The Return of Protest Music


History does not repeat itself. I had to remind myself of this a few weeks ago when I was teaching about the U.S. war against the Vietcong. Fighting resident enemies and lacking geographic benchmarks for progress, the United States regularly announced body counts of enemy dead as a measure of daily success or failure. It was a short-sighted policy that soon implicitly encouraged soldiers—grunts on up—to blur the line between combatants and civilians. Two days after my lecture, the morning news was filled with civilian body counts coming out of Iraq. Then the numbers disappeared almost as soon as they arrived, another makeshift tourniquet for Bush’s bleeding credibility. History, while lacking exact parallels, does provide a stockpile of potential political and cultural strategies.

There may be a lesson somewhere in all this for music fans. Once again popular music is becoming a hot front in American politics as a spate of new releases from artists as diverse as Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews to Prince and Chumbawamba take aim at the White House. The antiwar hip-hop compilation War (If It Feels Good, Do It!) features a large and angry cast. Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore has a clearinghouse of free downloads at Scathing new cuts from the Beastie Boys and Bad Religion are expected soon. As the election draws near, several prominent musicians are taking their Bush-bashing on the road. What does such music mean and what does it mean to do? The history of the Vietnam era suggests some possibilities—and some potential roadblocks.

The recent compilation Rock Against Bush, vol. 1 offers one of the most concerted efforts to politicize pop. The album features 26 cuts from as many bands. Most are fan favorites on the punk scene. A second volume due in the fall plans to feature such higher profile acts as the Foo Fighters, No Doubt, and Green Day. Fast beats, guitar crunch, and growls are the menu here. The Offspring resurrect “Baghdad” from the first Bush war, one of the most explicitly topical tunes on the album, in which singer Dexter Holland sarcastically wails:

This is no Vietnam We will win in Iraq The president said, ‘Let it ride’ Islam be damned Make your last stand In Baghdad

Outside of Ministry’s “No W,” most of the other bands hew to a more metaphorical line, featuring generalized anger or pacifism. Yet joining Rock Against Bush places them within a tradition of progressive punk rock stretching from MC5 outside the 1968 Democratic Convention to the Clash’s anti-imperialism and the political coverage in the fanzine Maximumrocknroll.

Rock Against Bush is the brainchild of NOFX frontman Fat Mike, one who has learned punk’s history lessons well. Liner notes point buyers to The Web site hopes to register and mobilize 500,000 voters to provide Bush some rough music on election day. It plans to pull on grassroots loyalties that already exist in the punk scene. Young punks remain cynical about consumerism, mass media, and electoral politics. Yet some of them have responded to their disfranchisement by building local and virtual communities that speak directly to their lives. Punkvoter hopes to transform these insular fans into activists. “It’s not about ‘Let’s be punk rock and hate the government,'” the album liner notes declare. “It’s about ‘Let’s be punk rock and change the government.'”

This hopeful slogan points to some of the challenges facing punkvoter.There’s plenty of angst to be tapped, but young punks are unpredictable political allies. First, there is no direct correlation between punk and progressivism., among other small sites, has emerged to challenge punkvoter. Second, punk cynicism can foster a protective refusal to get behind any cause, particularly one pushed by the corporate music industry. Bulletin board posts bear this out. Messages of support for Rock Against Bush are met by pro-Bush rants and accusations of Fat Mike’s profiteering. Transforming an alternative culture into an oppositional force is no easy task.

Though punks may not like it, their situation echoes that of the folk scene circa 1965. That year Barry McGuire released “Eve of Destruction,” a declamation of war, the arms race, and white segregationist violence. His cut topped the charts, before several stations pulled it. Celebrated now as a harbinger of coming anti-war music, “Eve of Destruction” caught flack from all directions at the time. “How do you think the enemy will feel with a tune like that number one in America?” asked Los Angeles DJ Bob Eubanks, while folk stalwarts criticized McGuire for his nihilism and limp capitulation to the market. The following year saw the release of “The Ballad of the Green Beret.” Sgt. Barry Sadler’s ode to military heroism, sold far more copies than McGuire’s lament. Protest music, caught between commercial viability and street cred, was small potatoes compared to the outpouring of support for the U.S. mission in southeast Asia.

