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Protest with a new beat

Once again, politically engaged musicians are singing for change. But this time it’s personal.

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Think protest music and it may still evoke images of folk artists Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger strumming guitars and banjos, denouncing injustice in the 1930s and ’40s. Or countercultural icon Bob Dylan laying down the soundtrack for the discontent of the 1960s. Yet listen closely to music today and you’ll find rebelliousness in folk-rock, punk, country and everything in between. Not only has protest music diversified, it is more plentiful now than at any time since the late 1960s. But whereas protest songs during the 1960s addressed broad issues such as the Vietnam War and civil rights, the new wave of protest is more personal and doesn’t stop with appeals for peace. Most of the music is targeted at the actions and policies of one man: U.S. President George W. Bush.

“For better or worse, Bush has stirred up a lot of vitriol in the music community,” writes music critic David Browne in Entertainment Weekly. “There’s always been protest songs against presidents, but they have never been near to the level of venom you’re seeing now.”

Singers, both fledgling and iconic, are tapping into and helping to foment widespread discontent over Bush’s war in Iraq, the paranoia of a country threatened by terrorism, and the blacklisting of “anti-American” songs on Republican-friendly radio networks, such as Clear Channel and Citadel Communications. Hundreds of their MP3s now stream across the Internet, adding a new dimension to populist song-making.

Message music’s mainstream incarnations include the country-rock trio The Dixie Chicks, whose criticism of the Iraq invasion nearly cost them their careers, and Green Day, whose 2004 album, American Idiot, was awarded a Grammy for its lyrical criticism of American foreign policy and Bush himself. That same year saw the release of a Billboard-charting compilation entitled Rock Against Bush, a collection of sneeringly rebellious songs from mainstream acts such as Sum 41 and Offspring.

Some of the most spirited shots at the embattled president come from singer-songwriter Eddie Vedder, of the influential hard-rock band Pearl Jam. Even before the Bush administration embarked on the current war in Iraq, Vedder vehemently spoke out in opposition to U.S. foreign policy. In 2000, Vedder actively supported presidential candidate Ralph Nader and the idea of a third party in U.S. electoral politics. Before the 2004 presidential election, Pearl Jam and a coalition of other artists/activists barnstormed swing states on the wildly popular Vote for Change tour.

World Wide Suicide, the first single from Pearl Jam’s 2006 self-titled album, takes a ferocious swipe at leaders who “tell you to pray while the devil’s on their shoulder.”
Like Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine marries hard rock and revolutionary politics. Incendiary songs such as Township Rebellion, Killing in the Name, Testify and Voice of the Voiceless assail social injustices, while sold-out benefit concerts support causes ranging from Mexico’s Zapatista Front for National Liberation to Native American activist Leonard Peltier.

Veteran acts with roots in an earlier generation of protest music have found new currency in the movement against Bush and the Iraq war. During the Vietnam era, country-rock singer-songwriter Steve Earle cut his teeth in coffee houses. Later he participated in Concerts for a Landmine Free World and campaigned tirelessly to abolish the death penalty. His recent work is even more politicized. The Revolution Starts Now, which features several songs about the war in Iraq, coincided with the run-up to the 2004 U.S. presidential election and encouraged votes for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.

While some anti-Bush rock acts have been accused of preaching to the converted, the same criticism can hardly be levelled at the Virginia-born, Texas-raised Earle, whose songs are aimed at country-music audiences whom Bush and the Republican Party count among their staunchest supporters. Earle’s battles with alcohol and drug addiction, his stints in jail and his ongoing feud with the mainstream music industry only add to his revolutionary swagger.

Less caustic but no less influential is Bruce Springsteen, now more of a troubadour than the Jersey-shore rocker who soared to fame in the mid-1970s. Although Springsteen’s 2002 album The Rising seemed to justify vengeance for victims of Sept.11, his 2006 release of We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is simultaneously a tribute to vintage protest folk and a commentary on the evils and injustices of here and now. One of its most powerful cuts is Mrs. McGrath, a traditional Irish broadside telling the story of a mother whose son goes off to war in the name of patriotism, only to return physically and emotionally scarred.

If Springsteen’s message respectfully echoes a long tradition of protest, 62-year-old Canadian-born rocker Neil Young goes straight for the jugular. “Let’s impeach the president,” he cries in his 2007 album, Living With War. The compilation of anti-Bush and anti-war songs seethes with indignation, and is supported by a 100-voice choir.

Bush will not be president forever, and the Iraq war will someday be over. Only time will tell whether the new wave of protest music has the staying power of its ancestors. One thing is certain, though: causes may come and go, but the power of popular music as a force for change will endure.

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