It’s liberty for all

‘Cause democracy’s our style

Unless you are against us

Then it’s prison without trial


Elvis Costello /

Allen Toussaint

“The River in Reverse”

An uncivil war divides the


So erase the tape on that final ape

Running down creation

Running down creation


Merle Haggard

“That’s the News”

Suddenly it’s over, the war is

fin’lly done.

Soldiers in the desert sand, still clingin’ to a gun.

No one is the winner an’

everyone must lose.

Suddenly the war is over: that’s the news


Mr. Lif

“Home of the Brave”

Headline: Bush steals the


He needs the backing of the

media what could the

remedy be?

The country’s headed for


reminiscent of the Great


Are lives worth a world of

power? Easy question

Planes hit the towers and the


Killing those the government

wasn’t dependent on

It’s easy to control the scared so

they keep us in fear

With their favorite Middle

Eastern demon named Bin

Laden this year


Neil Young

“Living With War”

I’m living with war everyday

I’m living with war in my heart


I’m living with war right now

And when the dawn breaks

I see my fellow man

And on the flat-screen we kill

and we’re killed again

And when the night falls, I pray for peace

Try to remember peace


Don’t take no tidal wave

Don’t take no mass grave

Don’t take no smokin’ gun

To show how the west was won




This is the feeling we learn to

live with in North America

The morning headlines always

accompanied with sweat and


Every week another puzzle

piece gets permanently glued

into place



“The Final Straw”

If hatred makes a play on me


And forgiveness takes a back

seat to revenge

There’s a hurt down deep that

has not been corrected.

There’s a voice in me that says

you will not win.

Now I don’t believe and I never did

That two wrongs make a right.

If the world were filled with the likes of you

Then I’m putting up a fight.


Bright Eyes

“When the President Talks to God”

When the President talks to


Do they drink near beer and go play golf?

While they pick which countries to invade,

Which Muslim souls still can be saved?

I guess God just calls a spade a spade,

When the President talks to





Let the President answer on

high anarchy

Strap him with AK-47, let him go

Fight his own war, let him

impress daddy that way

No more blood for oil, we got our

own battles to fight on our


No more psychological warfare

to trick us to think that we

ain’t loyal

If we don’t serve our own

country we’re patronizing a


Look in his eyes, it’s all lies, the stars and stripes

They’ve been swiped, washed

out and wiped ...


Juelz Santana

“Whatever You Wanna Call It”

We need to have a million man

march again (yeah)

We need to have a million man

march up in the White House

start a million man argument,

like Bush why a million man

starving in

My city, my town, my hood,

whatever you wanna call it

nigga what’s good


Compiled by Times intern Colleen Everett

Ann Powers is The Times’ pop music critic.