ESSAY—MUSIC & SOCIAL ISSUES
by Tucker Lieberman
Right now, there is a left-wing activist trudging through Boston, Providence, or New York, the streets swollen with winter slush, clenching the honorable staple-gun in one arm and a fistful of black-and-white flyers in another. Why won't they come? she asks herself. She has been asking the question for years—perhaps only months, if a freshman, but it is no less frustrating. Her toes are soaked and icy. She has three neighborhoods to poster before tomorrow's rally, which is likely to be a political event only in name and intention, if turnout is anything like the previous weeks’. Why won't they come? She's re-centered the graphic every which way on the advertisement. She's put out an email buzz. She's accosted businesspeople on the street and students walking to class. Still, the candlelight vigils on Friday night are empty. She pauses, faces the north wind, and sniffs, like a wolf, for the answer. Because, she thinks, the answer is blowin' in the wind.
Now that's an odd thing to say. Where do you suppose she got that idea?
Turnout at anti-war events is low because the general populace does not wish to endure a combination of lectures, chants, and silence. They know that the organizers are probably capable of working themselves up into a self-righteous frenzy, and they don't want to have to spar. If there were a microphone and a skilled guitarist, well, then, when the infomercial got stale, they could raise the volume, light up, and tune out.
Don't get me wrong. I'm proud to swell the ranks of a rally, candlelight vigils calm me down, and I've been known to trail a parade or two. But I was an unusually subdued adolescent. Most young people do not waste their weekends on abstract political agendas, much less on passive, meditative activities. And even I sickened quickly of broken-spirited socialist propaganda, supported by no food, music, or joy when the weather was bleak and the work had been long.
For a while, I was that organizer who wondered why no one showed up to the events to which I was committed. I compared our pitiful turnout to the videos I'd seen from the late 60s. Now, the difference is obvious to me: those people knew how to party. They had music, sex, drugs, sex, fashion, sex, and music. Great music. Original, genuine songs with real human voices and acoustic guitars. My generation, by contrast, feels presented with an either-or choice: we can enjoy ourselves, go to the movies, dance at a club, try to get laid, or we can spend time alone, angry, and shunned, with nothing but a copy of the Little Red Book for company. Music, socializing, kindness, and realness are not seen as compatible with social justice work. I eventually stepped back from the so-called activist scene because I felt it stifled my own development (insisting that I repeat the party line instead of thinking for myself, and deprecating the restorative value of entertainment) and required me to stunt my relationships with my peers (treating them as voices to be evangelized). I had to find space where I could be genuine.
If I were given one wish to fix the problem, I'd wish for more of today's musicians to sing about social issues. Heck, forget "more"—I'd like to hear even one popular peace song on the radio. Because, although a Woodstock-like musical mega-fest could open eyes across the political spectrum, I fear that, were I to have unlimited funds to bring my dream lineup to my hometown, I wouldn't be able to name a single artist I’d like to invite. I'm sure there are interesting artists out there. I'm probably unaware of them because I'm not wrapped in the cutting-edge fan culture—but that's exactly the problem. As an ordinary American 22-year-old who is interested in politics and occasionally turns on FM radio, I ought to be able to name a current song that deals with social issues. I shouldn't have to embark on a research project to discover one.
After some reflection, I recalled that I'd been at a U2 concert in October 2001 in Providence where Bono spoke about ending racism in South Africa and sang their classic song "Pride" about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The band played their new song “New York” to memorialize the victims of September 11 while projecting the scrolling names of thousands of victims. Wrapping himself in an American flag and weeping simultaneously for the victims of terrorism and racism, Bono elicited an unexpected patriotic rise out of the crowd who recognized M.L.K., not Bush, as a true American hero. It was powerful, to say the least, and proved that one can honor and weep for lives cut short while not abandoning the dream of world peace and racial harmony. In our two-party, either-or styles of thinking, we tend to forget that is possible to have multiple agendas and multiple loyalties.
So if I had to name a serious artist, U2 would be up there. But they were stealing hearts all over the world and rocking for social change before I was born. After a quarter of a century, they're still sexy as ever, but I'd just like to be assured that there's a new generation coming up. Where are my contemporaries?
