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I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning

03/22/2006 | Yahoo.com | www.yahoo.com | Live Show Preview
On Monday night, a bunch of Nation interns and I hit up the Bring Em Home Now Concert at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom. It was, I suppose, the first real protest concert I had ever attended, and headliners included REM's Michael Stipe, Bright Eyes, and Rufus Wainwright.

I had a great time--mainly because the music was so good--but I couldn't shake the feeling that the affair felt somewhat inauthentic, that it was lacking something. I think the missing ingredient, ultimately, was really good protest music. Like I said, the music was good, but for the most part, it wasn't good protest music. With the exception of Bright Eyes' Connor Oberst (after hearing him perform "When The President Talks to God" it really is impossible not to compare him to a young Bob Dylan), most of the music was either entirely apolitical, vaguely political, or political yet fundamentally lacking in immediacy and passion.

To me, a truly great protest song combines outrage, hopefulness, urgency and poetry; it captures the historical moment and pulsates with the frenetic energy of political crisis, but resonates with timeless artistry. The man who wrote the great protest song of my generation-- Chuck D of Public Enemy-- actually came out on stage, but sadly, introduced another artist rather than perform his seminal "Fight the Power."

Other than Eminem's "Mosh," which I once wrote about here, no recent protest song has moved me in the way that the songs of my parents' generation have. I'm still waiting for the next great protest song, and I really do believe that the antiwar movement-- or at least the younger faction of it-- needs good protest music to sustain it.

A while back, I asked a bunch of folks in the progressive community what their favorite protest song is. I got a few responses. Al Franken said "We Shall Overcome," Molly Ivins' favorite was an Irish folk song named "The Ballad of Kevin Barry," and David Crosby's choice was Billie Holiday's version of "Strange Fruit." Pete Seeger told me his was "Yankee Doodle Dandy," and Studs Terkel said it was Frank Warner's "Grasshoppers Arise" ("It's about guerilla fighters in the American Revolutionary War defending their homes against the Red Coats. It doesn't really apply today, but the analogy was so stark during the Vietnam Era," he told me).

Norman Mailer responded: "Not a song, but some old-time Brooklyn Doggerel:

Why should the masses Kiss the asses Of the wealthy... It ain't healthy"

And Air America's CEO Danny Goldberg wrote: "Elvis Costello's rendition of Nick Lowe's song 'What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding.' Although it may have been intended ironically, the actual recording, to me, harnesses the moral authority of eighties punk anger to the best sixties values. It is the definitive refutation of cynicism. Hearing it always makes me smile and feel a little stronger in my beliefs."

What's your favorite protest song?


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