Times have a-changed for political music

A conspicuous absence of politically motivated music has given way to a wave of songs both protesting and supporting the war in Iraq.

The Beastie Boys and John Mellencamp have posted new antiwar songs on their Web sites, while country singer Darryl Worley is racing up the music charts with his pro-war song, "Have You Forgotten?"

Until recently, however, the only musicians who had come close to addressing the current political situation were roots-rocker Steve Earle and underground rapper Mr. Lif. Earle's 2002 album "Jerusalem" took Americans to task for their complacency and offered an alternate take on the motives of American Taliban John Walker Lindh. Lif last year released an EP containing "Home of the Brave," a scathing attack on American foreign policy, which the rapper contends prompted the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

What has taken everyone else so long?

Maybe nothing. It may simply be that the Internet age of ever-faster gratification makes it seem as though purveyors of pop culture are reacting slowly to the rumblings of war. But protest movements don't spring up in an afternoon -- although the Vietnam era was a fertile period for antiwar songs, they didn't happen right away.

"It took us a while to put people in the streets in the '60s," counterculture icon Wavy Gravy said earlier this month during a panel discussion at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. "We already have people in the streets (now), and the war hasn't even started yet."

While Gravy and '60s protest veteran John Sinclair expressed optimism that a new protest culture is taking root, other members of the "Activism and Music" panel were doubtful.

"I think a lot of people are afraid to speak up because it seems like you're stomping on the graves of the dead," said Mike Mills, the bass player for R.E.M., referring to victims of 9-11.

Indeed, Austin favorites the Dixie Chicks caused a fuss recently when singer Natalie Maines told a London concert audience that she was ashamed President Bush is from Texas. Her remarks prompted outraged calls to country radio stations everywhere, and some pulled the trio's songs from their playlists. Maines later apologized, calling her comments "disrespectful" to Bush, but protests continued.

Mills said a forthcoming R.E.M. album will deal with antiwar themes but added that the increasing consolidation of media ownership might prevent widespread public attention for such songs.

"I don't know who's going to get a protest song on the air," Mills said, noting that big corporations are careful not to jeopardize business interests regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Bob Dylan mastered the art of the musical sound-bite with songs such as "The Times They Are A-Changin'," and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young made a concise statement with "Ohio." But like it or not, those musicians' days have passed.

"I think it's funny that everyone's sitting around waiting for established artists to make their protest statements," said Neal Pollack, humorist, author and bandleader. "When the protest song of this war does come, if it comes, it's going to appear from nowhere, from an unheard-of songwriter or group.


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