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The Power of Music | The Nation

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The Power of Music

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Midway through the peace rally in Seattle's Volunteer Park this past October, the stage was given over to a young man with a guitar. It was a big moment for this callow troubadour--certainly the largest crowd he'd ever faced, hungry for inspiration, ready for a new rallying cry. He strummed and took his shot. One more rendition of "The Times They Are A-Changin'." Somewhere, Bob Dylan, who long ago stopped his marching, groaned.

About the Author

Ann Powers
Ann Powers is a senior curator at Experience Music Project in Seattle. The author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America...

A few speakers later, another sound overtook the stage. It emanated from a motley hip-hop jam band, young men and women redolent of yesterday's patchouli, but bent on doing something at least partially new. The women traded acerbic raps above swirly guitar solos and some deft conga maneuvers. The result didn't hit as hard as Bob's old chestnut, but at least it took us into this century.

The venerable tradition of American protest music still generates heat on the rally circuit, as Dylan's constant reinvocation proves. Still, political music is marked by the same tension that always feeds pop music: the desire to connect to a legacy versus the impulse to try something new. Protest has gained voice across genres, linking Steve Earle's country polemics, Fugazi's anticorporate hardcore, the radical hip-hop of Mos Def and Talib Kweli. The activist songbook includes major contributions from punk and hip-hop as well as folk-rock. Benefit concerts and albums have become part of the star-making machinery. Bono, our Superliberal, trots the globe. Yet political songs rarely make it onto mainstream radio, and when it's time to focus on an anthem, too often what we all know is vintage 1968.

Dissent became all the more complicated after 9/11. The mainstream pop world responded to the World Trade Center attacks by waving a distinctly red-white-and-blue freak flag; the performances featured on various televised benefits exemplified the shock-induced patriotism of the moment. Eventually, dissent seemed like a possibility again, but with a few notable exceptions (the aforementioned Earle), most artists still display an uncertain step as they venture into the arena.

How can musicians respond to such confusing times? The Nation poses this question to five artists known for their outspoken views and powerful, activism-inspiring music. Boots Riley of the Oakland hip-hop duo the Coup may be best known for a terrible coincidence--the cover for his group's latest CD, Party Music, was recalled because the design, created long before September 11, showed Riley and DJ Pam the Funkstress blowing up the World Trade Center--but he has been an activist since his early teens and may be the most cogent political rapper working today. Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam has worked for many causes, from the band's historic stand against the Ticketmaster monopoly to his tireless stumping for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election. Tom Morello, now of the band Audioslave, played guitar for Rage Against the Machine, the most visible leftist rock group of the 1990s. In the Indigo Girls and on her own, Amy Ray has established herself as a foremost advocate for Native American rights, feminist causes and environmentalism. And with Sleater-Kinney, Carrie Brownstein helped reshape the sound of feminist rock.

These interviews were conducted separately, but each artist expressed great camaraderie with the others participating. Perhaps there could be a benefit concert in this...

This is a strange moment for political music in rock. Big stars like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty are making music about issues, but as far as countercultural protest music goes, there's not much on the radar. You're all pretty explicit about your views--how's that going over on the road?

Boots Riley:

Right after September 11 I got really pessimistic. Then we went out on tour. I wanted to go out there and make statements against the war [in Afghanistan]. We went all over--Iowa, Indiana, Florida, Alabama--and in every place the overwhelming majority of the crowd was in favor of my antiwar statement. On some dates we were headlining, so it was our crowd. On others, though, we were opening up for the X-Ecutioners, who have an MTV hit with Linkin Park. There was a big mixture of musical tastes at those shows, people coming from different political backgrounds, and we still got an overwhelming, positive response.

Eddie Vedder:

As a touring musician, I would play thirty places in Europe in five weeks and not just pass through or see the sights but actually have an exchange with people. Everything I probably missed out on by not going to college as far as geography, history, world social studies and religion I feel like I've kind of made up for by just being alert on tour. That puts you in a sensitive place because you come back to the United States and you're happy to be back, but at the same time you feel like sharing what you've seen with other people. You want to say, you know, "I've seen some examples where things work a little better as far as healthcare, gun control, the modern-day prison system, the war on drugs"--you want to be able to share that and not feel like you're being unpatriotic or extra critical.

