More than six years into the presidency of arguably the most polarizing leader in U.S. history, and four grindingly long years into the second-least-popular American war ever, a wave of musicians is finally speaking — or at least singing — up.
How quiet they had been. With few exceptions — the Dixie Chicks' refusal to "shut up and sing" in 2003 and willingness to pay for it by losing their largely red-state fan base, and Green Day's tour de force American Idiot, which was either about a disaffected teen or man in the White House operating with messianic purpose — the music community had been largely silent about George W. Bush, effectively giving the president and his policies — including the Iraq War — a pop pass.
Of course, without a concerted mass protest movement against the war, the rise of any significant amount of protest music was never likely. And where was it gonna come from? Certainly not pop or R&B. Hip-hop? The genre seems to have drifted from the voice that Public Enemy's Chuck D once called the "CNN of the streets."
So that left the old standby: rock. Today, it's as fractured and as embattled as it's ever been, and it hasn't been given to political commentary. The emo dudes (the Wentzes and Ways of the world) can summon plenty of angst, but generally don't look past their own navels to the wider world; so-called "mainstream rock" (Nickelback, the Fray, the Chili Peppers, etc.) didn't seem to be interested; the U.K.'s arena men (Coldplay, Snow Patrol, etc.) served more as musical balms than rabble rousers; and as erudite as many of them are, indie rockers were mostly addressing other concerns — definitely not the war or its architects.
Well, no more! At least not judging by the flurry of albums that have come out in the first half of 2007. From Arcade Fire, Sum 41, Bright Eyes, Smashing Pumpkins ... the voices and the lyrics — some literal and pointed, some far more subtle — run the gamut, but the overall message seems clear, and it ain't pretty.
"I think it's great for anyone to become more aware of those ideas and, if they're compelled to, share them with their audience," Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst said.
And yes, they are sharing. From Arcade Fire's "Intervention" ("No place to hide/ You were fighting as a soldier on their side/ You're still a soldier in your mind/ Though nothing's on the line") to Rufus Wainwright's searing "Going to Town" ("You took advantage of a world that loved you well/ I'm going to a town that has already been burned down/ I'm so tired of you, America") to Sum 41's remarkably blunt "March of the Dogs" ("Ladies and gentlemen of the underclass/ The President of the United States of America/Is dead!"), tongues have been unleashed up and down your radio dial (or all over your iTunes — pick your poison). The lyrics seem to echo a growing majority of public opinion, but while the origin seems clear, the timing — and why it all took so long — is a bit harder to pin down.
"Not many bands today are speaking their minds on issues", Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington told MTV News. "We've been noticing some things that we're not too stoked on and we feel like we're at a place now where we can speak out about it."
Some artists say they've been speaking their minds all along, but the message may have been lost until now. "As for me, I felt really, extremely angry and frightened and crazy over it a few years ago," Oberst said. "I think that's when I was writing the most overt songs about it. Now I've sort of reached a point of overload, where I just didn't want to think about it anymore, which I guess is sort of chicken shit."
Perhaps. Even Sum frontman Deryck Whibley backpedaled on the "the President of the United States of America is dead" thing, telling MTV News' James Montgomery that the lyrics are "a metaphor" for how "ineffectual and incompetent" Bush is as a president. Whibley also insisted the upcoming Sum 41 album Underclass Hero would not be a "political record"
But if Whibley won't go there, plenty of others have. You'd be hard pressed to find a more "political record" than Year Zero from Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor traded in angst for social commentary, drumming up a bleak look at where America is — and, sadly, where it could be 15 years from now. You'd be hard pressed to find a darker record out there. "I got my propaganda/ I got revisionism/ I got my violence/ In hi-def ultra-realism/ All a part of this great nation/ I got my fist/ I got my plan/ I got survivalism," he howls on "Survivalism." Later, on "Capital G," he sings, "Well I used to stand for something/ Now I'm on my hands and knees/ Turning in the god of this war/ And he signs his name with a capital G"
The man who "signs his name with a capital G" also takes some knocks from a less expected place than Reznor: some former purveyors of nu-metal who've found a newly political voice. Linkin Park have never been viewed as a political band, but on the Mike Shinoda-penned track "Hands Held High," the band definitely goes there (see "Linkin Park's Minutes To Midnight Preview: Nu-Metallers Grow Up" and "Could Linkin Park, Green Day, Nine Inch Nails Be The Next U2?"). "For a leader so nervous in an obvious way/ Stuttering and mumbling for nightly news to replay/And the rest of the world watching at the end of the day/ In the living room, laughing, like, 'What did he say?' " Elsewhere on their latest, Minutes to Midnight, the band remembers the victims of Hurricane Katrina and takes aim at the government that failed to help.
