Vox The Rote

The Return Of The Protest Song

Julian Sanchez
6 min read
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It was only a year ago that record executive Danny Goldberg was complaining in his book Dispatches from the Culture Wars: How the Left Lost Teen Spirit that progressive politics had lost its pop cultural cachet. But it seems that between the war in Iraq and the GOP’s tightening grasp on the reins of power in both the legislative and executive branch, George W. Bush may have done Goldberg’s work for him. The protest song is back, and as Michael Stipe sings in R.E.M.’s contribution to the genre, the president’s “latest triumph draws the final straw.”

This fall, a celebrity lineup that’d make any National Enquirer reporter breathe heavily will get their whistlestop on in crucial swing states on the Vote for Change tour. Punk goddesses Sleater-Kinney, among others, will be trying to clean up the Santorum produced by the Republican National Convention with a series of concerts sponsored by Involver. Punkvoter’s Rock Against Bush: Volume 1 compilation peaked at number one on Billboard’s indie chart, with a second volume hitting stores this week. Meanwhile, indie monolith Barsuk Records has teamed with MoveOn to produce a hipster equivalent, Future Soundtrack for America.

Of course, protest music has been sufficiently dormant of late—few musicians are inclined to protest blowjobs, and the elder Bush managed to give us a splendid little war that ended before many singles could be pressed—that some of the contributors to these efforts are a touch rusty. It’s nice to have a live version of The Flaming Lips’ “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” but equally hard to divine deep political significance in that song or, for instance, Death Cab for Cutie’s “This Temporary Life.” OK Go cheats slightly by covering The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year,” a love song given a political flavor only by dint of context.

There are plenty of genuinely political songs to be found on these discs, of course, but it’s not the ’60s anymore, and the kind of earnest idealism that worked for Joan Baez doesn’t always mesh with the musical styles that appeal to the sensibilities of jaded Gen-Xers. Former Soul Coughing front man Mike Doughty’s “Move On” is infectiously singable, but only this makes it possible to endure (without wincing) the earnest didacticism of lines like:

“Yeah, I believe the war is wrong/I don’t believe that nations can be steered.”

“Lead the world with smarts and compassion/By example, not coercion, force and fear.”

Doughty’s far more in his métier when he takes a sarcastic poke at “Ads for the army on cable/Between ads for soda and skin cream.” (Doughty, incidentally, is also responsible for the best, and possibly only, song ridiculing the anti-globalization movement, “Busting Up a Starbux.”) And in Authority Zero’s equally catchy “Revolution,” there’s a distinct incongruity between the song’s angry, driving beat and self-helpish lyrics like “You want a revolution? You gotta make a difference on your own,” which would probably fit better on an inspirational poster featuring a mohawked kitten.

Which is just as well, really. John Kerry seems unable to inspire much genuine enthusiasm even in his own supporters—hell, his own campaign staffers. Despite the nauseating competition to run the most sunny, upbeat, optimistic campaign, the winner in November is going to be the man who convinces voters that his opponent is the more loathsome one. Punk and indie—the scenes from which most of the new protest music seems to be coming—do ironic far better than peppy anyway; they’d do better to stick with the language they know best.

There are, of course, those who agree with Aladdin casino president Bill Timmins that performers would do better to just shut up and sing. Regular viewers of “Crossfire” will recognize this debate, which seems to shamble out of its grave and stroll around the studio at least once a week. Conservatives—whose musical ammunition seems largely limited to Toby Keith, gum-clicking endorsements from Britney Spears, and an amusing ad from the Club for Growth co-opting Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”—are quick to argue that entertainers’ comparative advantage is, well, entertaining. We should be no more eager to pay attention to their political views than we are to sit through John Ashcroft’s singing. And when Bruce Springsteen’s platitudinous pabulum (did he actually use the phrase “corporate bigwigs” unironically?) gets column inches on the New York Times op-ed page, it’s hard not to sympathize with that attitude. Liberals typically counter that, like any good citizens, performers are simply using the forums available to them to express their views.

But this misses the point. Celebrities holding forth on politics are a bit like talking dogs: What’s interesting is not so much what they have to say, but that they’re speaking at all. No one does—or at any rate, no one should—decide they’re against the Iraq war or the Bush tax cuts because Eddie Vedder said so. But for those already inclined to oppose either, that opposition, like most other emotions, can be invigorated by music. Musicians, after all, aren’t likely to be that much more expert about love (as opposed to the fine art of shagging groupies) than the rest of us either. Love songs, like protest songs, don’t tell us anything new: They activate feelings that were already there.

Will it matter? For all the talk of swaying swing voters, party strategists seem to have

concluded that the key to the White House in ’04 will be mobilizing the base, which is precisely what events like Vote for Change or the songs on Rock Against Bush seek to do. Of course, conventional wisdom has it that the portion of the base they’re targeting, mostly 18-to-35-year-olds, are notoriously difficult to herd into the voting booths. Don’t we all know that voting, to quote an infamous Urban Outfitters shirt, is for old people?

Maybe not. While teens have only been able to vote since the ’70s, the same folks trudging to the polls on the AARP’s behalf were doing the same in their 20s; low youth participation is not a permanent feature of the political landscape. Demographers have been predicting for some time that Millennials, those born after 1981, would behave more like their grandparents than their Gen-X siblings on election day, and there’s at least some reason to think their predictions will be borne out. Recall the surprise turnaround in the recent Spanish elections, where as many as 2 million voters were young people—overwhelmingly supporters of the socialist PSOE—hitting the polls for the first time. As I wrote at the time, the vote total won by the incumbent Partido Popular would have been enough for a victory four years prior; turnout—much of it youth turnout—made the difference. That doesn’t necessarily mean the protest song renaissance will contribute to a comparable sea change in November. But any movement that produces a tune called “Jerry Falwell Destroyed Earth” can’t be all bad.

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