Music has always been the great reflection of a society. Through political twists, economical swings and changes in our laws and our outlook, protest songs are as American as it gets. They can be heard back to the beginnings of slavery, when hymns of hope begged for freedom from bondage. Issues moved to the plight of women, working people, victims of segregation and war in Vietnam. Popular music kept pace and often lead the march, providing the inspiration and often even conversion.
Music is our national scrapbook into what we are going through and how we were coping. We sang "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" during The Great Depression and answered with "Happy Days Are Here Again" when the Roosevelt administration turned things around. The 40's brought a slew of patriotic songs to inspire us. The 50's brought rock 'n roll, mirroring the need for American to shed its Father Knows Best image and find its sexuality. The 60's brought Vietnam and music followed. John Lennon's Give Peace a Chance, Bob Dylan's Masters of War, The Rolling Stones Street Fighting Man, Cat Stevens' Peace Train, as well as classics like Blowin' in the Wind, We Shall Overcome and Where Have All the Flowers Gone? were just a few of the countless chart-topping songs that were hummed, sung and chanted in protest by America.
In 1970, Creedence Clearwater came out with Fortunate Son:
Yeah, some folks inherit star spangled eyes.
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord,
And when you ask them, how much should we give,
Oh, they only answer, more, more, more.
While Marvin Gaye sang "What's Going On," most often, the 70's attempted a return to pop innocence, even as it was impossible in the after math of the war, Kent State and the string of assassinations. The 80's, however dismal the music scene seemed (this was the decade in which I started making records), produced Reagan-era protest songs like Sting's Russians with the lyric:
"There's no such thing as a winnable war.
It's a lie that we don't believe anymore."
And "I hope the Russians love their children too."
Bruce Springsteen buried pointed lyrics like "You end up like a dog that's been beat too much, till you spend half your life just covering up," in the pop rhythms of Born in the USA to the degree that Reagan, himself, used the song in his 1984 re-election bid. Songs like Allentown (about Reaganomics) and All She Wants to Do Is Dance (about U.S. involvement with the Contras in Nicaragua) were also hidden in pop-ish tunes. But the point was made.
The 90's brought a new kind of protest in songs like Grandmaster Flash's The Message, Prince's Sign O' the Times, and Public Enemy's Fight the Power, which were aimed at "the man," rather than a commentary on government policy or agenda. Gansta rap bred a pop culture focused on showy wealth, aggressive partying and violent conflict. It provided a window into the caste system that poverty stricken citizens were well aware of while white middle class America had successfully averted its glance.
Today, we are living in an era not unlike the 60's. Our country's social fabric has been ripped apart. We are a nation divided. An unpopular war based on lies, deceit and greed rages on. Our president makes Richard Nixon look like John Adams. And the new Republican candidate is stating that we are making progress in Iraq and that we will be there for years and yeas to come. So where's the Bob Dylan of today to sing about the war? Where is the Joan Biaz of today to protest the government's stance on stem cell research? Or gas prices that reek of war profiteering? Did the Dixie Chicks fiasco scare everybody into the fear that there is no power in the voice of music and art. Or is it just apathy?
And which one is worse?
If you listen to today's music, you'd never know anything was wrong in our country. Current music has little to say about anything. Besides some socially conscious hip-hop artists, a few scant songs by known artists like R.E.M.'s 'The Final Straw,' Green Day's Life During Wartime' (both briefly available only online!), Willie Nelson's Whatever Happened to Peace, Patti Smith's Radio Baghdad (12-minute length!!! Not exactly commercial), Lenny Kravitz's (once again online-only) We Want Peace, and a few more accessible songs from Sheryl Crow, John Mayer, Ben Harper and Tori Amos - the protest landscape is practically baron.
And today, rarely do any of the songs popular artists brave enough to cut protest tracks actually make mainstream charts. The lion share of what would be considered protest music comes from the more obscure music scene in folk (i.e. Loudon Wainwright III's Presidents' Day), alternative-bluegrass (i.e. the Mammals' The Bush Boys), and progressive-punk (i.e. Decahedron's Not These Homes, an album-length meditation on war and media), but it's not a lot to choose from.
Most of today's top pop music stars are content to peddle innocuous, bland, pointless, provocative for provocative sake, banality - mostly about sex. If there is a message at all, it seems to be: "Give me more, don't think, don't bother, get what you're entitled to for no real effort. Remain complacent. Buy more products. Lying is okay if you don't get caught."
And the sad thing is, there has probably never been a time in American history that pleaded more desperately for protest songs. The crimes of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfield alone could be the inspiration for hundreds of full-length cds.
The best pop/rock music has always been a reflection of society. It has been risk-taking, bold, rebellious and innovative. It has been the extension of our speech; the next level of our consciousness. It has said out loud what people are thinking and talking about at coffee shops, college dorms and water coolers. The true patriotism of being American has spawned music that mattered - the polar opposite of today's sad line-up of Britney, Avril Lavigne, Justin Timberlake (who isn't a dolt and should know better) and their endless clones. Today's pop isn't rebellious or bold. If anything, it goes for shocking rather than content. It embraces the star system. It conflates art, business and entertainment. It cares more about sales than anything else and to make matters worse, it isn't in the least bit guilty about it. If today's music is a mirror of our society (and why should this decade be any different?) it reflects the greed, vapidity, denial, pomposity, entitlement and carelessness of our times.
