Nothing moves us quite like music.nn
It’s testament to music’s power that we’re foolish enough to believe that it can change us as a society. Fact is, music’s power to move us is almost inversely proportional to its power to change us as a society.nn
How on earth is that so? Well, if changing the world were as easy as writing a great song and performing it in front of large audiences, surely we’d now be living in utopia, a place with no war, greed or misunderstandings to vex us. And surely there are enough great protest songs and music on record to show us the way to a better world.
Just listen to the possibilities. Ever since Beethoven penned his sublime and mighty Ninth Symphony, musicians have wrought their imaginations and talents for tones dulcet enough to change society. But as history shows, and German conductor Wilhelm FurtwÃ¤ngler realized when he conducted the entire symphony for an opera house full of Nazis in March 1942, anyone can sit though this symphony and remain tone deaf to its final, cathartic message. Alle Menschen werden Bruder? Not a chance. The war ground on for three more insufferable years, of course. And people wonder why cynics abound.nn
Or take Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” surely the finest protest song ever penned, and one written in 1963 just as the Vietnam War was slowly revving into full steam. Not even that masterpiece could stop us from turning Southeast Asia into hell for nearly 12 more years.nn
Still, you can’t fault musicians for trying. Most recently we’ve seen a full boatload of swipes to the establishment, and especially President George W. Bush, with new albums from Neil Young, Pink, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Dashboard Confessional and Pearl Jam. Of the bunch, Young has been the most explicit in his disgust, giving his new album the stark title Living With War. “Let’s impeach the president, for hijacking our religion and using it to get elected/Dividing our country into colors, and still leaving black people neglected.” Young’s Canadian even if he is a United States resident, but you get the point.nn
Before Young, Pink, Springsteen, et al we had Eminem going off about the evils of President Bush with his song “Mosh.” And before him we had Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks telling a London audience that she and her Texas sisters were “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” Bush loyalists lack protest songs of their own'what odes would they sing when government repeals capital gains tax cuts?'but just to show their teeth, some returned this little protest with threats not just to the Chicks’ airplay, but Maines’ very life.nn
Before this lot we had Rage Against the Machine. It was no mistake that this band reached its popularity during the Clinton years, when hardcore leftists felt emboldened enough to complain that Democrats were no different than Republicans. A Rage lyric as flaccid as “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” was considered high concept, and not even part-time Rage fans dared snigger when Zack de la Rocha and his band mates bared their penises to protest the Parents Music Resource Center. The band was proud of temporarily shutting down the New York Stock Exchange during a video shoot early in 2000, but footage revealed that even Wall Street employees enjoyed nodding their heads to Rage’s beat'before returning to work, of course. Meanwhile, Che Guevera rolled over in his grave.nn
And before Rage we had the Dead Kennedys, Edwin Starr, Country Joe & the Fish, and a whole host of like-minded musicians with talents large and small, all tracing back to that magic moment when Woody Guthrie wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar.nn
It’s not that music and songs have no influence or impact. Music certainly influences fashion, and it might have been another two decades before couples started living together if it hadn’t been for the Beatles. Maybe Special Aka’s “Nelson Mandela” in fact gathered worldwide momentum enough to free the African National Congress leader. But history was changing and convulsing long before pop music came along.nn
Nevertheless, instead of paying attention to meaningful political issues, both sides get bogged down in the minutia of “culture” and what it means. The young and restless get a charge out of going to concerts and pumping their fists, while the middle classes wring their hands in worry. It all amounts to great fun and cause for great concern, but the consequences of it all are no great shakes. If all the protest songs, and even genuine street protests of the 1960s meant a thing, you have to wonder how this country ended up where it is today, divided by yet another war and deadlocked over issues like abortion and gay rights. If it’s true that leftists and other bohemians have the best tunes'and I firmly believe we do'then we’ve got to get back to the drawing board, because even the best tunes in the world are powerless when it comes to church meetings, phone trees and the quiet but devastating act of getting people to the voting booth on time.nn
Few protesting conservatives have picked up a guitar, but no one will deny that they currently run this country, even after Guthrie, even after Dylan, even after Rage Against the Machine, even after the Dixie Chicks and perhaps even long after Young, Pink and the rest of those angry troubadours.