Monday, September 17, 2012

Protest Music and 2012 America

Corey Beasley/PopMatters

Repeatedly pronounced dead by observers of a tradition once as integral to rock ‘n’ roll as the C chord, protest music has again risen from its supposed grave to kick dust in the faces of global fatcats. Just don’t expect to hear its cries sung—or shouted— English. As you’ve likely heard by now, Russian punk collective Pussy Riot has seen three of its core members jailed after performing a guerilla set with pro-woman and anti-Putin themes at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour:

Convicted of “hooliganism,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich will each serve two years in a Russian prison. The vast majority of the Western media has thrown its support behind the group, and the trial has offered the cold comfort of hearing the genteel newscasters on NPR say the word “pussy” several times an hour during the day’s news recaps. Likely due at least in part to the fourth estate’s global outcry (journalists, of course, typically understand the value of highly abstract, complex concepts like the freedoms of speech and assembly), Russian PM Dmitry Medvedev recently expressed his desire to see the women freed.

What’s not clear is if popular musicians still feel as Medvedev does. A slew of American artists voiced quick support for Pussy Riot, a host of names ranging from those with a history of musical protest (The Beastie Boys, Yoko Ono) to the corporate and self-congratulatory (Green Day, The Red Hot Chili Peppers) to, right, Courtney Love. This isn’t to imply Anthony Kiedis’s name on a petition is worth any less than Patti Smith’s or Johnny Marr’s just because his music happens to be worth definitively less on its own artistic merits. And, in fact, Billie Joe Armstrong and whoever the people are in System of a Down likely have a better shot at getting a wide audience to pay attention to the issue than, say, Zola Jesus or Mark Knopfler. As ever, it’s difficult to discuss the intersection of politics and art without sounding holier-than-thou at best and a total bore at worst.

So, sue me. I’m irked. This is irksome. But before I try to scratch my irk—this is what you do with an irk, yes?—consider another recent hot news item. Paul Ryan, Republican congressman, vice presidential nominee, and “June” in the 2012 Conservative Hunks Calendar (“November” is Mitch McConnell—it’s going to be a cold, cold winter), recently let slip he enjoys listening to Rage Against the Machine while working his apparently quite serious abs. He also enjoys Ayn Rand and apparently does not enjoy cognitive dissonance.

This, again understandably, touched off a firestorm of internet ire. Doesn’t he even listen to Zach de la Rocha’s lyrics? How can you be a Fountainhead-pounding, free-market-fellating ideologue and jam out to a song like “Killing in the Name”? The same way you can be a leftist, anti-capitalist band signed to a major corporate label with thousands of t-shirts hanging in Spencer’s Gifts stores across the nation, I suppose. It’s likely as simple as managing your paperless savings account.

American music has a rich history of protest songs; you could trace the line back to Negro spirituals and beyond, or focus on the rise of the consistently class-conscious blues and songs like Leadbelly’s “The Bourgeois Blues”, or the subversive sing-alongs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, or the explosion of protest music into the national consciousness with Vietnam, Phil Ochs, early Dylan, and the popular folk music revival of the ‘60s, or Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” and its influence on other politically active hip-hop acts like Public Enemy, KRS-One, Immortal Technique, and others. So, what’s happened since then?

Crucially, any of those slices in American musical history share at least one thing in common, and that’s the existence—or at least the possibility of the existence—of a dominant narrative and the available channel(s) on which to carry it to the ears of the citizens. Whatever you think of postmodern thought and its encouragement of public masturbation on the part of English Departments everywhere, it’s difficult to deny that the contemporary history of all art forms, music included, is one fragmented into an almost uncountable number of directions.

There have always existed genres and sub-genres, popular movements and underground movements in music, but the rise of the digital revolution and the decline of the major label industry and those other behemoths starving at its withered teats (MTV, Clear Channel radio, Ticketmaster) means its harder than ever to point to singular, dominant trends in music. Even artists as huge as Lady Gaga or Kanye West simply do not have the power to reach the level of hegemonic cultural influence as a Michael Jackson or an Elvis Presley or a Bob Dylan. There are too many channels, too many openings to cover, for a single artist to amplify his or her voice loudly enough to be heard over every other voice.