Tom, you've recently found a new way to get messages across on tour. Tell us about Axis of Justice, the organization you founded with Serj Tankian of System of a Down.

Tom Morello:

Axis of Justice feels like the most concrete political event that I've been involved in. It's an installation that will go out on band's tours, a tent that brings together representatives from various activist groups to exchange information with concertgoers. Having been in progressively minded bands, I know that it's not easy to help build a bridge between your audience and the causes you support. Axis builds that bridge. It essentially works as a referral service. When we play in your hometown we bring the installation and it's divided by subgroupings, so whether you are personally a victim of physical or sexual abuse, or whether you are interested in labor issues and globalization, or antiracism or peace issues and the war with Iraq, you will be able that night to belong to an organization or meet with others who are interested in forming one.

The response on the Ozzfest tour was unbelievable. These are metal kids who are often disparaged as being apolitical or right wing. Now, when we send Axis out on tours, it can hopefully be a very unifying, galvanizing force. We offer it to artists to take out, free of charge.

Many of you have balanced music and activism by somewhat separating the two. Is it just too hard to actually integrate them?

Riley:

For me it's always been a struggle. Either I'm really into the organizing or I'm really into the music. As I've been going I've been able to figure out ways to even it out a little more. But the way the industry is set up, you have to record an album and then promote it; you can't just be like "we got these two cool songs, let's put them out." That's just not the way that the market is set up. It can become alienating. Then, if I do get involved with an organization or a campaign, I'm able to maybe bring some more exposure to it, but that exposure isn't necessarily helpful to building the organization. Because what I do is hip-hop and that's sexy, and my role is played up to be more than it is. But really, to organize you have to be able to build leadership in each other.

Eddie, when you were working with Ralph Nader, you basically did that as a private citizen, right? A volunteer?

Vedder:

Well, a private citizen with a guitar. I went down to [the first rally he attended, in Seattle 2000] to just kind of watch. But I've been following Ralph for such a long time. When I was a kid it seemed like there were civic heroes, growing up in a part of Chicago where two-thirds of the school was African-American and Martin Luther King was as big as Michael Jordan. Before I was a teenager, I knew Ralph Nader's name and knew him as kind of a civic hero. You know, to have someone who's such a great candidate and such a legitimate candidate as far as his record compared to a bumbling fool from Texas--I think it's essential that we get him in the debates.

Playing a benefit for a cause is one of the main ways musicians do politics. At this point, though, the rock benefit has become something of a cliché. Do you think benefits have lost their effectiveness?

Amy Ray:

I think it's always valuable to do benefits, but I think it's the type of benefit you do that establishes what your value is. We [the Indigo Girls] do very hands-on benefits--we'll do a three-week tour and half of it's actually in the communities where we're learning where the money's going and we're doing cultural exchange. It doesn't raise a million dollars, it raises $100,000. But it also raises a lot of awareness and we learn more about what's actually going on.

With big benefits, there's just this tendency for the show to become a parody of itself. Artists are there and they don't even know why. They're there because their manager told them it was the hip thing to do.

Morello:

I'd have to say, there's nothing wrong with a benefit concert. Rock and roll generates cash, and whether that money is used to feed starving Ethiopians or whether it's used to open a clinic somewhere, that's a better purpose than new rims on the Bentley for the bass player. I'll tell you one thing, though--what does make me chafe is whenever there is a benefit concert, there are always these accusations hurled around that these artists are just doing it for publicity. Let me tell you, there's better ways to get publicity.

Ray:

Touring with the Butchies [the all-female punk band that played with Ray on her solo album, Stag] renewed my sense of the importance of doing smaller actions. I learned that I don't need to worry whether I can get Red Hot Chili Peppers to come to an Honor the Earth benefit. Because I can get Girls Against Boys and the Butchies and we can go play the 9:30 club [in Washington, DC] and it just builds. There's going to be fifty kids there that are going to say wow, this is cool, let's plan our own benefit. And that's the point.

Is it easy to make alliances with other politically minded artists?

