Given the current state of acrimony, distrust and barely contained anger that exists among this nations political forces, it strikes me as not only strange but brutally disheartening that only a handful of our best and brightest musical minds have had the courage to address themselves to the very issues defining the cultural, moral and economic present-tense of every American.
While it’s undoubtedly true that, upon close inspection, the majority of recorded music from any given decade will prove to be mainly pabulum and blatant nonsense, it’s just as true that each of these decades have seen outbreaks of artistically minded social and political disquietude. Unless I’m sadly mistaken, that sort of consciousness simply doesn’t exist in today’s music industry.
Don’t misunderstand me, in no way am I calling for hundreds of artists to begin inundating us with preachy, U2- style harangues or half-informed platitudes. I’m simply requesting that musicians begin acting like the thinking, caring, intelligent human beings they were once expected to be and perhaps move beyond the kindergarten level rhyming and whiney voiced cleverness currently plaguing much of our popular and so-called alternative music. To put it simply, it’s time for the children to take a seat and the grownups to bring out the whipping stick!
It’s certainly happened before. Woody Guthrie, who enjoyed prominence in the 40’s and 50’s, laid the groundwork for every aspiring musical anarchist to come when he sang of the consequences of social and economic inequality in songs such as “Tom Joad,” “Do Re Mi,” “Vigilante Man'” and most famously “This Land is Your Land.” Though he performed for the occasional Communist Party gathering, Guthrie’s spirit was probably best summed up by the slogan emblazoned across the front of his acoustic guitar, “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
In the 60’s, a skinny little punk named Bob Dylan, who just happened to worship Guthrie, began producing music that made the then-current radio gods sound hopelessly uninspired and out of touch with the darker realities of American life. In his substantial wake followed everyone from the Rolling Stones declaring, “Summers here and the time is right for fighting in the streets,” (Street Fighting Man) and “War, children, it’s just a shot away” (Gimme Shelter), to Creedence Clearwater Revivals anger filled eulogy for the nations cannon fodder in their searing “Fortunate Son,” and of course, the great art/rock/theatre of Jimmy Hendricks’ Woodstock performance of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The seventies saw Marvin Gaye break from the sticky sweet confines of Motown and deliver a bleak warning to a bleaker nation with “What’s Going On”. The decade also saw the emergence of the gritted teeth insolence of the Sex Pistols, who dared to lampoon the Queen of England herself and, more prophetically, criticized the prevalence of abortion among the hipster youth crowd.
Bob Marley, Public Enemy, John Lennon, Rage Against the Machine –the list of artists willing to look at and address issues larger than their own infantile needs is lengthy and generally impressive. And while any number of issues likely play into the current absence of outrage — the moral ambiguity surrounding the war in Iraq for instance — the fact that the most politically charged music moment in recent memory revolved around the inane Toby Keith/Dixie Chicks controversy is proof enough that what passes for social critique within the music industry these days is, at best, a pathetic joke.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that so many of these acts come from upper middle class suburbia and even the ones who don’t are so concerned with jumping on the latest kiddy- punk/moron- rap bandwagon that they can’t see beyond the new car or gold watch the record company dangles in front of their noses. In fact, it’s become increasingly hard to hear the music at all for the baying of all the little sheep driving around flashing their money and gold teeth, praying their 15 minutes hasn’t run out yet as they follow each other one by one over the cliff of financial slavery and artistic oblivion.
I understand that actually giving a damn about anything isn’t exactly a hip, post-modern stance, but if Thomas Paine was correct in noting, “When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon,” then it’s little wonder today’s musicians continue to dribble out such pitiful product.
Until artists once again take not only themselves but the world they inhabit seriously and begin to address issues, political and otherwise, that affect us all, their art will remain shallow and ephemeral, little more than bland entertainment.
With the 2008 presidential election just around the corner, maybe “the time is right for fighting in the streets,” musically speaking, once again.