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Where did all the protest songs go?

interior-nowar This article was published in the Guardian on June 23, 2006

Neil Young’s latest album, Living With War, was supposed to be more than a collection of protest songs. To optimistic critics of the occupation of Iraq, it heralded tipping point – the moment when America’s silent majority would finally make itself heard. One month on, as the album slides down the charts and George Bush’s approval ratings climb steadily off the floor, the disappointment is deafening.

Impeach The President is not the anthem the anti-war movement has been waiting for, and Young cannot be the figurehead it needs. His proud record of conscientious objection has earned him unwaveringly loyal fans, but it also makes him an easy target, readily dismissed by neo-cons as an ageing Canadian hippie and a counter-cultural burn-out. In the USA’s overheated climate of public opinion it is mud that sticks.

“I was waiting for someone to come along, some young singer to write these songs and stand up,” Young told The Los Angeles Times. “I waited a long time. Then I decided that maybe the generation that has to do this is still the sixties generation.” The songs will be played live for the first time next month, by original longhairs CSNY.

The first names on the sheet for any American peace concert are musicians whose worldview was shaped by the Vietnam war. Wayne Kramer, Steve Earle, Chuck D and Jello Biafra are all old enough to have been affected by the conflict, if mostly too young to be drafted. When Michael Stipe headlined the recent Bring Them Home Now gig in New York, he told the crowd how his father served in Korea and Vietnam while he was a child, and spoke of registering for the draft himself under President Carter.

The younger bands campaigning against the war are mostly declared socialists such as System Of A Down and Anti-Flag, so virulent in their opposition to the Bush government that they stand little chance of appealing to moderate America. Others, like Devendra Banhart, are at the margins, too obscure to harness the media’s mobilising power. Banhart sings his protest song Heard Somebody Say at every opportunity, but admits that the refrain of “It’s simple, we don’t want to kill” is preaching to the converted.

“Neil Young doesn’t count,” he says, “he’s a singular poet, one of the greats. He has a very secure fanbase, but they’re people who grew up listening to Ohio and know what he’s referencing in that song.

“There aren’t a lot of young musicians involved from the mainstream machine, and those that have opposed the murder of innocent people have done it in a casual way, a nonchalant way, in a whispered way, and that to me doesn’t mean shit.

“I feel it’s just a strategy to appease the larger and larger amount of people that are beginning to oppose this. They’re not prepared to write a blatant song. So I don’t feel like it’s coming from a genuine place. People hint that they’re against it but I don’t hear it in their songs.”

The exception to this rule, among artists capable of inspiring thousands of young people to activism, is When The President Talks To God, by Bright Eyes, in which Conor Oberst wonders “Does he ask to rape our women’s rights and send poor farm kids off to die?” But Oberst himself is a reluctant spokesman, perhaps mindful of the ‘new Dylan’ tag he has sometimes unwillingly laboured under. He rarely makes any kind of statement in public and at the Bring Them Home Now event literally ran away from journalists requesting an interview. His set that night, powerful though it was, contained nothing more rousing than “we all know why we’re here” by way of spoken affirmation.

Adam Eidinger organised last September’s Operation Ceasefire concert in Washington. “One of the weaknesses of the anti-war movement is that the youth are not leading the charge,” he says, “The main groups are still made up of people who opposed the Vietnam war, and the music reflects that. The fact is that folk music just isn’t popular any more.” His partner, Scott Goodstein, agrees: “A lot of the leaders of the anti-war movement are my grandparents age. They want to return to the music that motivated them, but that’s not going to encourage kids to take to the streets.”

Operation Ceasefire’s line-up reflected this concern, balancing veteran campaigners Joan Baez, Steve Earle and Wayne Kramer with radical hip-hop group The Coup and Marxist punks Anti-Flag. By the time headliners Thievery Corporation performed, 150,000 people had gathered by the Washington Monument, making it the largest event of its kind since the invasion of Iraq.

To put that number in perspective, this April more than two million people marched against proposed new immigration laws, including 500,000 in Los Angeles alone. But Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra, the host of Operation Ceasefire, rejects the accusation that the anti-war movement is failing to mobilise its supporters.

He says: “People with long memories like Noam Chomsky point out that it’s a lot larger and a lot stronger and a lot more organised than it was in the same time period after Lyndon Johnson went crazy with the Vietnam war. It has a ways to go in bringing the troops home, but every bit of hammering against the war helps.”

