Mixing Desk

Pop Goes Politics

Is the new protest music any good?

For years, critics have complained about American pop music’s indifference to politics. In the 1990s, apathy seemed pervasive: Grunge rockers turned protest music inward, lashing out at those domestic oppressors, Mom and Dad; hip-hop’s erstwhile black nationalist firebrands started rapping about their jewelry. With a booming peacetime economy and a libertine in the White House, what was there to get angry about?

It was left to George W. Bush to revive pop’s political conscience. America is now experiencing its biggest wave of protest music in decades. But is the new politicized pop any good? Are the best political songs prescriptive, or merely provocative? Do they stand on their own as music, or when the preaching begins, does the art suffer? Slate’s survey of a handful of new songs looks at the pleasures and perils of engagé pop.

Jadakiss featuring Nas, Common, and Styles P
“Why? (Remix),” Ruff Ryders
Click here to listen to “Why? (Remix).”“Why?,” the hit single by the powerhouse MC Jadakiss, is pure provocation—a song in the grand tradition of “Anarchy in the UK” and “Fuck tha Police.” It aims not so much to raise consciousness as to raise hackles, and it’s worked: The original version, released earlier this year, scandalized Bill O’Reilly by asking, “Why did Bush knock down the Towers?” On the new remix, Jadakiss and three guest rappers channel the spirit of Public Enemy, reeling off a stirring and topical string of rhetorical questions—scorning the Democratic Party’s habit of taking the black vote for granted, decrying what they see as a backdoor military draft, asking why “the country ain’t flip when they jerked the votes” in the 2000 election. Jadakiss and Nas are hip-hop’s mightiest rhymers, but the normally stolid Common has the song’s best couplet: “Why is Bush acting like he’s trying to get Osama?/ Why don’t we impeach him and elect Obama?”

Eric Idle
“The FCC Song,” available
online Click here to listen to “The FCC Song.”Is comedy the new protest music? From the Onion to The Daily Show, from politically themed ’zines and comix to Internet flash-art parodies, the George W. Bush era may well be remembered as the time when satirists nudged aside pop musicians to become the left’s heroic provocateurs. Monty Python’s Eric Idle has been making jokes (and jokey music) for decades, and his sprightly little music hall tune, “The FCC Song,” is a good one. “Here’s a little number I wrote … while out duck-hunting with a judge,” he announces, and proceeds to sweetly sing “fuck you very much” to a who’s who of bêtes noires: Bush, Ashcroft, Cheney (“a pasty-faced old fart”), Rice (“an intellectual tart”), Schwarzenegger, Limbaugh. The song holds a lesson for all those protest singers who express high dudgeon with high seriousness: You land a lot of punches when you keep the music jaunty and tongue-in-cheek.

Various Artists Rock Against Bush, Volumes 1 and 2, Fat Wreck Chords Click here to listen to “Favorite Son,” and here to listen to “Moron.”The punk bands on the two Rock Against Bush compilations owe Dubya a debt of thanks: He’s given them a subject matter to match their sound. For their entire careers, groups like Green Day and Sum 41 have played a kind of cartoon music that mimicked the squall and fury of English punk circa 1977 (phony East End accents and all) but said nothing at all. Green Day’s “Favorite Son” and Sum 41’s “Moron” are paint-by-numbers punk-pop (choose four chords, click the distortion pedal, blast-off), and their lyrics are not discernibly Bush-specific. But after years of screaming themselves hoarse, punk-poppers, infuriated by the war in Iraq, have found the content to match their noisy form. *

Various Artists
“Wake Up Everybody,” Bungalo
Click here to listen to “Wake Up Everybody.”Supergroup benefit singles have an ignoble history, but this all-star remake of Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’$2 1976 Philly soul classic is no “We Are the World.” Instead, it’s a terrific, schlock-free record that deserves to climb the charts. Producer Babyface corralled a hip-hop/R&B all-star team—including Mary J. Blige, Ashanti, Musiq, Eve, Wyclef Jean, Jadakiss, Fabolous, and a melisma-crazed Brandy—who give the original a slick makeover, adding rapped interludes, a bit of Jamaican-style toasting, and the inevitable gospel choir singalong. But does “Wake Up Everybody,” a get-out-the-vote benefit for the anti-Bush group America Coming Together, succeed as a polemic? Its message is a bit convoluted—Jadakiss wears a Ronald Reagan T-shirt in the video. And in the year of fire-breathing Zell Miller, its generically “uplifting” lyrics (“Wake up all the teachers/ Time to teach a new way”) may not cut it. Count on the great Missy Elliot to bring some focus to the proceedings. She arrives nearly three minutes in, riding a monster Timbaland beat, and stylishly slurs her way through 12 bars, injecting a spiky partisan note: “Listen to me like you listen to Fern-heit 9/11.”

