Dan Epstein whines with pitch-perfect cluelessness about the woeful state of protest music today:
- “BALL OF CONFUSION (THAT’S WHAT THE World Is Today),” the Temptations’ apocalyptic 1970 hit, recently popped up on a local oldies station and set my mind a-stewing. That a protest song railing against war, racism, rising unemployment and an indifferent government should still be deeply resonant, 33 years after it was first recorded, was sad enough. But what really depressed me was that the song dissected the ugly state of our nation far more effectively and explicitly than anything currently on MTV, commercial radio or the Billboard charts.
Where are the new protest songs? Over a million Americans have already taken to the streets to protest President Bush’s insane war on Iraq, so there’s clearly an audience for musical dissent. It’s not like there’s a lack of other pressing issues to write about, either, with our civil liberties getting rolled back in the name of preserving freedom, and Bush and John Ashcroft attempting to return America to the God-fearing values of the ’50s – the 1650s, that is. The environment, affirmative action and Roe v. Wade are all under direct assault from the Bush administration; the economy stinks; millions of Americans have fallen below the poverty line; and the Enron and WorldCom scandals are still unresolved. You’d think that a substantial number of our prominent recording artists might be pissed off enough to pen a song or two about any of the above, right?
….As our planet teeters on the brink of annihilation, millions of us turn to music for solace, for the strength to face down our demons and for proof that we’re not alone in the universe. Will our artists rise to the challenge, speak out and give us the courage to do the same? Or will they simply stand in mute witness to the madness of King George? [LA Weekly]
Here’s the problem: this isn’t 1970, the world is a different place, and blatant, simplistic, sloganeering songs that worked in the ’60s and early 70s don’t work anymore because it’s been done. The counter-youth culture that facilitated and sprang up around rock ‘n’ roll and the folk movement had resonance then and now because it hadn’t been done before. There was a sincerity and first-man-on-the-moon freshness to young people and their spokesmen expressing an alternative set of values.
Plus, “peace” at that time was in opposition to he Vietnam War which placed the youth of the nation INVOLUNTARILY for the most part (remember the draft?) in harm’s way for a cause that seemed obscure and ultimately without foundation: it was full-scale war without full-scale understanding, cooperation, or backing of the American people. Of course statements of opposition made sense, had resonance, still sound fresh.
But we don’t operate that way anymore – the War on Terror isn’t about anything obscure, indirect, or theoretical (Vietnam: “We can’t let Vietnam fall to the communists because Vietnam is a proxy for our mortal enemies, USSR and China, and we can’t let communism get a foothold in Southeast Asia because the disease is contagious.” “Um, yeah, whatever, but what does that have to do with me? And why is my brother dead? The people over there don’t seem to want our help much anyway – hey our government is wrong this time!”), it’s about thousands of dead Americans at home and abroad and an ideology that threatens us directly on every level.
This is not Vietnam and longing for an era when protest captured the popular imagination is just sentimental nostalgia. Besides, Epstein is wrong, there is all kinds of protest: there are the poets madly versifying, of course, and remember this story from just last week:
- NY Times story on artists snapping to attention when the words “war” and “protest” pop up in the same sentence: “Huh, whither shall I protest this thing called war?”
- For those opposing war with Iraq, the cancellation of the poetry symposium symbolizes the part the arts can play in politics. Hearing the drumbeat of a new war, through readings, concerts, art exhibitions and theater, artists are trying to recapture their place as catalysts for public debate and dissent.
If the immediate artistic response to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington was the theater of grief, some of the nation’s poets, musicians, writers, actors and playwrights have moved on to the theater of protest. The prospect of an imminent military confrontation with Iraq has incited a new sense of creative urgency.
It’s just that the American people in general don’t buy it this time around: it’s been done, this is a differnet time and circumstance, we’ll listen when you come up with a new angle, or make a little bit of sense. In addition, as the NY Times story mentioned, even within the reliably peace-oriented arts and entertainment community, there is nothing close to unanimity on the matter:
- Perhaps surprisingly, some of the artists who were ready to march against the Vietnam War are not as eager to raise their voices now, when the focus is Iraq and Al Qaeda.
Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary , is more likely to be singing “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” once the anthem of the Vietnam protest movement, in elementary-school classes than on the street. Mr. Yarrow has kept a distance from organized rallies against the United States buildup to war in Iraq.
For the last four years he has been using familiar protest music in Operation Respect, an educational program intended to teach children what he calls “nonviolent conflict-resolution tools,” a project that requires the endorsement of local school boards and national politicians.
“I am urgently trying to find common ground on a nonpartisan basis to reach for nonviolent solutions through the social and emotional growth of children,” he said. “I do not believe that adults are really capable of changing what is in their hearts. Therefore I believe we should create conditions for peace in the future in the children before they’re taught to hate and to fear.”
Similarly, Edward Sorel, the illustrator and a pacifist, said he cannot get a handle on how to depict the current political situation through his work. “Vietnam was a clear case of us being not only in the wrong place but on the wrong side,” he said. “It was much easier than this. Here one group of religious fanatics represented by George Bush and Mr. Ashcroft is pitted against religious fanatics even more despotic than they are. I find the whole thing very confusing. So I take my tranquilizer and go to funny movies.”
That’s why it isn’t working this time, Dan – quit living in the past or else give up any hope of relevance.