Music takes on new importance during times of turmoil

    Dissent has always been one of the key ingredients in the melting pot that is rock ‘n’ roll, so it comes as no surprise that during times of war — particularly during times of such a questionable and popularly contested war — rock has that much more meaning.

    From Bob Dylan to the Beatles, the Clash to Public Enemy, protest music has helped define countless armed conflicts over the last four decades, and thanks to a slew of artists contributing new music to the public discourse on the current war, it’s poised to do the same this year. What’s more, artists this time around are, for the first time, using the Internet to distribute their musical messages, even in the midst of wartime censorship.

    In the months preceding the Coalition invasion of Iraq, and in these early weeks of the Bush administration’s war, free music video and MP3 downloads have flooded artist sites on the Web like never before, not only galvanizing popular dissent, but kicking out the jams like little else in contemporary rock.

    British folk singer/songwriter and longtime political activist Billy Bragg was among the first to release a free song via the net in response to the then-looming war in Iraq. “”Don’t give me no shit about blood, sweat, tears and toil/ It’s all about the price of oil,”” Bragg croons in the “”The Price of Oil,”” a slow and somber acoustic number available on Bragg’s Web site (http://www.billybragg.co.uk).

    American roots rocker John Mellencamp followed in March with the release of “”To Washington,”” a Woody Guthrie-inspired foot-stomper questioning both George W.’s presidential legitimacy and his aims in Iraq. “”To Washington,”” which remains, in my opinion, one of the coolest songs addressing the war yet, is slated to appear on a Mellencamp CD release in May, but in the meantime can be found at the artist’s Web site (http://www.mellencamp.com).

    Never to be outdone, the Beastie Boys released “”In a World Gone Mad,”” a simple but articulate track knocking Bush and Saddam alike on their Grand Royal Records Web site (http://www.beastieboys.com) in March. The song, which harkens back to the Beasties’ early days of three MCs and one DJ (minus the politics), is the band’s first release in years and will be featured on their upcoming 2004 album.

    Former Rage Against the Machine lyricist Zach de la Rocha and turntablist DJ Shadow recently posted a similarly-themed track on http://www.marchofdeath.com, a site dedicated exclusively to their newest collaboration of the same name. “”March of Death”” features Zach’s fiercest rhythms since the demise of Rage and doesn’t hesitate in ripping our esteemed president a proverbial new one.

    R.E.M. joined the party in late March with the internet-only release of “”The Final Straw.”” “”We had to send something out there now,”” writes R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe on the band’s Web page (http://www.remhq.com), and despite the track’s rough studio mix, you can easily hear the urgency in his voice.

    R&B songstress Meshell Ndegeocello too has recently dropped a topically themed track on her Web site (http://www.meshell.com). Ndegeocello wrote “”Forgiveness & Love,”” a funky, reggae-tinged piece immediately following Sept. 11, but chose to release it only weeks ago in response to the “”present worldwide mobilization for peace.””

    Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day is the latest to tap the internet’s mass distribution potential, posting a solo acoustic rendition of “”Life During Wartime,”” a song written by his side band, Pinhead Gunpowder. Presented on the band’s home page (http://www.greenday.com) “”in protest of the war,”” the song features Armstrong’s trademark snot and sounds a bit familiar, but it gets the point across.

    Singer/songwriter Stephan Smith (http://www.stephansmith.com), punk rockers Anti-Flag (http://antiflag.com), poetic hip-hop outfit Spearhead (http://www.spearheadvibrations.com) and spoken word artist Saul Williams (http://www.notinournamemusic.com) have also recently released antiwar songs on their respective Web sites.

    However, the award for most ambitious antiwar download (as of yet) definitely goes to Lenny Kravitz, whose “”We Want Peace”” is featured on the Rock the Vote Web site (http://www.rockthevote.com). Kravitz symbolically enlisted Iraqi pop star Kadim Al Sahir, as well as Palestinian strings-master Simon Shaheen and Lebanese percussionist Jamey Hadded for the protest tune.

    The Web is also allowing artists and fans alike to archive their favorite protest songs, new or old, for popular download. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth recently co-launched Protest Records (http://www.protest-records.com), an online record label offering free downloads by artists in opposition to “”greed, sexism, racism, hate-crime and war.””

    As far as music videos go, Madonna may have sparked the most controversy with her short-lived “”American Life,”” in which a faux grenade is thrown at a Bush look-alike, but hands down the best protest video to hit the Internet so far is System of a Down’s “”Boom!”” directed by everybody’s favorite rabble rouser of late, Michael Moore. “”Boom!”” pieces together mainly independent footage from February’s Presidents’ Day weekend protests, in which millions worldwide rallied for peace. The video is available for download at http://www.systemofadown.com, among other sites.

    Of course, it should also be noted that several artists have come out in favor of the war in the last month, most notably contemporary country good ‘ole boys Darryl Worley and Clint Black, whose respective pro-war (err, excuse me, “”pro-America””) releases “”Have You Forgotten”” and “”I Raq and Roll”” (no joke) have lit up the country charts of late. But personally, I’d just as soon torch a flag in the middle of a marine base as I would listen to that shit.

    What I find really disturbing, however, is corporate radio and television’s response to this wartime music, pro and against, alike. Clear Channel Communications Inc., who we have all come to hate over these last couple of months thanks to our local FM 94.9’s ad campaigns, has recently denied allegations that since Sept. 11 it has urged programmers to curb political songs from station playlists. Furthermore, MTV Europe issued an internal memo last month recommending the censorship of videos containing “”sensitive material,”” according to a recent New York Times article. Videos blocked reportedly range from System of a Down’s aforementioned “”Boom!”” to anything by retro-poppers the B-52s. Obviously something is wrong with this picture.

    There is no more important a time for ideas to be exchanged than during times of war, and artists have long been among society’s most expressive voices in this regard. While the protest music during these first weeks of war probably won’t surpass that of the oft-invoked ’60s in terms of timelessness, it just might usher in a new era of political song. After all, even if the message falls on deaf ears, protest music sure rocks.

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