I have railed against musicians and celebrities being given undue access to the media to vent their opinions on politics and whatever just because they are celebrities. The most effective channel for artists to convey their perspectives is through their art.
Jon Pareles tracks the anti-war movement in song:
- There is no war yet, only threats and preparations. But protest singers, like generals, revisit past battles, looking for parallels. Many are thinking about Vietnam; on March 1 at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan, Pete Seeger and members of Sonic Youth were part of a concert drawing on “The Vietnam Songbook,” published in 1969. They and the other songwriters denouncing war with Iraq are trying to speed up an artistic and political reaction that took years, not months, to gather momentum in the 1960’s. And they want to abort a war, not rail against it. [NY Times]
As I have often repeated: Iraq is not Vietnam, this is the biggest mistake of the “general” anti-war element: as in “Vietnam was a war and look how bad it was – all war is like Vietnam – all war is bad.” There is also nostalgia from those who miss what they perceive as the power, unity, and righteousness of the Vietnam anti-war movement. This is not Vietnam.
- ….Contrary to some memories of the Vietnam era, there was no unanimity among musicians or listeners. For every “Eve of Destruction” (by Barry McGuire) or “Fortunate Son” (Creedence Clearwater Revival), there was also “Ballad of the Green Berets” (Sgt. Barry Sadler) and “Okie From Muskogee” (Merle Haggard). Often, politically tinged songs like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” or Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” were laments and observations that stayed carefully nonpartisan.
The political pressures that created the 1960’s protest-song movement have dissipated. There’s no military draft to pull together a constituency and force life-or-death choices on every male teenager. And for the punk and hip-hop generation, there is no recent memory of a long, enervating war. Since Vietnam, the United States has waged only brief and overpowering military campaigns: wars that last days or weeks rather than years and that leave comparatively few American casualties. Most of the news coverage looks like fireworks and video games, not carnage.
Is explicit protest in song effective?
- It’s impossible to say. A precisely aimed topical song, like Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” can focus public attention on a specific cause. Conceivably John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” made some people think twice. But genuine, partisan protest songs usually reach people who already agree with them. Their job is less to persuade than to provide slogans and jingles to rally the converted and convince them that they’re not alone.
….John Mellencamp has recorded an antiwar song, “From Washington,” for his next album. “I don’t think there’s much chance of hearing this song on the radio,” he said. “Guys like myself are not heavily on the playlists anymore, no matter what.”
System of a Down, which has always had a political streak in its hard rock, weighed in on its 2002 album, “Steal This Record,” with bitterly skeptical songs like “Boom!” and “A.D.D. (American Dream Denial).” Chuck D of Public Enemy turned John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” into an antiwar stomp renamed “No Boom Boom.”
Other musicians are digging out old songs. George Michael remade Don McLean’s bleak war story “The Grave” for a video that was broadcast last Monday on MTV Europe. Yo La Tengo recorded four versions of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” as an EP, and in live shows Rosanne Cash has picked up Bob Dylan’s 1983 song “License to Kill,” while the English songwriter Paul Weller has been performing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
….An Australian group, Peace Not War (www.peace-not-war.org), has been quicker on the uptake; it has already released a compilation album including new and recent songs from English acts like Massive Attack, Chumbawamba and Ms. Dynamite along with Ani DiFranco and Public Enemy.
….Still, the unstoppable mainstream antiwar hit has not yet been unveiled. The buildup toward war with Iraq has been short compared with the slow escalation in Vietnam; it was not until the late 1960’s that rock seemed to align itself fully with antiwar sentiment. In 2003, the response to the Iraq buildup has been splintered. The craving for vengeance after Sept. 11, vented in songs like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American),” is still seeking a target. There also remains a chance that the Iraq buildup is brinkmanship that will accomplish its goal without warfare.
One thing is certain: a war, as opposed to the prospect of war, would quickly generate more antiwar music. “Their friends are going to die,” Mr. Simmons said. “They’re going to write these songs.”
I think this last part is not necessarily true: did fighting in Afghanistan generate more protest than the pre-war buildup? No, because the results were swift and overwhelmingly positive with people dancing in the streets and women casting off their literal and metaphorical shackles. The same thing could happen in Iraq on an even grander scale (although in secular Iraq, women aren’t any more repressed than anyone else, which is to say everyone). I hope.