Various Artists Lullabies From the Axis of Evil, Kirkelig Kulturverksted Click here to listen to “Dielol,” and here to listen to “Stars Are Rising.”Sometimes the most powerful protest music is not overtly political. Take this collection of lullabies from Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and several other of the Bush adminstration’s Least Favored Nations. The project was the brainchild of a Norwegian record producer, Erik Hillestad, who sought to bridge the geopolitical divide by pairing the indigenous lullaby singers with western counterparts. The results are gorgeous: Amel Kthyer and Halla Bassam’s “Dielol” is a gentle Iraqi tune whose minor chords and wavering vocal line are vaguely reminiscent of flamenco; South Korea’s Sun Ju Lee and Scotland’s Eddi Reader find common ground between fluttering Asian and Celtic melodies in “Stars Are Rising.” While the songs make no mention of world events, the record’s message is unmistakable, offering, in the sound of hushed female voices, a forceful reply to Bush’s Sturm und Drang.

Trans Am Liberation, Thrill Jockey Click here to listen to “Total Information Awareness,” here to listen to “Spike in the Chatter,” and here to listen to “Uninvited Guest.”War on Terror catchphrases like “Total Information Awareness” and “Spike in the Chatter” sound like song titles in search of creepy music, and Washington, D.C.,-based Trans Am delivers just that on this suitably dystopian soundtrack. But there’s only so much a mostly instrumental neo-prog rock band can say. Whether droning “Security … Technology” over power chords in a vocoder robot voice, or layering samples of Arab journalists describing bombing runs on Baghdad atop clattering canned beats, Trans Am’s message is the same: That George Bush sure is a scary warmonger. Liberation’s most satisfying variation on this banal theme is “Uninvited Guest.” The song stitches together bits of Bush’s speeches (“Our commitment to weapons of mass destruction is America’s tradition,” says the president to roaring applause) and plays them over an eerie Afrika Bambaataa-style synthesizer riff.

Tom Waits Real Gone, forthcoming from Anti Click here to listen to “Day After Tomorrow.”Surprisingly, the year’s best antiwar number is delivered by Tom Waits, who’s usually too busy following his muse into musical wilds to bother with current events. “Day After Tomorrow,” a ballad in Waits’ three-hankie style, tells the story of a 21-year-old soldier pining for home; it might have been written about any war, in any historical period. It’s this feeling of timelessness—a hallmark of Waits’ work, which has always owed as much to Stephen Foster as to any other songwriter—that gives the song its power. “Day After Tomorrow” has a spare, ambling guitar-bass-and-voice arrangement and just a few chord changes, and it’s packed with poetic details that ring true. “What I miss you won’t believe,” Waits croaks, “Shoveling snow and raking leaves.”

Steve Earle The Revolution Starts … Now, Artemis Click here to listen to “F the CC,” here to listen to “Home to Houston,” and here to listen to “Rich Man’s War.”This new album by alt-country’s star lefty was written and recorded quickly, in a fit of election-year pique. It sounds it. The record has a pleasingly ragged feel—mixing garage rock snarl and down-home twang—and there’s no mistaking Earle’s rage. (“Fuck the FCC/ Fuck the FBI/ Fuck the CIA/ Livin’ in the motherfuckin’ USA,” goes one noteworthy chorus.) But Earle’s strongest songs are less hectoring. “Home to Houston” is a galloping honky-tonk ballad about an American truck driver stuck in Basra, and “Rich Man’s War” offers three vivid mini-narratives set in battle-ravaged Baghdad, Kandahar, and Gaza. In those songs, Earle heeds a lesson taught by Woody Guthrie, American music’s archetypal activist maverick: Stories work better than harangues.

Correction, Sept. 20, 2004: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly called Green Day and Sum 41 American bands. Sum 41 is actually Canadian. Return to corrected sentence.