Watch what you sing

Why isn’t anyone writing any new protest songs?

That question was asked by the former editor of this paper a few years ago at an editorial meeting. The war in Iraq was still relatively new, and President Bush was still widely viewed—that is, if you believe opinion polls—as a leader who ordered the invasion of a sovereign country because he sincerely believed, according to intelligence reports, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Still, there were a large number of people who were against the invasion from the start, well before the C5A cargo planes filled with transfer tubes (that’s Bushian English for “caskets”) began making a regular run from Baghdad to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

The conclusion our former editor came to was that no one was writing new protest songs because people just don’t care, or this war is different, or protest songs just don’t make sense in the kind of consumer paradise where Paris Hilton is viewed as an icon.

Of course, I think our former editor was flat wrong. I couldn’t voice that opinion then, at least in print, but I will now. I think plenty of protest songs are being written. They are being written because people are furious, and some of those furious people have musical instruments and are prone to putting music to their opinions. I’ve heard some of those songs. Hell, I’ve even written a few of them myself.

The problem lies in getting those songs heard. Try recording one, and then try getting it on one of the local stations owned by CBS Radio, Clear Channel or Entercom. Unless it’s a suburb-and-western ditty offering a cute, Toby Keith-style “nuke the towelheads” point of view, your song’s probably not going to garner any airtime. You’re probably not going to get a local TV news crew out to videotape you singing your protest song, either. You could offer your song as a free download at MySpace, but keep in mind that the same company that owns Fox News also owns MySpace now.

The point here is that the difference between the 1960s—often called the golden age of protest music—and today is that, today, media ownership is concentrated into a select few hands, and most of that ownership is still very happy with that guy who sits in the Oval Office. So, unless something changes, the chances of a chart-topping song along the lines of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or even Edwin Starr’s “War” are slim to none. Good luck even getting played.

But that shouldn’t stop you. It didn’t stop Cindy Sheehan from going down to Crawford, Texas, last August to camp next to the road outside George W. Bush’s ranch. Who could have guessed that this act would resonate with the public? Your gamble may be ignored or, like Sheehan’s pilgrimage, it may catch the wind. Just be sure you’re singing with the right intent, rather than simply to further your career.

But please keep in mind that we live in a different world today, one where the leadership in this country seems quite comfortable with destroying your First Amendment rights, one that some observers are calling a dictatorship. And in a dictatorship, it’s usually prudent to watch what you say. So be careful.