Of Thee I Sing
By David Day, DustedMagazine.com
In a complex struggle to be heard, many artists have, remarkably, gotten through to speak their minds.
There is a ceiling on dissent in this nation like no time before. It seems that the ceiling is getting lower every day: producers fired, celebrations canceled, artists harassed, all for speaking their mind. And with a public so separated, expressing yourself could potentially exclude half [or more] of your fans. There are choirs to be preached to, but generally taking a chance will get someone pissed off. The reaction is relative to the time in the public eye.
Much has been made of the Dixie Chicks saga, as they have surely some fans, but consider that they did gain a few, too. I, for one, am a new convert. "I feel the President is ignoring the opinions of many in the U.S. and alienating the rest of the world," Natalie Maines states in her official statement. "My comments were made in frustration and one of the privileges of being an American is you are free to voice your own point of view." Natalie, you go, girl.
The freedom for artists and public figures to express themselves is not the issue here. We'll just take for granted that it is purely their right. This isn't a critique of anyone's expressions of opinion, either. If an artist feels compelled to the point of putting something on tape, that alone should be given credence.
What could be estimated, though, is how much artists are laying on the line to get their message across. Michael Moore, a documentarian whose next, an admittedly "rushed" film about the Carlyle Group will blow many a mind [Google], may have polarized the argument more with his Oscar rant, but he didn't lose any fans.
And that's how the Dixie Chicks have come across. Despite Fox-ified stories about folks in Mississippi running donated piles of CDs over with bulldozers [Bulldozers! Donated! Folks!], the Chicks have actually come out fairing fine. Sales are stable, and Madison, Wisconsin is exemplary of the American public: they proposed a resolution in their support.
There are considerable instrumental protests, also [Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Oklahoman inquisition story is classic]. Noise is protest and it can directly affect the perspective, as well. There's also a specialized branch of spoken/beat hybrids: Ad Rock remixing Noam Chomsky for one. The Fire This Time, reviewed by this site and promoted by this author, even assumes the tenser sounds of contributing electronic acts Aphex Twin, Speedy J and Orbital. But pairing protest to melody is all that more effective.
System Of A Down
Precisely the place to begin our survey; as Michael Moore's video of "Boom!" [System Of A Down] shows protestors and their supporters bringing the song's lyrics directly into the camera. The video is Moore triple-timed, and System Of A Downs effective thud-aggro mania sends you dialing up charities at random from your phone book. Powerful, yes, graceful... not so much.
Leave it to Lenny Kravitz to pull protest off with style. Here is a pop icon that, on the strength of his toned talent, has managed to stay in the limelight for over a decade. And his "We Want Peace" is not only a duet with Iraq's "#1 Pop Music Artist" [brilliant move, there] but also features Palestinian strings and Lebanese percussion. That's just straight-up radical. It also includes what is perhaps the best line of the whole bunch: "If we're not careful / We'll blow our own asses away." Genius? Yes, I say, yes.
Recently, Kravitz was relaying the response from some of his fans: "Very violent, very hateful, people are saying, 'Get out of the country, you don't deserve to be an American.' A lot of people have a problem with the fact that I have an Iraqi on the track."
I was surprised to hear Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day had laid down a track of opinion. I'm not sure how many die-hard Green Day fans are left, but they will be satisfied. It's got your regular funny parts and poignant pictures and that sort of gasping cockney thing. Later, I notice lyrics accredited to "Aaron Elliot and PHGP," perhaps this is a way to shield himself from controversy? Come to think about it, singing that funny line about "shitty bands" shields pretty well, too. Ehh.
True old-school punk rock man Billy Bragg is like the pro-labor designated hitter. Although his lyricism has retreated from a strident labor/love life into an innocuous punk/father paradox, he manages to stay true to his devoted, aging following. I mean, dude is auctioning off a pair of signed underwear for the cause. Bully to him.
Notedly, his tune "Price Of Oil" recalls his busking, Back to Basics glory days, although his guitar seems to be a bit newer. He does make some finer points, though: "And whisper it, even Bin Laden / once drank from America's cup / just like that election down in Florida / this shit doesn't all add up." Hey, whoa, he even curses! "Price Of Oil" was originally recorded for a compilation for the Stop The War coalition. As of this posting, those compilations have yet to surface.
Can you imagine trying to get one of those pressed up in today's America? What a nightmare.
When I first heard Cat Power's "Maybe Not" I didn't connect it directly to protest, and maybe we shouldn't be. Even after downloading it from Thurston Moore's essential Protest-records.com, I was unsure of its exact message. A few days later, I kept the television on to catch Ms. Marshall on David Letterman. On it, she performed "Maybe Not," cowering at the end of a grand piano, hair combed forward like Japanese avant-godhead [and fellow protestor] Keiji Haino. Alone on stage, she held the crowd of midwestern tourists, and probably avid war supporters, squarely in her hand. "We don't have a thing / So we've got nothing to lose / We can all be free."