I refuse to believe that no one else is out there singing to change the world. A little research turns up some live ones—for example, a friend tells me that I can keep up with folk music trends on Dick Pleasants' "The Folk Heritage" Saturday afternoons on WGBH AM radio. And I found an excellent interview by Ann Powers that was posted toThe Nation’s website just as I was writing this article. A prominent journalist of the rock scene, and, needless to say, far more knowledgable about music than I, Powers shared my complaint: “as far as countercultural protest music goes, there’s not much on the radar.” She had found that warmed-over Bob Dylan was among the best that the October 2002 protest in Seattle had to offer. Yet her interview with five inspired, hardworking, sincere artists reassured me and provided some names I should know about: Boots Riley of The Coup, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Tom Morello of Audioslave (formerly of Rage Against the Machine), Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney. These established artists spoke of remaining true to their ideals while working within the entertainment industry to ensure that their message reaches as many fans as possible.
They’re out there, lonely and tenacious. Perhaps the reason there aren’t more like them is that today’s musicians are challenged by the distance of over two decades from their legendary inspiration. The 80s was synthesized bubble-gum (don’t get me wrong, I love it, it’s just not enough) and the 90s was a train wreck. During my high school days, the radio promoted a bunch of brats whining about how they just got dumped, how the years are slipping by in a gray haze, and how the mall is no consolation, but of course that doesn't stop them from driving there--which certainly reflected the condition of my fellow suburban high schoolers, but didn't help us transcend it. Exceptions would be Tori Amos’ album “Little Earthquakes” (1992) and Duran Duran’s “Wedding Album” (1993). They sang about how they had been duped by an uncaring society, and they rose up gracefully, with rage and eloquence, and flaunted their resplendent beauty. But the bulk of 90s music seemed to be about cooking breakfast in one’s new apartment and pondering the point of living long enough to finish the song. “Here we are now, entertainers,” and it was so miserable that Kurt Cobain blew his brains out. That was the major music news as I entered high school.
For cheerful lyrics with a message, many of my adult friends have turned to the yearly animated Disney musicals. There’s the environmental and spiritual message of Pocahontas: “You can own the Earth, but still, / all you own is earth until / you can paint with all the colors of the wind.” There’s the classic romance of “Beauty and the Beast,” the wide-eyed fantasy of “Aladdin’s” magic carpet, the crazy dream of “The Little Mermaid,” the life-affirming “Anastasia,” and even the Lion King’s original “Hakuna Metata” (“It means no worries for the rest of your days / It’s our problem-free philosophy.”). I wish that these substantial songs, which deal with issues other than teenage dating, or at least make people smile about something, could make it to mainstream radio without having to go through children’s cartoons first.
The fault may lie, not with the absence of inspired artists, but with the homogenizing force of today’s entertainment industry, where there is increasing pressure for artists to sell out to glitter, gossip, and emptiness. US radio stations are controlled by three or four behemoth corporations. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, the fact is, you hear what they want you to hear. For example, Clear Channel Broadcasting, which owns a tenth of all radio stations in the US, circulated an infamous list of “objectionable” songs to all its member stations after September 11. One look at the list and the reasons suggest themselves: they were too upbeat, too depressing, too critical of America, too eerily prescient. Many were good judgment calls. Others—most notably, John Lennon’s “Imagine”—drew outrage from a cheated audience.
I have my own speculation about why “Imagine” was excluded from broadcasts. Besides the fact that Lennon asks people to visualize world peace and that his voice recalls memories of an antiwar movement (suggestions which bordered on treason in late September 2001), its opening lyrics are “Imagine there’s no heaven / It’s easy if you try / No hell below us / Above us only sky.” This is likely to offend mourners whose primary source of comfort is a belief in universal justice and eternal life. And, because it needled Christians, it threatened the newly established Bush administration. Bush was elected on a platform of faith-based community initiatives, affirming the centrality of Biblical values to American life. "Imagine" affronts the ideologies of Americanism and Christianity, challenging them to become obsolete in the face of greater, deeper, stronger, overarching truths, to imagine a world where everything is different, where we don't need to imagine a hell because there are no jihadis because there are no countries.