Ray:

I think there's a thing in artist activism where there's the hip activists and then the ones that are just, like, not hip. And I think we've always sort of been in the not-hip category, because we champion these causes that are like, Indians, what's that? We don't do the big stuff, we don't get asked to. We would probably have done something like a Free Tibet benefit if we were asked. It gets discouraging because you want to feel like you can call those people that are in that club, which we've done a lot, and get them to help you out. Some do. Eddie Vedder has helped us a lot.

Riley:

For a long time it was weird for me because music people I knew had very little in agreement with what I was philosophically. Around 1999 I met dead prez, and there was this big similarity.

They're doing what you're doing, on the East Coast.

Riley:

There are a lot of people out there doing cool work. I went to South Africa with Talib Kweli and the Roots for a couple of weeks. And even a lot of the groups that aren't called political or revolutionary have a lot more to say than what you hear on the singles. Like [popular Southern rapper] Trick Daddy has a lot of stuff on his album that really speaks to things. The way you tell a story is the politics of it, and he's telling a story, and a lot of it comes from the standpoint that this system is corrupt. [In songs like "Run Nigga" and "Bricks & Marijuana," Trick Daddy uses the landscape of "thug life" to confront inner-city inequities.] I would suspect he probably doesn't put those songs out as videos. Not because he thinks people won't be into it, but because he thinks the programmers won't play it.

That brings up another conundrum concerning politics and pop. Many people think popular music, as part of the multinational entertainment industry, is part of the problem.

Morello:

Absolutely. And frankly, when they write the history of our time, I think that's not going to be perceived as an accident. It's a crucial part of rolling the wet blanket over us. People should be erecting barricades in the streets for what's going on. Thirty million Americans under the poverty line. Forty million without healthcare. And people are just psyched about Christina Aguilera's short shorts.

So is pop just an opiate, or what?

Vedder:

If people want to go for the guns and booze aspect of rock and roll, then it's there. And it should be. One of the best ways to deal with some problems every once in a while is to dance all over them. At the end of the day, you've done all your thinking--maybe you voted that day or you held a sign up, and you've talked with your friend and you've kind of got as far as you could get with the issues. You're not going to be able to do anything about it at 1 in the morning. So you're splitting a twelve-pack with a friend, so what do you do now? You rock out. There's a time and a place for everything.

Anticorporate activism is a big part of the left these days, and it's an issue on the music scene too. Most of you are on major labels. How do you reconcile participating in a multinational corporate entertainment system?

Morello:

Rage Against the Machine was able to deliver 15 million subversive pieces of plastic across the globe. When we were being courted by different record labels, our only condition was that we have complete artistic control over every facet of our career in perpetuity. They put that in writing, we said fantastic.

Ray:

When Indigo Girls signed [with Epic], that was my one concession to hypocrisy. I just said OK, I'm going to do this, because Emily [Saliers, the duo's other half] wanted to, for one thing, and I wanted to because I was tired. We didn't have a staff, we were just doing everything for ourselves and it was hard. I felt like, this is my choice: I can either sign to a major and have these resources and have my own indie label [Daemon Records] and put out five records a year by other people. Or I can talk Emily into staying independent and we'll spend all of our time on our own career, and we won't ever get to do anything else with anybody else. The choice was obvious.

But I'll be very excited when this record deal is over. I would never sign again with a major label, because I feel like it's run its course. Major labels right now are pretty obsolete for artists like us.

There's a lot of upheaval in the music industry right now, and a lot of activism. What do you think of organizations working to better define artists' rights in the digital age? In Washington, there's the Future of Music Coalition, a think tank that's just released an important study on the state of radio and does work on issues involving artists' rights and the Internet. In California, Don Henley co-founded the Recording Artists' Coalition to champion artists' rights in Congress and beyond. Do you think the work these groups are doing is important?

Morello:

One ambition of mine is to unionize rockers and rappers. There is no collective bargaining whatsoever. I belong to the musicians' union, and I'll tell you, if you are a symphony member, if you can play oboe with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, they'll make sure you get your scale. If you are in a fledgling hip-hop band and someone puts a contract down on the hood of their Bentley, there's no one you can go to.

The Recording Artists' Coalition is a good step in that direction, but one of my qualms about it is that the majority of the people on the board of directors are not even artists.

