Signs of Our Times
Mark Redfern, editor and publisher of LA-based indie rock magazine Under the Radar, has struck upon a way of making the commodification of dissent a good thing. Beginning today, October 1, and running for one week, Redfern's three-year-old, self-owned quarterly--which boasts a respectable print run of 17,000--will be sponsoring an eBay auction of protest signs lettered and signed by some of indie rock's most notable names--Death Cab for Cutie, Interpol, the Fiery Furnaces, Ted Leo and a bunch of others--with all proceeds going to the nonprofit youth voter mobilization group Music for America. (You can access the auction through Under the Radar's website, at www.undertheradarmag.com.)
The idea of photographing artists with their own signs came out of planning a themed "Protest Issue" of Under the Radar (available now on newsstands and through the magazine's website). "I'm not the kind of person who would go out to a protest rally and hold up a sign," explains Redfern, "but I do have strong opinions." He and his girlfriend Wendy Lynch (co-publisher and chief photographer for the magazine) decided that if they weren't going to hit the streets, they could at least hit the newsstands. "We thought, why not channel all the work and energy we put into the magazine into reaching out?"
The result is a colorful and thoughtful issue devoted to examining the intersection of rock music and politics. Many of the artists featured speak frankly and at length about how they perceive what's happening in America today; Yoko Ono talked to the magazine about gay marriage, and a list of indie musicians too long to list here gave quotes for a long piece called "The American Perspective." (For you purists, there's also a history of protest music starting with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger that moves through Woodstock, the mid-1970s New York rock scene and the punk explosion.)
Still, the real treats of this issue are the photographs. The lengthy section on protest opens with a shot of the Uma Thurman-esque Emily Haines from the band Metric snuggled in a puffy down comforter with a sign reading "Bed Peace" just above her head; the next page features veteran Detroit rockers MC5 with their red and black graphic placards (one of which is a quite well done hammer and sickle).
Most of the signs, however, feature contemporary slogans--some familiar, all straightforward and others terrifically witty. Death Cab for Cutie did three signs for the shoot: "Speed the Collapse," "Dissolve the Senate" and, riffing off the band The Thermals, "Pray for Information." (A helpful sidebar explains the provenance of each slogan.) Ted Leo holds a white poster reading, simply, "Not Insured." Cursive, a band that's been touring like crazy and worked earlier this year with Plea for Peace, pleads on two signs, "Vote You Apathetic Fuckers!" and "Vote Often!" Bright Eyes also offered two contributions, declaring: "We Want a President Who Can Read" and "$eparation of Corporation & State."
Redfern says that putting the issue together was a little "hard to maneuver." Some artists didn't dig the idea, and some publicists were against it. Other bands thought they weren't educated enough to contribute; still others were afraid to alienate fans. Although Interpol graces the cover of the issue, holding a placard reading "The Protest Issue," only three of its four members participated in the sign-making; bassist Carlos Dengler proclaims in the article accompanying the band's photo spread, "Our involvement in this piece pisses me off! I guess because I take holding signs as kind of cheesy for a band to do."
Denger has a point. One can certainly surmise that selling protest on eBay is not only weird and impure, but totally anti-indie rock. (One poster by UK band Hope of the States featured in the issue reads "Fuck E-bay.") Yet Redfern's idea will undoubtedly do more good than harm, as it benefits the bands, the magazine, Music for America and, especially, the fans, who might just learn a thing or two from The Protest Issue. A sign made by veteran musician and protester Richie Havens implores young people, "Be the change you want to see." Has anyone put it better yet?