Also deemed “objectionable” by Clear Channel was U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which begins, “I can’t believe the news today / I can’t close my eyes and make it go away…How long must we sing this song? … I won’t heed the battle call.” I don’t think Clear Channel, other mega-broadcasters, and the rest of the entertainment industry conspire to take relevant, challenging music off the airwaves, but their actions certainly have that effect. When a few people at the top restrict the already angsty pool of 90s music to a new inbreed that lacks the intellectual equipment and emotional resources to pull itself out of its self-chosen morass, we all begin to lose our perspective and our vision for the future. We begin to forget how good and how powerful music can be. We begin to lose our awareness of the people who are out there saying otherwise.
Now is the time to admit that my interest is not limited to the effectiveness of left-wing propaganda festivals. It extends to the rediscovery of the transformative power of art, of speaking the spirit in different ways, of daring to be a moral agent.
This past month, researchers at Dartmouth College published a study on the section of the brain that identifies familiar tunes and waxes nostalgic when someone hums a few bars. They call it the “rostromedial prefrontal cortex.” It's just above and behind your eyes, where a daisy chain or a beaded crown would be draped. (Which reminds me that, while we’re composing melodies, it wouldn’t hurt to raise some fashion antics, too.) The prefrontal cortex is the most recently evolved part of the human brain. It processes emotion, organizes thoughts, and continues developing throughout an individual’s teenage years. Take it from a scientist, if from no one else: music is a universal element of our psychological development.
When we don’t have music to stir our souls, harsher strategies are attempted. Today, the last day of 2002, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) is trying to hit people over the head with the meaning of “war” as it was understood in the early 70s. He is proposing legislation to re-instate the draft, hoping to recall memories of the days when boys were sent home in boxes, and thereby boost the anti-war movement. I think his strategy will have a small measure of success (though I personally wouldn’t have had the gall to joke around with a death lottery). As protest methods go, burning a draft card is direct, personal, and fun for the whole family. Listening to a lecture about economic sanctions against Iraq will simply never have the same cognitive pull. In any case, right or wrong, amusing or shocking, the story of Rangel’s pro-draft, anti-war tactics would be even more compelling if it found its way into a new American ballad.
The idea of using entertainment to subvert a militant culture is nothing new. Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata in the fifth century BC as a comedic performance piece against an actual contemporary war. In the play, the women are lonely and sexually frustrated because their husbands spend too much time in the army. Lysistrata has the bright idea of unionizing the Athenian women to withhold all sexual services until their men agree to throw down their swords for good. This, of course, brings peace to the land almost immediately. When I first read the play, I noticed the ancient Greek stereotypes of women as incontinent, underhanded, and manipulative. But there is an even more important lesson: lust is one of the most powerful forces on this earth, often stronger than rage, racism, and violence. If young soldiers perceive combat as glamorous, sexy, and romanticized, that’s an important factor that contributes to militarism. On the other hand, if they perceive the nonviolent activist community as the sexier of the two groups, the peace movement will snowball faster than the organizers can contain it. Of course, the fact that one movement is perceived as sexier than the other does not make it truer or better. I’m just pointing out a marketing technique. All I ask is that we not forget Lysistrata’s 2400-year-old stroke of genius: sex sells, even and especially in wartime.
Passion, friends, and good times are where young people’s energy typically lies. That’s what the peace activists these days haven’t yet realized. They’ve forgotten the bawdy song that Lysistrata belted over the ocean, how ripe it was with self-definition and sincerity, and how good it sounded to the men who had buried themselves in a cheerless mission to overtake the world. The recipe is simple. Give the Americans a beat to grind to, and the lyrics will wiggle into their prefrontal cortices, and ultimately find a way into their hearts. That may not be enough to save the world. But it honors our scientifically- and historically-defined human nature and develops our human sensibilities. As I see it, a few good tunes would a fine place to start integrating our beliefs with our culture.
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