Ray:

I'm a big supporter of the Future of Music Coalition, because they're trying to educate people about the way the machine works. You have to know that before you can accomplish your art within the framework of consumerism. It also helps you accomplish your activism better because if you're smart about the way this machine works, you're going to understand the way other corporate structures work and you'll understand how to approach them.

Carrie, Sleater-Kinney has stayed on a small independent label, Kill Rock Stars, and that's a big part of the band's identity.

Carrie Brownstein:

I think the model that we embody illustrates what you can do by taking a different route from the completely corporate one. You can hold on to your ideals and still support yourself. But I totally understand why people sign to a major label. So many bands struggle in obscurity or struggle on an indie label for years and years. It's not a black and white issue, so even though I've said it's a political or business model, I don't really think of it as an instruction manual. It's something that has worked for us and we have been lucky.

Boots, the Coup has been on major and independent labels. Any difference?

Riley:

My main principle is getting the idea out there. Because of my politics, I don't necessarily think that the independent capitalist is that much better than the multinational capitalist; it's just that the independent capitalist hasn't grown as big yet. I've been on an indie label, and the only difference was they had less money to work with. But there is a different line that I won't go across--opportunities put in front of our faces to make a lot of money.

Like what?

Riley:

Interview magazine had this thing going on. I didn't find out what the figure was but it involved money. They'd do a whole editorial on us and they'd have this thing with Levi's where on the other side of the page we'd wear Levi's. That was just this past year. Those types of things are even extra weird for me because I'm like, "Why do they want us?" The only reason is to say, "We got them all now!" [Editor's Note: Interview acknowledges approaching the Coup for a Levi's ad but denies any editorial component.]

Vedder:

I know that when I heard the Buzzcocks on a Toyota ad, I wasn't particularly upset. I mean, the initial reaction was shock; at the same time, it's a good song and I know they haven't sold a million records. But I feel like maybe a band like the Counting Crows in a Coke commercial, they should know that Coke's been marketing to children and striking deals with the schools to get pop machines and advertising in the schools. I just wouldn't want to participate in anything like that.

Brownstein:

There are ways of being savvy about dealing with corporations and about making decisions that you feel good about. Homegrocer.com asked Sam [Coomes, who plays in the duo Quasi with Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss] for a song he wrote ["Would You Like to Have Something to Eat?"]. He did give them the song and they were going to pay him a large sum of money and he said, "OK, but you have to match that and I'm donating it to a food bank in Portland."

I did a Priceline commercial, you know.

Right, right, with William Shatner, I remember it.

Brownstein:

It was just me. I was like, "Yeah, I'll do that commercial, just for fun." I would not have had the band do it and we would not have given a song to them. There's definitely kind of a line in my head that artistically, in terms of the band and our music, I just would not cross. I would rather sign to a major label than ever do an ad for McDonald's.

Rock and roll is all about lifestyle, in many people's minds. Do you believe lifestyle can be a form of activism?

Brownstein:

A lot of the political choices I make are in my personal life--in the way that I vote or live or consume or not consume. And I think for us the music has always come first, and activism comes second, at least as a band. We use our music as our activism, you know. If those can somehow be tied together, all the better for us.

Ray:

As a musician, there's the way you run your organization. How many women do you hire? Do you hire people who are of different colors and different sexualities? Do you use recycled paper, do you talk the record label into using recycled paper? Dave Matthews has that ticket service now where you can get tickets online instead of using Ticketmaster. And he's offering it to other artists and we go through that too. Believe me, there's not many people that could talk promoters into offering up a certain number of seats in their venues that were not Ticketmaster seats. He had that power and he did it, and that's killer.

What would you say to critics who say you're preaching to the converted?

Riley:

How I normally work is, I assume that you agree with me. I don't think the problem starts with you. I think that makes my music less preachy and it also allows me to just talk about the regular things I go through.

Ray:

The Indigo Girls' audience is not necessarily all left, that's the thing. We have a lot of conservative people in our audience that are socially liberal, open to tolerance for different religions or different sexuality but they're not necessarily voting Democrat or Green. We still get mail from people who are mad about our stance on abortion. When we started we had so many of what appeared to be Christian references in our music and they really weren't. And so there's still people, the abortion thing really bugs them. I'm glad that we have that community that's willing to come and maybe their minds get opened up in some way.