In the end, Letterman, in his typical lovably-bumbling fashion, entered in screen right.
Reminded me of the time Sonic Youth played on Letterman and Thurston Moore ended sprawled out in front of his amp. Letterman entered the frame and, muffling a laugh, asked: "Are you alright?"
Much has been slewn at the Beastie Boys and their "World Gone Mad" probably deserves it. With its jack-in-the-box sample loop, and the Priest impression for a chorus, there's little here to remember. Methinks the Beasties should replace Mixmaster Mike with Rob Brown. That would be revolutionary.
Spearhead does a spiritual number, with the refrain "We can bomb the world to pieces / But we can't bomb it into peace." The Armaggedon Version, a little tougher with rock cuts, gets more to the point with its rap bridge: "Who put us here? Who is responsible? / Well, there's no debatin / Cause when they ask me I say: 'Big Corporations.'" Speak it.
Michael Franti tells that his family has been confronted by plain-clothed cops at shows.
Tom Ze, the militantly radical Brazilian madman, contributes with "Companheiro Bush." Babelfish isn't helping me here, but our friend Ze speaks to the profit Bush and his family have to gain on a war [quite true], and the Polynesian-tinged refrain "Foi o Bush [It was the Bush]" puts the blame for this catastrophe right where it belongs.
We're witnessing a democratic revolution in Brazil, as new President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is embracing the thoughts and actions of idealists like Ze. His companions seem to be following suit. Caetano Veloso put on the most underrated protest at the Oscars. His duet with Lila Downs ["Burn It Blue"] should have brought the house down. Os Mutantes continues to garner three and four-page stories in music magazines. Most amazingly, Tropicalia's own Gilberto Gil, in a move to spur record sales as much as the hearts of Brazil, was recently appointed by da Silva to "Minister Of Culture." In fact, according to the Houston Chronicle, there is a massive radical revival throughout South America.
Doesn't a flat outside Rio sound pretty good right now?
Paris, the rapper-turned-investment-banker-turned-rapper, has really turned in the track for these times, though. The man has called upon publicity of controversy for his latest album, Sonic Jihad. And to great effect. It's cover, believe it, shows a 747 being piloted towards the White House. The lead-off single, "What Would You Do" is incredible, and easily the most thought-provoking song in this overview.
Couched in the vernacular of Robert Anton Wilson and Alex Jones, and with his patiently urgent delivery, Paris rhymes home some finer points: "The oldest trick in the book is make an enemy;" "And while Reichstag burns I see the public buy it;" "Aint no terror threat unless approval ratings slumpin;" "Now even niggas wavin' flags like they lost their mind;" He even calls out the current administration as the "Skull and Bones Freemason kill committee." Yeah, brother.
I was stumped at the following line, though: "I see the Carlyle Group and the Harris Bank accounts." [The Carlyle Group I know of, but the Harris Bank? Turns out, via the almighty Google cache, that Harris Bank is purportedly the home of frozen joint bank accounts between the Bin Laden Family and Sharon Percy... Rockefeller.]
Paris also provided the soundtrack to the amazing "Aftermath: Unanswered Questions from 9/11" by the Guerilla News Network. The video is too loud at times, but it's powerful accusations are whispered. Paris wraps it up neatly.
Needless to say, his record is still seeking distribution.
Of course, the artists that are rooted in protest are indeed the ones that do revolution the best. Kimya Dawson's Viva La Persistence is a quiet storm, touching on many subjects, heavy and light, and doing so with downtown grace... While the boldness of Saul Williams is always something to behold. His cadence, ability, and bravado will keep him a most critically over-looked poet. Williams personified the anti-war movement with his pointed reading of the "Pledge Of Resistance;" a performance which has now been remixed a couple of times by Ninja Tune's Coldcut and others...
Numerous folks have contributed updates to past protest legacies... Stephan Smith bears considerable attention by having Pete Seeger [and even more, Dean Ween] record on his "New World Worder"... Scott Amendola and Carla Bozulich [Geraldine Fibbers] do a fantastic drone-infected reinterpretation of "Masters Of War"...
As I write this, I'm listening to the Radio Nova [.fr] mix of the week from Romuald, and in the middle of his silky-smooth set he drops Jimi Hendrix's rendition of "Star-Spangle Banner."
And that shit still holds up.
Despite the very-much staged press bait of the American tank pulling the head off the statue, these sentiments are still quite imperative. Our leaders are hell-bent on feeding the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about.
I am one of those people, perhaps to a fault, that believe we're living in the most crucial era since the end of World War II. The unchecked government structures created then are squarely to blame for our troubles now, as were they Vietnam, Central America and just about every minor war in between.
As a fan, and one who makes a living promoting music, I sincerely hope musicians can make a cohesive, direct message that frames our present concern. There are so many other songs that need to be listened to that it's a little overwhelming.
So I guess I'll leave those up to you.