Prick Up Your Ears
How does a fiercely anticorporate musician feel about participating in a corporate entertainment system? "Rage Against the Machine was able to deliver 15 million subversive pieces of plastic across the globe," responds former Rage guitarist Tom Morello, in the forum convened by rock critic Ann Powers that begins on page 11. The contradictions, tensions and political and artistic ferment that persist in today's popular music scene are the subject of this special issue, which observes the oft-surprising results when politics and music collide--whether in a mass of grooving Le Tigre fans, amid a tattooed throng of antiabortion Christian punks or in the gold-trimmed Manhattan suite of hip-hop-mogul-turned-reparations-activist Russell Simmons.
While these political currents may not always run in our direction, savvy left-leaning artists are busy reinventing the protest music tradition, often beneath the radar. It's easy to assume that rap, for example, has been given over to "cocaine-cooking, cartoon-watching, gold-rims-coveting and death-worshiping," as Jeff Chang writes in his essay here. Listen a little harder, though, and you'll hear artists in the conscious-rap and neosoul genres who are taking seriously the hip-hop generation's cliché of "keeping it real," being true to one's roots of struggle. While such a commitment may not always require a wholesale rejection of the corporate music world, there are those who continue in that still- righteous punk tradition, exemplified by the cultural project known as Punk Planet, profiled by Ivan Kreilkamp on page 25.
That edgy, countercultural music continues to be made is testament to the spirit of the artists (and the appetite of the fans), who are often at odds with their industry patrons. Indeed, much of this music may never reach your ears. Radio today is more corporate, more conglomerated and more corrupt than at any time in history, as Jenny Toomey discusses on page 28. Waves of deregulation that started in the 1980s and accelerated with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act have made it possible for one corporation to buy as many as eight radio stations in a single market. And in payola-like schemes, the "Big Five" music companies, through third-party promoters, shell out thousands of dollars per song to radio conglomerates in order to insure big hits. Instead of moving to right these wrongs, the FCC, under chairman Michael Powell, is looking for new ways to loosen the rules. But at least one member of Congress is fighting back: Senator Russ Feingold's Competition in Radio and Concert Industries Act would, among other things, crack down on pay-for-play deals and force an examination of the impact that consolidation of radio ownership has had on culture in America.
The effects of consolidation and deregulation in the music industry are invisible to many, but that's the point. Without our consent, choice--at the megastore, on the air, in the concert hall--is being dictated by the big companies that manage music. To be sure, they're still promoting a number of inspired, socially conscious artists--like Bruce Springsteen, Natalie Merchant and Mos Def, in addition to those featured here--and if you turn up the volume, you may hear the politics. With this issue, you'll know where to listen--inside and outside the industry.