At the same time, Bennington adds, the band will only go so far: observation, yes; incitement, no. "That was a difficult process with these particular songs because ... we don't want to preach, you know?" he said. "We just want to kind of speak our minds without telling you what to do." But there is no mistaking the origin of Linkin Park's new album title. Minutes to Midnight is a reference to the Doomsday Clock, the theoretical clock that portends the possibility of nuclear armageddon.
And they aren't the only ones watching the clock. Smashing Pumpkins finally returns to us with the appropriately titled "Doomsday Clock" ("Is everyone afraid? Is everyone ashamed?/ Apocalyptic scream, they're bound to kill us all"). Main Pumpkin Bill Corgan isn't doing interviews for the upcoming Zeitgeist, preferring to let the music "speak for itself," we're told, and with tracks like "For God and Country" and the 10-minute epic "United States" ("I don't know what I believe/ But if I feel safe, what do I need?/ Revolution! Revolution!"), the music is speaking loud and clear.
The parade doesn't end there. Montreal's Arcade Fire returned in March with another album full of urgent, exuberant rock — only this time, as the twisted title Neon Bible suggests — they took their megaphones in a darker direction, one more informed by that uniquely American place where God, guns and gall intersect ("Don't wanna live in my father's house no more/ Don't wanna fight in a holy war/ Don't want the salesmen knocking at my door/ I don't wanna live in America no more," the band sings on "Windowsill").
And, of course, there is Bright Eyes. Oberst has been raising his voice and growing more politically indignant (about the state of the world and particularly about the Bush administration) since 2000 (see "Bright Eyes Slam 'Off-The-Leash Administration'; Give Details On New Albums"). He drew praise — and a degree of outrage — when he performed the vitriolic "When the President Talks to God" on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" in 2005 (moral of the story: know your audience). He tells us that his latest, Cassadaga, is less "overtly political," saying its essence is "just sort of trying to make peace with everything, to be comfortable in your own skin."
Still, there are undoubtedly political themes throughout. He concedes politics is "always in the background" and "hard to escape completely." And Oberst does manage to come up with at least one incendiary couplet on "Four Winds": "The Bible's blind, the Torah's deaf, the Koran's mute/ If you burned them all together, you'd get close to the truth."
Them's fatwa words, son. Was Oberst not at all hesitant to go there, in a world where a cartoonist can be a marked man for offending religious sensibilities? Apparently not. "I guess I didn't think about it too much," he said. "I haven't really gotten much angry feedback or anything." And, while he says he means no disrespect to anyone's faith, he makes no apologies for the lyric. "For me, religion is ... if it enhances your life and it's something that, you know, gives you compassion or comfort or makes you empathetic toward other people or anything which religion should do in its pure form, then I think it's great. But it's hard not to look historically and just not think that it is the worst thing to ever happen to the human race. It really is."
Amid all of this, we also get the return of Rage Against the Machine, hardly a coincidence. But where were they during most of Bush's time in office? Squabbling? Not speaking to each other, when their powerful voice of dissent would seem to be just what the times called for? For that matter, where was anyone in music who thought this country was headed in the wrong direction? Clearly, Rage hopes to make up for lost time, telling the crowd at Coachella, "Our current administration needs to be tried, hung and shot. We need to treat them like the war criminals they are"
Alrighty then. But will it any of this incite revolution? Not likely. This remains a nation of CD burners, not flag burners. As for Iraq, "surge" or no "surge," there is no end in sight. As the Florida punk rockers Against Me! point out in "White People for Peace" — a new song that the band says celebrates the nobility and futility of protesting war — "protest songs in a response to military aggression/ Protest songs to try and stop the soldier's gun/ But the battle raged on."
But neither is there any reason to think the protest lyrics will let up any time soon. You'd hate to think these artists simply waited until public opinion — in opposition to the war and to the Bush presidency in general — was overwhelmingly on their side. Whatever the reason, the flood gates seem to have opened. Better late than never, I guess. The march of the dogs as the doomsday clock counts down the minutes to midnight and year zero, and it's kill or be killed. It's coming, so keep the car runnin'.
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