Musicians decide the time is right for protest songs


Most mainstream pop artists seemed so tentative three years ago, slow to reflect in their music the anger many Americans felt about the nation's raggedy state of affairs. The Twin Towers had crumbled and thousands died, and President Bush had launched the war on Iraq. At the time, though, Toby Keith rocketed to superstardom with jingoistic songs like "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)." And Bruce Springsteen landed on the cover of Rolling Stone and at the top of the charts with The Rising, an overly earnest, mildly comforting album that loosely addressed loss and grief after 9/11 but took no political stance.

To take direct aim at Bush and his policies then might have been career suicide for some major pop stars. Seemingly overnight during the spring of 2003, the Dixie Chicks became pop pariahs after lead singer Natalie Maines told a London audience, "Just so you know, we're ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas." The trio's records were bulldozed, and many radio stations immediately yanked its music from playlists.

But in the past three years, the tide has turned. The Dixie Chicks have returned victorious. Their new album, Taking the Long Way Home, featuring the thinly veiled political kiss-off single, "Not Ready to Make Nice," sold more than half a million copies in its first week out late last month. Other notable acts such as Neil Young, Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Pink and the blues-funk-pop collective the New Orleans Social Club have all released albums bristling with protest songs. Young's latest album, Living With War on Reprise/Warner Bros. Records, is especially scathing with its lead single, "Let's Impeach the President." In it, he sings, "Let's impeach the president for lyin'/And misleading our country into war/Abusing all the power that we gave him ... "

Such a direct, politically pointed song probably wouldn't have been released by a major label three years ago. Why now? Where were these angry protest songs three years ago, five years ago?

Robb Hecht, a New York-based marketing communications strategist and director of the oft-cited business blog, MEDIA 2.0, suggests that it's simply a matter of rock stars staying relevant during a time when Bush's approval ratings seem to tank by the hour.

"Rockers need to sell music, but many also need to stand for something," Hecht says. "So while in the past we had underground protest rock, we're starting to see many more mainstream rockers taking on political issues in order to gain more of a voice and presence in people's day-to-day lives. Hence, when rockers gain more traction in cultural topics, they inevitably gain more relevance, and they inevitably generate more sales of their music products."

Although Pearl Jam's "World Wide Suicide," Pink's "Dear Mr. President" and Young's "Let's Impeach the President" aren't No. 1 pop singles, each artist has garnered generally positive reviews and strong sales for his or her latest efforts. New CDs by the former two acts made debuts in the Top 10 on Billboard's pop album charts.

'A chilling effect'

But if protest songs may, in a way, be a more marketable trend now, for some artists, such inflammatory music could still hurt their careers.

"Performing artists are under enormous pressure to avoid material that may be deemed too controversial and too political for advertisers, corporate media outlets and government officials," says Kevin Howley, professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. "With this in mind, the industry's response to the Dixie Chicks incident is as telling as it is disturbing. The Chicks were demonized for a bit of concert banter, not for anything they sang about. ... Such intolerance for dissent has a chilling effect on other artists who are highly dependent upon the radio industry for airplay."

None of that seemed to hurt Kanye West. After his infamous "George Bush doesn't care about black people" remark during a live, televised Hurricane Katrina fundraiser in September, his album Late Registration went double platinum. His hit, "Gold Digger," hardly ever left the airwaves, and he picked up three Grammys in February. But West's timing was right on: The pop climate was beginning to open up to more pointed music about the nation's affairs, especially after the government's perplexingly delayed response to the aftermath of Katrina.

"Audiences now have become used to not hearing artists utilize their art to make political statements," says Melissa Krodman, program manager of Project: Think Different, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that promotes civic dialogue and participation through the arts. "But once you have an artist like Kanye West who leads the charge, you have others who'll follow."

Calculated protest

Still, the current protest songs seem to lack the punch, the resonance they had in the '60s and early '70s. That's not a charge against the quality of today's protest music - necessarily. But classic "freedom songs" such as Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" and Curtis Mayfield's "This Is My Country" and "We're a Winner" were connected to the Civil Rights movement. No such movement exists today. And the fact that the recent rash of protest songs by mainstream artists comes as Bush's approval ratings plummet seems a bit calculated.

"Artists have to make strategic choices when it comes to making protest songs, because they have to consider how their anger and passion may affect their career," Krodman says. "Artists are intuitive, and they're megaphones for the culture. But the conglomeration of mass media hasn't allowed the artists to push the envelope."

More so these days, marketability seems to determine what major pop stars say in their music, political or otherwise. It also seems to determine when they say it.

"I'm sure Neil Young was told by somebody at Warner Bros. that now it was OK to release Living With War, even if he may have had the idea to do it five years ago," Krodman says. "The more we have artistic expressions in the hands of those who are driven by money, we will hear less and less of artists speaking out and saying something of substantive content about what's going on around us."

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