But I do not and cannot believe that those qualities reside in our souls. I think we are scared and lazy. We are young and daft. We are tired. And, like the current administration, we have trouble admitting our mistakes. However, if given the correct information, I believe we eventually come through, wake up and take action. It's in our American make up - or so I must believe. Just as the young of this country have been lost in futility until they've recently been inspired by intelligent Democratic candidates who have given them the power to matter, I believe that if we provide songs of protest, people will sing them, share them, be inspired by them.
I am not a pop star. I don't have the music platform of a top 40 zillion record seller. I am a guy who's sold a few million cds in various formats since the 80's. My work has mostly been on Broadway, in the concert hall and on television. But in making a new cd, I thought, "What do I want to say?" I am sick of complaining to like-minded people at dinner parties who occasionally march with a sign or write a letter to their congressman.
At first I thought, "it's too late to write this - sing this - put this out." But then I looked around and realized that it is not going away. The case for war is being strengthened with the phrase "we can't pull out now," when a majority of Americans feel that a good waris-interuptus is exactly what we (and the world) needs. But candidates are still appealing to the fear generated by 9/11 and use it like a Pavlovian electric prod. In a nutshell: I'm fed up. And I, unlike Mr. Timberlake, (who is not a dolt and should know better, I repeat) have nothing to lose. I don't care! I am not looking for Grammy. Or a platinum cd. I just want to write and sing of what I know and care about.
I have a new cd coming out in July called Free. The cd is not a protest cd as a whole, but there are several cuts which speak from my anger at this war, this administration, the media and a call for peace, namely in a song called War On War.
I am not waiting for the entire CD to be released to put it out there in this election year. It's out now - as a free MP3 download to whoever wants to hear it or pass it along. And I have started a music video contest to counter the GOP's stance of "staying the course." The contest is open for anyone who wants to express their anger, passion and vision of a world without war by creating a video to my song. Resources for free video creation software, tools, video footage and royalty free photography from war documentarian, active duty Marine Jayel Aheram are provided at WarOnWar.INFO and additional contest information at SamTube.com.
Happily, such is the growing support and popularity for my song and the contest that its launch has spawned artists such as Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead to follow suit with video contests of their own, but War on War remains the only one based on political change by calling for people to contribute to the anti-war movement with their own visual creations. The contest offers over $5,000 in cash and prizes, contributed by such companies as Nokia, Avid, Pinnacle, Logitech, Corel, Cyberlink, Videomaker, The Nation Magazine and more. We are supplying everything needed to create a music video, at no expense to the contestant: The song, royalty free photography, vintage and current event stock footage, and the software to put it all together. Of course the more inventive entries use their own footage and find other components., but basically, people don't even need a video camera or equipment. We currently have entries ranging from a 16 (year old boy) to 60 (year old woman).
All submissions will be posted on YouTube.com for commenting and judging and are due by June 22; winners will be announced July 4, 2008. The judges include industry actors, musicians and writers from the legendary Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) to Frank Langella to Liza Minnelli to Cyndi Lauper to Judith Light to Steven Weber, Bruce Vilanch, Nicole Sullivan, Bridget Moynahan, Victor Garber, Allee Wiillis, David Crane, Jeffrey Klarik, Lizzy Caplan and YouTube stars like Michael Buckley and Lisa Donovan. .
The contest recently started and the videos are starting to fly in! I am so impressed with the entries. While I can't promote any of them myself, I urge you to look at these works of art. Some of them could play on MTV or VH1 right now. The talent and passion is overwhelming. The internet and particularly YouTube is the march of the new millennium. Please check out some of these amazing entries. Join us in protest. Create your vision. Or just pass them around. We are the ones we've been waiting for!
I am sure some of you are going to reply about the numerous important and powerful protest songs of the past century that I didn't mention. Or make note of the ones from today that I didn't talk about. The point is that there is a tremendous dearth of protest and socially reflective music in today's music scene as compared to other similar times in history. I want to do my part to change that. Music is the record of our society, our culture, our lives, our concerns and our memories. Whatever you think of War on War is not important to me. That you think about it at all - or any other songs that speak about what is happening in this beloved country - IS.
Lastly, I have recently been blessed with a son. Not only do I want to leave him a better world - I want him to know that his dad cared enough to speak, to sing, to say his truth and to do what I believe we are all on the planet to do - participate!
Sam Harris is a multi-million selling recording artist, a Tony nominated Broadway star, and recently starred in CBS' The Class. His popular video blogs have become a national phenomenon. He got his break by finishing as Grand Champion on Star Search in its premiere season. The Lifetime Network will produce and be the home of his new talk show, currently titled TheSamShow.