Any comparison with the mass protests of the mid 1960s must allow for two key differences. The first is the level of pre-war opposition, virtually non-existent while Kennedy lived and in the early years of Johnson’s presidency. In the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, millions of people took part in demonstrations worldwide and a scores of musicians spoke out, including rappers P Diddy and Jay-Z, rock legends Lou Reed, David Bowie and David Byrne and a younger British contingent led by Damon Albarn and Thom Yorke. Three years on, that energy has dissipated.

“There’s definitely been a numbing,” says Devendra Banhart, “without a doubt there’s been a feeling of being reduced to a tick – a tick that’s being flicked off by what we feel is this gargantuan beast that we stand no chance against. If that’s the mentality then there won’t be any change.”

The last significant burst of energy occurred in the autumn of 2004, prior to Bush’s re-election, when tens of thousands of people in swing states came to hear R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam on the Vote For Change tour. That the shows merely demonstrated the impotence of these American idols to bring about meaningful political change was a major setback.

Country dissident Steve Earle says: “So many people were involved in the ‘Vote For Change’ movement and we’re trying to keep them, because we’re experienced, we’ve had our hearts broken already. But it’s hard to keep them when they’ve put in so much effort and taken so much shit and failed.” MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer agrees. “I think there’s a hardness and a cynicism in the air,” he says, “and anyway, this guy’s only got two more years… his time is over, so everyone’s just staying at home and licking their wounds.”

The second crucial distinction to be made between the anti-war movements of 1966 and 2006 is, of course, the draft itself, something Kramer experienced first-hand. “I don’t think that most people really care that much about the war,” he argues, “this war does not touch people in their hearts, in their stomachs… Vietnam did touch people where they lived, because it touched every young man in America. It was mandatory, it was the law of the land, and it touched ya.”

The burning of draft cards remains one of the defining images of an era characterised by comparatively independent news reporting, at home and at war. In 1968 CBS anchor Walter Cronkite told viewers that “the bloody experience of Vietnam is [likely] to end in a stalemate.” LBJ famously responded “That’s it. If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.” In the age of embedded journalists and Fox News, Bush and his supporters have no such worries.

“I don’t think preaching to the converted is such a bad thing right now,” argues Jello Biafra, “We are under constant assault by a corporate-controlled, heavily-censored mass media that is biased to the right wing in the extreme… it’s important that people feel they’re not alone.”

The Bush administration’s response to its critics in the entertainment industry has been to portray them as pampered liberals out of touch with ordinary Americans. “The idea that artists are not qualified to comment is a new one,” observes Steve Earle, “I think Dick Cheney made it up. They’ve tried really hard to discredit the idea of artists commenting, the archetype being the Hollywood liberal. Richard Gere was absolutely ridiculed by Republicans when he opposed the war.”

Nonetheless, music’s coalition of the unwilling is growing. It is now more than three years since the infamous Dixie Chicks remark at Shepherds Bush Empire. In that time public opinion has shifted enough to suggest that performers can safely criticise the government without fear of harming their careers. Dolly Parton’s live show now features a medley of protest songs, Jessica Simpson came back from her trip to Iraq a confirmed pacifist, and Pink’s latest album contains a broadside called Dear Mr President. The death threats and radio bans of 2003 have been conspicuous by their absence.

Much of this showbiz dissent has been of the cryptic, non-committal variety that Devendra Banhart derides, but Jello Biafra welcomes every new pop convert. He says: “There’s been criticism that some of the people now taking stands against the war are just hopping on a bandwagon and I say ‘why not?’. I’d rather have Sheryl Crow protesting the war than have to listen to her music, but I’d even put up with her music if it’d help stop the war. If it would help stop the war and bring down the Bush dictatorship I’d go on tour with Britney Spears tomorrow.”

One day Christina Aguilera will release a cover of Dylan’s Masters Of War, Justin Timberlake will perform I Ain’t Marching Anymore on primetime television and millions of average Americans will descend on the White House, demanding an end to the bloodshed. Until then the musicians of the anti-war movement will keep up their unglamorous grassroots work, mobilising teenagers in small groups to resist military recruitment, highlighting the dangers of depleted uranium, slowly chipping away at support for the government’s foreign policy.

Wayne Kramer knows from experience that it will be a long haul. He says: “The way these kind of social justice issues come to fruition is by fighting and losing, and fighting and losing, and fighting and losing, and then winning, and then you go back to fight and lose.”