All right, I’ll put my thesaurus away now. My point is this: American protest music, once the lifeblood of all great strands of our music from the blues to folk to hardcore to rap, remains on life support, even while the news around us turns increasingly apocalyptic. There are many reasons for that, including those dry and academic as outlined above, but there’s another that seems more, yeah, irksome. Our dominant artists—and even those artists dominant in their own subcultures—have largely stopped writing protest music. Yes, I know protest songs and the artists who write them have never primarily ruled the charts. No, I’m not na├»ve enough to expect to hear many political songs when I scan through my FM dial or look at the Billboard charts (they do still have Billboard charts, don’t they?). But a few? Maybe?

Lady Gaga has managed to brand herself as an outsider, a sort of “mother” to the “monsters” and the misunderstood of the world, while also selling millions of records and never taking any particularly controversial stand at all. I admire the weirdness of a meat dress, and I admire an artist publicly supporting gay marriage, but I hardly think it should comfort me that this is what it takes in 2012 to inherit the mantle of popular provocateur. Kanye’s Katrina moment was a brilliant bit of honesty and directness, and a political consciousness pops up in his more recent work—see “Gorgeous”, and lines like, “And what’s a black Beatle anyway, / a fuckin’ roach?” But again, the substance there is a paltry substitute for socially conscious hip-hop. And I really like Gaga and ‘Ye, and I even follow both of them on Twitter.

What about rock music? Since both mainstream and alternative rock radio are so far beyond hope, you’d hope the indie world would offer solace. Yet even here, the most acclaimed acts of the last decade largely do not. Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors, Bon Iver, LCD Soundsystem, Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, the list goes on—some of these acts are among my favorite artists, but they, too, rarely express any forceful political statements on their records. There’s an important caveat to note, here—the same fragmentation that’s occurred in musical history has also occurred in history, period.

We have plenty of things to stand against as Americans in 2012—the refusal of our politicians to take climate change seriously, the erosion of the middle class, the Obama administration’s sweeping under the rug of the Bush administration’s war crimes and embrace of indefinite detentions and torture, complete and utter political gridlock—but we do not have a grand, monolithic narrative in a common, if possibly reductive, cause. Afghanistan and Iraq, for all of their tragedies and trauma, are not the cultural watershed of Vietnam. Bush and Obama are both controversial figures in many circles, but they are not Richard Nixon. Racism is still in full effect in the United States, but things do not seem on the surface as directly dire as they did in the late ‘60s. (You’ll note I’m mentioning largely leftist concerns; when the right produces a comparable number of compelling political musicians, I’ll contact my editor.) I could go on.

As a result of this diffuse political and cultural arena, narratives in music, like narratives in the visual arts, have shifted from more explicit arguments to oblique critiques or those housed in vague metaphor. In other words, it could just be more difficult to recognize, at first, that you’re listening to protest music. Compare Arcade Fire’s muddled Neon Bible and The Suburbs, with their embarrassingly righteous tone and clumsy sloganeering, to Radiohead’s much more successfully carried OK Computer and Kid A, albums borne out of severe unease with the modern world but lacking many nutshell lyrics to tape onto your acoustic guitar. These days, more than ever, writing a successful political song is really, really hard. Striking the line between preachy self-righteousness and earnest pap requires a seriously deft songwriter. Maybe you can’t blame artists for shying away from it.

A few exceptions keep me heartened. Merrill Garbus, as tUnE-yArDs, comes as close as anyone to carrying Fugazi’s torch into the new millennium, with her punk-funk eclecticism, unstoppable live performances, and songwriting nimble enough to touch on issues of race, gender, and class while never sacrificing the music for the message.

The best album of 2012, Atlanta emcee Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, is a throwback to the glory days of political hip-hop, updating its concerns for contemporary America while still managing to slam Ronald Reagan. There are others, I’m sure, and I hope you’ll leave your suggestions in the comments to keep me from despair. With things as tough as ever—and with it tougher than ever for an artist to voice his or her political worries in song in an original, engaging, and thoughtful ways – we’ll need all the help we can get

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