Today, young students tend to imagine the ’60s counterculture as far more powerful and pervasive than it ever was. They are encouraged by a music industry that continues to sell “The Sixties” as the golden age of political music while ignoring all the conservative artists that filled record charts at the time. Current protest singers cannot compete with these romantic visions of earnest musicians changing the course of the war in Vietnam. They are damned for being a mere commercial product, on the one hand, and for not being popular enough to significantly affect national politics, on the other. In reality, Fat Mike and Barry McGuire have a lot in common. Each is a minor pop culture power yearning to be taken seriously as a political force. It is their very sincerity that makes them most vulnerable to attack from those who insist music and politics should not mix.

Enter the George W. Bush Singers, who aim to change that. The Austin comedy choir has absolutely no desire to be taken seriously. Its debut CD, Songs in the Key of W, arrives on July 13. Here’s the formula. The choir plays Bush soundbites then sings his exact words with a celebratory, deadpan delivery. One song proclaims, “You’re working hard to put food on your family.” Another finds “There ought to be limits to freedom. It will take time to restore chaos.” “War in Iraq” boasts, “I hope we’re not going to war in Iraq. I’m the person that gets to decide—not you.” Songs such as “She’s an Unsticker” and “Embetterment! Ingrinable!” fill out the mix. The record is an inspired send-up of the President’s failure to communicate. Its bite arrives slowly. Which of these lines are mere gaffes? Which reveal a deeper truth? The George W. Bush Singers play it straight. They are not going to help you with an answer.

Back in the early ’60s, the JFK Singers perfected the basic musical format appropriated here. The unapologetic choir—sporting an easy-listening vibe—backed Kennedy’s heroic speeches with reverence. To this template, the GWBSes add some cues from the Laugh-In playbook of using comedy to dismantle political pomposity. As choir director Steve McAllister explains, “There is a respect for the Presidency. But rather than that respect being taken for granted, I believe a lot of people think that respect has to be deserved.” The George W. Bush Singers poke holes in the President’s worthiness of respect. The results are hilarious. The group hopes to take its show on the road before November.

The Bush Singers may be immune to the type of attacks levied on Rock Against Bush. McAllister, a proclaimed nonpartisan, insists that he is interested in comedy not politics (a very unfunny song about 9/11 was cut and will be available only on iTunes). Comedy can always claim it is pursuing laughs rather than regime change. The comedy tag often comes with a price, however. The satirical sneer that deflects criticism can also breed irrelevance. If it is only a joke, its politics do not have to be taken seriously, a lesson that Laugh In learned in the sixties, as many viewers found its gentle Nixon gibes titillating simply because they were on TV, not because they were right. We’ve come a long way from the era when shows were titillating just because they poked fun at the current occupant of the White House. The coming months will tell whether comedy about Bush—by the Singers or even The Daily Show—can be transformed into serious political engagement or whether it will breed only armchair contempt for politics in general.

Finally, still another musical strategy is the one pursued by proto-punk veteran Patti Smith on her new release Trampin’. The album’s centerpiece is “Radio Baghdad,” a 12-minute free-form wail against the war in Iraq. Over a powerful drum groove and layered guitar noise, Smith celebrates Baghdad as the cradle of civilization, the birthplace of science, mathematics and philosophy. She then chastises the ungrateful West for ignoring Baghdad’s gifts: “We invented the zero/and we mean nothing to you.” In tones hushed, then strident, Smith imagines the U.S. invasion from the Baghdad streets. Lullabies give way to lights, sleep to shock and awe. “Radio Baghdad” is a dark and frightening song. Yet it ends, like so many of the singer’s most powerful works, with a reaffirmation of faith. “Suffer not the paralysis of your neighbor,” she sighs. “Suffer not, but extend your hand.”

It is with this simple statement of activism and compassion that Smith sets her song apart from current tirades against Bush and aligns with the hope so central to many ’60s-era songs. Many of my students and I find anthems such as “Give Peace a Chance” vacuous and idealistic. Yet we share a desire—even a need—for clear alternatives to the culture of authority and accusation that characterizes contemporary debates. As Sum 41 sings on Rock Against Bush,

I can’t believe it It could come to this. It’s only feelings So I can’t resist Apology for sitting on my ass. I’m trying to believe in something.

The first artist to find that something—to offer hope in addition to anger, a reason to get into politics instead of to get incumbents out—might once again jump to the top of the charts.

Karl Hagstrom Miller teaches music and history at UT-Austin. The George W. Bush Singers debut at Antone’s in Austin on July 24th.