There may never be another Bob Dylan. But there will always be protest music of the sort that first endeared Dylan to a mass audience, and that confirmed the power of song to move not just a generation but a nation. Dylan was not the first protest singer; indeed, a good deal of his early Dust Bowl-poet persona derived from Woody Guthrie. And as his more overtly political compatriot Phil Ochs noted in the mid-1960s, Dylan was never comfortable in any movement, a fact that eventually led him to shed his topical-songwriter trappings to become the mythical character that Richard Goldstein examines on page 11. But the artful approach to political songwriting that Dylan pioneered remains an inspiration to today’s musicians. And what they sing and say still matters, as the first skirmish of the Iraq War–the frontal assault on the dissenting Dixie Chicks after their lead singer criticized George W. Bush–confirmed.
As the devastation escalated, so did the music. Green Day’s album American Idiot, a roaring pop-punk assault on the “redneck agenda” and the warped discourse of post-9/11 America, went to Number 1 on the charts, won a Grammy in 2005 for Best Rock Album and has sold more than 5 million copies. Hip-hop star Kanye West telescoped frustration with the White House’s dawdling response to Hurricane Katrina when he told a national television audience, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” On his CDs West has been equally fierce, sarcastically suggesting on his 2005 song “Crack Music” that if anyone’s still got questions about Saddam Hussein’s supposed chemical weapons stash, “George Bush got the answer.”
Now, as Bush’s chart position sinks, he’s getting even worse reviews. Pearl Jam’s new single, “World Wide Suicide,” the story of a mother mourning a son killed in battle because his was a life “the President took for granted,” tops Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. Bruce Springsteen has recorded a rollicking tribute to protest songs by the country’s most famous folk singer in a new album, The Seeger Sessions: We Shall Overcome. Moby and REM’s Michael Stipe just headlined an antiwar “Bring ‘Em Home Now” concert, and the Dixie Chicks are letting Bush know they’re not backing down, with their new single, “Not Ready to Make Nice.” The extent to which Bush’s fortunes have turned may be summed up by the news that pop singer Pink, who began the Bush era promising to “Get the Party Started,” is ending it with a sobering lament, “Dear Mr. President,” that savages Bush’s stances on gay rights, the minimum wage and the war. Hitting even harder is veteran rocker Neil Young, whose post-9/11 song “Let’s Roll” was heard by some as a call for war. Young clarifies things on his new CD, Living With War. With a track titled “Let’s Impeach the President,” it won’t feature on George Bush’s iPod.
But others in Washington are hearing the power chords. For years, Justin Sane, lead singer of the political punk band Anti-Flag, said it was “left to artists to make the statements that should be getting put into the public discourse.” But Anti-Flag is no longer shouting from the sidelines. The band’s new CD, For Blood and Empire, features the song “Depleted Uranium Is a War Crime.” It was inspired by an appearance at a 2004 Punk Voter rally in Seattle with Representative Jim McDermott, a Vietnam-era vet who has introduced legislation calling for an investigation of the military’s use of DU. McDermott is on the CD, and the band is spearheading a drive to get Congress to act on the bill.
Come to think of it, if a 69-year-old Congressman is heeding the call of a punk band, maybe it’s time to recognize that, with prodding from outspoken and courageous musicians, the Bush order is rapidly fading and the times, again, are a-changin’.