Political Music Happens

By Rob Patterson

Things have finally reached such a point in American politics and policy, thanks to the follies and failures of the Bush bunch and their cronies, that political songs have made something of a comeback in 2007. In fact, it’s almost become de rigeuer among rock, hip-hop and even pop artists of a certain profile to include a song that takes a swipe at Bush or a glance at the Iraq war on their latest albums.

Does that mean that political music is back? Alas, for all the noise, likely not. Maybe it’s just me, but for all the smoke there’s still no fire — that motivational and inspirational connection with the masses that makes a difference. In a way distressingly not unlike those silly bumper magnet ribbons that say “Support The Troops” and also tout other issues and causes, so much of it feels like preaching to the choir, who then nod and even cheer, and go on with their lives.

There are lots of reasons why this disconnection exists. Truly great political songs may among the hardest songs to write, and artists with the greatness to write them consistently are few and far between. And with all the entertainment options flashing and snapping at our collective consciousness, music that truly protests and/or calls to action is just another option on the proverbial remote control. It’s the culture we live in today.

A reader recently wrote asking where he can find political music, and I was stymied as to what to say in reply (and apologize that I didn’t). But I was of two if not three and maybe four minds of what to say. First off, what style of music does he enjoy? Things in music have in large part become so stratified into genres — many of which have artists making leftist commentary in song, except maybe the drivel they call “Christian praise music” — that I felt reluctant to say to him and now here, well, dig this if you might (not that I don’t think some touts to follow aren’t damn worthy).

And then on the other hand, I was tempted to say, but didn’t as it might seem rude even if not intended, hey, search it out, follow your nose (or better said ears) within the weapons of mass distraction to find the political music that speaks to your leanings and tastes. In these days of the Internet and mass media, what you seek is as accessible as ever … but yeah, you have to slog through thickets to find it. And at the same time don’t forget such valuable resources as the nearest cool independent record store (people who work in them are almost always music fanatics) and good old word of mouth.

Maybe I’m being a bit pedantic because I’ve made the musical connection in 2007 that works for me as well any ever did: Got Sirius satellite radio and listen to Little Steven’s Underground Garage channel as much as anything and am delighted by what I hear. But that has as much to do with the fact that it plays six decades of the coolest rock’n’roll as anything explicitly political. But then again, aside from the folk and topical song movement that arose beside it, rock’n’roll was a revolutionary if not seditious musical force in our modern time. And what I’m locking again into with that radio signal is the rock’n’roll culture that helped form my consciousness.

Some places for all of us to look, including me, is satellite radio, public radio and internet radio (both the ever-fewer cool commercial and non-commercial stations that stream on the net as well as sites like Live365.com, which offers hundreds of citizen programmers, if you will, in scores of genres). Go beyond iTunes and try eMusic, which offers downloads of more independent music supported by excellent editorial. When you find things you like, a plethora of sites — Amazon and All Music Guide notably — list similar artists or musical acts also bought by those who like the artist you’ve found.

In other words, we as consumers need to connect as much as the artists also need to make music that connects with us. Perhaps the biggest connection this year by a major artist with political convictions is Bruce Springsteen, whose Magic is a return to a rocking sound. The album has its political songs and those that aren’t, yet what may be as political in a way as anything he sings is the way that he does it. The single “Radio Nowhere” is to me political for not just its lyrics as much as the fact that, as a friend said when it came on the radio, “Gee, that sounds a little bit like Social Distortion.” That is, it’s music with a ferocity to match its lyrical convictions.

John Fogerty returned to Creedence Clearwater form this last year on his aptly named album Revival, and the song “Long Dark Nights” takes lyrical shots at the people in power that may be a bit clunky, but the track and much of the album rock as music meant to move people should. Steve Earle remains one of today’s most explicitly committed political songwriters, and since moving to New York City from Nashville he has now melded a relatively successful blend of the old-school folk consciousness with a modern hip-hop beat on Washington Square Serenade. Tom Morello, former guitarist with rabble-rousing political rockers Rage Against The Machine, went political folkie of sorts this year as The Nightwatchman on his album One Man Revolution, a well-intentioned but not quite gripping attempt to renew topical music.

The music of the past can still inspire and is more available than ever thanks to reissues. The recently issued three-CD remastered Bob Dylan connection simply titled Dylan is a fine way to reconnect with the master, as is the DVD of his 1963-65 Newport Fold Festival appearances, The Other Side of the Mirror. In as much as I found the Ken Burns documentary The War to offer interesting undertones for our own times, its soundtrack album offers a cool visit to the music of those times (and likely a cool gift for any older relatives who lived through that era).

A plethora of Bob Marley reissues makes his rebel music as accessible as ever. And jumping back to now, another of his musical sons, Ky-Mani Marley, came into his own this year on Radio, which boasts a mix of hip-hop and reggae and a stirring topical song called “The March” that splices ghetto violence with the Iraq war in an interesting parallel.

Cool stuff with no message per se for older listeners this year includes the bounce back from throat cancer by Levon Helm of The Band, Dirt Farmer, rock belter Dion becoming a Bronx bluesman on Son of Skip James, the quixotic yet interesting collaboration between Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, and matured new wave rocker Nick Lowe’s laidback yet seductive At My Age. Best younger band I’m digging on is Black Rebel Motorcycle Club with Baby 81 and one of the year’s truly classic records is Icky Thump by The White Stripes.

As the year closes I’m going to be digging into the music on a New York City group called Yeasayer that I heard in a local hot-dog joint and was so captivated by their mélange of world music rhythms and choral vocals I asked the young guys working there who it was. Yes, the music both cool and committed is out there to be heard, and the means to then find out more are more accessible than ever. But as to whether music that can change the culture and/or a culture that embraces a music of change might resurge into the mainstream … check back here a year from now to see where things stand.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email orca@io.com.

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2008

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2007 The Progressive Populist.