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Monday, May 01, 2006

Don't Be Fooled: The Sad State of Contemporary Protest Music

Its rather amusing to see stuffy Washington journalist-types, straight off reporting about the War, and Katrina, and penning op-ed pieces on the NSA attempt to delve into music criticism. The worst piece yet was the editorial by the Nation, championing the wave of mostly anti-Bush screeds-as-songs that have appeared, most of them somehow getting compared with Bob Dylan. “The artful approach to political songwriting that Dylan pioneered remains an inspiration to today’s musicians” [1] the editors haplessly claim.

They go on laud Green Day’s American Idiot, Kanye West’s “Crack Music,” Pearl Jam’s “World Wide Suicide,” Springsteen’s latest, a tribute to Pete Seeger, Michael Stipe and Moby’s little ditty “Not Ready to Make Nice” and Pink’s “Dear Mr. President.” They end the article with a stirring tribute to the punk band Anti-Flag and their album “For Blood and Empire” and its single “Depleted Uranium Is A Crime.” Meanwhile, the New York Times’s Jon Pareles’ offers a recommendation, albeit tepid, of Neil Young’s newest album “Living With War.”

But don’t be fooled like the Nation’s Editors into embracing what the kids are all going wild over. The 60s were a time of mass social protest that was reflected in shockingly literate protest music, often written with a subtly and grace that is so lacking in modern political songwriting. What passes as protest music now are juvenile screeds that somehow pass as songs, and somehow sell records.

Think of Dylan. “Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," for instance, is not only a churning anthem that captures the listener's attention; its lyrics are also remarkably literate, with an opening--"Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son? Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?"--that evokes the opening of the seventeenth-century ballad "Lord Randal,"” writes Jason Zengerle in the New Republic, seemingly one of the only commentators to get the many failings of modern protest music [2].

On the polar opposite of Dylan, we have bands like Green Day, who toss out snide little jabs: “Don’t wanna be part of the Redneck agenda” screams the band on the title track. “The representative from California has the floor” they intone in another, bizarrely invoking Congress before launching into something about the Eiffel Tower and killing fags that don’t agree with the government, and then concluding with something about being on holiday. Then there is the punk “Rock Against Bush” series, that has artists like the Offspring, Sum 41, Alkaline Trio, Anti-Flag, and, somehow, The Getup Kids, penning their own little political tirades.

Conor Oberst, the young man with the stage moniker Bright Eyes, has most often been compared to Dylan. But Obersts’ most scathing indictment of the Bush Administration is an atrociously written screed called “When the President Talks to God,” which is available free on iTunes. “When the president talks to God/ I wonder which one plays the better cop/ We should find some jobs. the ghetto's broke/No, they're lazy, George, I say we don't/Just give 'em more liquor stores and dirty coke/ That's what God recommends” These are the lyrics of this generation’s Dylan?

Dylan’s songwriting was never partisan, and almost never direct. He spoke in the language of metaphor and symbolism that raised his songs above the issues of his day and gave them a universal appeal that will forever remain relevant and accessible. “Blowin’ the Wind” was about so many things at once, including racism and pacifism, but it wasn’t mired down in the candidates, politics or elections of the day. It is a transcendent anthem and stunning, simple, beautiful artistic statement. “A Hard Rain is A-Gonna Fall” has the connotation of nuclear holocaust, but it rises above such pinpoint focus, instead becoming another timeless classic. Indeed, when Dylan focused on the specific, his material suffered, as in “Hurricane,” which was ultimately just a passable “issue song.” Granted, he also made modern political references in some of his songs, like President Kennedy in “I Shall Be Free,” but there were not his truly political anthems.

Green Day and Conor Oberst do their best to be edgy and relevant, but they come across as foolish, all-too-partisan, juvenile delinquents standing in the shoes of greatness, without a clue of how live up to a generation of singers and songwriters who penned eternally relevant anthems that cross borders, generations and political parties.


[1] The Nation – Songs of Protest
[2] TNR - Trite Eyes

Posted by George Gordon | Monday, May 01, 2006 | E-mail this post

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