IS Chamillionaire's hit song "Ridin' " a political anthem? What about Shakira and Wyclef Jean's "Hips Don't Lie"? When seeking anthems for a new political age, should those critical of the Bush administration be turning toward a Dirty South rapper mad at the cops for disturbing his cruising game or a belly-bared dance music queen who slips a line about immigrant rights into a nightclub seduction? Or does today's political climate demand voices raised with an urgency that can be inspired only by old-fashioned protest music of the kind country stars like Toby Keith have produced for their conservative fans?
These are the questions bubbling up in the current debate over protest music, which has everyone from sociologists to bloggers weighing in on what constitutes effective agitprop. The argument's been brewing since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and picked up steam during the last presidential campaign, when artists who'd never taken an explicit political stance (most famously Bruce Springsteen) joined old-time activists like Patti Smith and Michael Stipe in stumping for John Kerry. The disappointment felt by rockers who'd registered Democrat at President Bush's reelection, and their growing disquietude over the Iraq war, led some into retreat and others -- notably Springsteen, with the red-diaper folk of his "Seeger Sessions" album -- into politically confrontational projects cast in a very traditional mold.
Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, Neil Young -- these artists constitute the roll call of protest stars, hailed by pundits across the country for revitalizing the form. Yet as great as some of their efforts can be -- and as quirkily true to their own vision, as in the case of Young's joyfully jarring guitar-and-choir declamation on songs like "Let's Impeach the President" -- they're hardly the only options out there. When Young recently stated that he made the album "Living With War" because no younger artists were picking up the countercultural torch, he unfortunately associated his efforts with a generational attitude that drives Generations X and Y crazy. "It's a cliched Rolling Stone boomer-idea, that pop culture managed to stop a war, that musicians once had power as galvanizing figures," wrote twentysomething blogger Tom Breihan in a May 17 Village Voice column decrying such views.
Breihan, speaking for a constituency more identified with computer hacking than marching on Washington, advocates the "casual, everyday perspective" of hip-hop artists like Lupe Fiasco and Boots Riley of the Coup, who integrate their views on power and the polis into well-woven tales of inner-city life. Though he's right to stand up for the strong wave of opposition that's emerging in both underground and mainstream hip-hop, Breihan's anti-anthem point of view isn't anything new, either; it's been kicking around since the post-punk era, crystallized in the refrain from Cracker's 1992 hit "Teen Angst": "What the world needs now is another folk singer like I need a hole in my head."
With due respect to Young's passion and Breihan's open ears, it's the debate itself that is most stale. The spot where politics and culture meet is vibrating because it's getting hit from so many angles. The field of political sounds is almost too wide to contemplate, encompassing anthem-seeking die-hards, totally wired upstarts, and plenty of concerned citizens in between.
The itch to sing out
IN 2005, the folk singer Eliza Gilkyson coined a term for what seems to be happening: normalizing dissent. She wanted to explain songs like her anti-Bush jeremiad "Man of God" to her fans, who she worried might tire of this topical turn. "I guess for those fans who prefer my music without the politics, hang in there (or push the fast forward button) because maybe someday things will be such that we can move on to other areas of interest," Gilkyson wrote on her website in January 2005. A year and a half later, she's still singing "Man of God" in concert, just one of myriad artists who've learned to live with the constant itch to sing out.