For politically aware songs, the ‘00s were all for naught

The ‘60s gave us “Blowin’ in the Wind,” folk-poet Bob Dylan’s challenge to the brutal status quo. The ‘70s served up Neil Young’s “Ohio,” an anthem of generational rage against the military-industrial machine. The ‘80s laid down “The Message,” Grandmaster Flash’s hip-hop jeremiad about the vicious cycle of race-based poverty. The ‘90s broke loose with Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade,” a rap-rock rant targeting corporate greed and cultural imperialism.

And the ‘00s? It’s produced some memorably sardonic screeds (Green Day’s “American Idiot”), patriotic hell-yeah’s out of Nashville like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American),” and dirges of quiet desperation emanating from “The Suburbs,” courtesy of Arcade Fire.

But much of the music that has topped the Billboard charts in the new millennium — Britney, Lil Wayne, Lady Gaga — might suggest that America has been one big party since 2001, despite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, two major wars, a wobbly economy and a bitterly divided government. Likewise, the recent popular manifestations of that unrest, the tea party and Occupy Wall Street movements, so far seem to have been largely lost on popular music.

That has left some artists, music industry professionals and listeners pondering how well today’s music is serving the restless masses and capturing the essence of times that indeed are a-changin’.

In recent weeks, the Occupy movement has attracted a small number of musician-activists as supporters. Yet many of the high-profile artists who’ve been speaking out for the 99% — including Lou Reed and Sonic Youth — started their careers decades ago. And although the movement’s first benefit CD, “Occupy This Album,” will feature David Crosby and Graham Nash, Jackson Brown, Devo, Lloyd Cole, the Guthrie Family and Lucinda Williams, it has yet to enlist a top-grossing act of the last decade.

Crosby, who performed a five-song set at the Occupy Wall Street encampment in November in New York’s Zuccotti Park with his longtime friend and collaborator Nash, said that engaging with social issues is something he learned about from folk icons like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. “We are supposed to be the town crier, the troubadour who carries the news from town to town,” said Crosby of his role as an artist. Weighing in on issues, he said, is “part of our job.”

Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons also was among the handful of celebrity supporters, including musicians, who regularly visited Zuccotti Park. “There’s not been a lot of political [music] in the last 10 years” said Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records. “I’m more concerned with what they’re going to do now,” he added. “There are seeds of a revolution that’ve just been planted, brand new.”

But if there is a revolution rising beneath the radar, will it be televised or podcast? And what will its soundtrack be? Countless new mediums and means of distribution may make it easier to get your music out there but harder to push one cohesive message. And sophisticated modern technology may be put to trivial uses.

“I think there is a certain kind of apathy in our modern times that’s really hard to combat,” said Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam. “Even with social media — in some parts of the world it’s used as a really powerful tool for revolution. Here, it’s a powerful tool that people are using to avoid dealing with their own lives. It’s a big campfire of gossip.”

The relation between political action and peoples’ daily lives also has grown murkier, said rapper-producer Lupe Fiasco (a.k.a. Wasalu Muhammad Jaco), in part because today there’s no single, focused cause like the Vietnam War or the civil rights movement to galvanize public opinion.

“Politics is probably a little less understood these days, so it’s hard to make a song about it,” said Jaco, who has rapped about social inequality and has appeared at various Occupy camps over the last few months. In previous eras, he continued, “you could see some type of political action directly affect you within a short period of time,” whereas today “a lot of the politics is super-technical.”

A number of cultural observers say that today’s shrinking record industry seems more hesitant to sign acts that may create more waves than revenue.

“The music that’s being released by the major recording labels is [less political], sure,” said Robeson Taj P. Frazier, an assistant professor at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication. “They’re focused on a profit incentive; which in some ways forces them to take on a narrow outlook.”

But, Frazier continued, “that’s not representative of all the music that people who are organizing now are listening to and what’s impacting their consciousness. Youth engagement and interaction through social media allows [consumers] to have access to music that’s not limited to being produced and distributed by major record labels.”

Others agree with Frazier that the fracturing of the music industry, and the diffusion of political content, could be an advantage as well as an obstacle to contemporary musicians. Today, rather than concocting an analog anthem a la the Who’s “My Generation,” artists are generating a profusion of political mix-tapes addressing a mash-up of issues.

Culture-jamming pop artist M.I.A. had a hit with her 2007 track “Paper Planes” and its indelible chorus, “All I wanna do, is take your money,” accented by the sound of machine gun fire and the ka-ching of a cash register. The artwork on her albums has been a guerrilla-style pastiche of colorful graffiti, rebel symbols (such as a Tamil Tiger) and blunt graphics of bombs and tanks.

The hip-hop exhortation “You Already Knew,” samples Aretha Franklin, name-checks Wall Street and the tea party and refers to Texas Gov. Rick Perry as a “serial killer.” It was released online last month by the duo Black Star, a.k.a. Talib Kweli and Mos Def, who now calls himself Yasiin Bey. And it had 62,868 hits on Black Star’s site. Although these artists make several specific political references, they favor allusive, stream-of-consciousness wordplay over the straight-forward agitprop of, say, Country Joe and the Fish’s Vietnam War protest song, “Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die.”

Crosby says there are talented young musicians articulating today’s political issues in an entertaining way, and ticks off the names of Tom Morello, Zack de la Rocha and Death Cab for Cutie. “You know the one who shocked me was Pink,” he added, referring to the pop singer’s 2006 reproach to George W. Bush, “Dear Mr. President.” “This is a politically astute and absolutely fearless song,” Crosby said. “I wish I had written it.”

To be sure, a handful of contemporary artists have taken provocative political stands in the post-Sept. 11 era, and occasionally paid a high price. The Dixie Chicks went from being Nashville’s sweethearts to country music pariahs after their lead singer, Natalie Maines, blasted George W. Bush at a London concert shortly before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In 2010, several predominantly Latin American and Latino artists, including Santana, Los Cenzontles and the Mexican pop-rock group Maná, banded together to record songs opposing Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration-enforcement bill.

More recently, Nickelodeon star Miley Cyrus remixed a video of her song “Liberty Walk” in support of the Occupy movement, using footage of the recent world-wide protests.

But some bloggers and Occupy members questioned the depth of her commitment to the cause.

“The song seems to come from a real place and I thought the video was tremendous” said Priscilla Grimm, co-editor of the Occupied Wall Street Journal. “But it would be nice to see these people out in the street. Rage Against the Machine could bring in 100,000 to 200,000 people with a free concert; but stuff like that hasn’t happened.”

Nostalgia may distort impressions of the political content of past musical eras. Danny Goldberg, a veteran music producer and former manager of Nirvana and Sonic Youth, said that “a lot of people have selective memory” in recalling ‘60s popular music as heavily politicized.

The original Woodstock festival in 1969 may be remembered for opening with Richie Havens’ antiwar ballad “Handsome Johnny” and wrapping up with Jimi Hendrix’s apocalyptic version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But the No. 1 pop tune of 1969 — the year of maximum U.S. troop involvement in Vietnam — was the classic bubble-gum ditty “Sugar, Sugar” by a made-up comic-book “band” the Archies.

“It’s hard to bring politics into art — it has to be entertaining, not boring; it’s not easy to do,” Goldberg said.

Simmons said he believes that the Occupy movement has signaled the start of a new social dialogue that is “going to be cultural, not just political.”

“I think in the spring, it’s really going to start to build up,” he said. “Expect a lot of support from a lot of cultural heroes, including musicians.”