You're all young enough to have missed the counterculture of the 1960s. Is it a shadow over you? How do you view that time now? How are you connected or disconnected to it?

Vedder:

The soundtrack for peace has definitely fallen into the hands of--it's just become the Beatles and John Lennon and Dylan, which is quite a legacy on top of everything else they did musically. That's why it's nice to hear a song like Patti Smith's "People Have the Power," to keep it more current. But you know, at the same time, I was trying to write a little something for Ralph Nader when I played at a few different rallies and I was coming up with a few things and then I stumbled upon "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and it really was as relevant today as it had ever been.

Ray:

Actually, our peers have been more like the old guard: Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, David Crosby. It's been because the style of activism we're doing is more the style that they do. It's very hands on. You know, Jackson, when he worked on Central American issues he was down in Central America.

What about the rest of you? Who are your peers?

Morello:

I think that Living Colour doesn't get nearly the credit that is due to them as an all-black commercially successful hard-rock band. I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude, cause until them you had to play Jimi Hendrix cover songs at kegger parties, and that was sort of the ceiling, the black ceiling, for a guy like me. And metal kids who were all white could never like hip-hop. Those walls have definitely tumbled. Which paved the way for a band like Rage Against the Machine, which has a multiethnic audience and delivers a political message to fans of Metallica and fans of A Tribe Called Quest.

Brownstein:

Mr. Lady, the Butchies' label, is a women-run and very overtly feminist label that has made a large effort not only to put out interesting, good, political music but also embodies and disseminates many leftist and radical and feminist ideas as a label. And the artists are different and don't follow one kind of political platform. Le Tigre we certainly feel akin to, and Sara Dougher. And then Pearl Jam, specifically I mean Eddie Vedder, who we know. In terms of some of our goals, to use music as a means of really communicating and connecting with people, I definitely feel a kinship with him. And then the Coup--I have only been listening to them for the last year, but it totally floored me when I heard their record.

Vedder:

For me it's more people like Medea Benjamin [the founder of Global Exchange]. I did see Bruce Springsteen in Chicago, and he really eloquently mentioned a couple things at the end of the show about not forgetting that civil rights is still an issue and that as American citizens we have a right to them as well, and we have a right to participate in an open and honest debate about whether or not we're going to send Americans overseas to fight a war.

What's necessary for the politically aware musician now?

Brownstein:

Maybe we need to step outside our houses and go talk to our neighbors and see what they're doing. Go to meetings or actually take a little bit more of a role in our city and state politics. I at least feel that way. It's not just about the personal choices I make; they might make me feel better but may not necessarily be enough right now. That same philosophy makes me want to team up with other like-minded bands that aren't necessarily from the independent community, may not even necessarily be in Portland. I've talked to members of the Coup about playing a show with them and Steve Earle. We've talked about doing some touring with Pearl Jam next year. Establishing connections with people that you feel akin to is really important right now.

Here's the million-dollar question. If you could get one message out to your fans right now, what would it be?

Brownstein:

Oh my God, that's so much responsibility! One message to the people. It just makes you want to quote something horrible. Don't stop thinkin' about tomorrow, people! No, Clinton already used that. I guess I would say that your imagination is a vital tool, and so many things in our culture are there to take the place of your imagination. So have faith in new ideas.

Ray:

What I would say is, there is a connection between nuclear waste, the war in Iraq, and the fact that people need to drive cars that get better mileage. And I hope everybody's going to get really active about this war.

Morello:

You are a historical agent. History is not something that has happened in the past and that is made up of names and dates and places of kings and generals, history is what you make in your home, in your place of work, in the streets, in your community and in the world and your actions--your actions or your inaction is directly affecting the fate of the world that you live in and should be treated with that gravity.

Vedder:

I think everyone should feel that there's power in gathering together and being out in the street. On the day of the Westlake Center peace protest in Seattle, I was out of town. I talked to Tim Robbins, and he and Susan had been down to Central Park that morning and he said it was beautiful, maybe 40,000 people out there. I saw about three seconds of that on CNN. It was Sunday morning, and I'd watched This Week and Face the Nation and I was about ready to take a hammer to my head. So it's such a positive thing to be out there and feel active. It's like Christmas in a way. It feels good.

Riley:

My message? You can do it too.

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