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The dying protest song

Are today's artists just apathetic, or is the audience unreceptive to weighty words?

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Media Critic
Published August 13, 2006

A look at Billboard magazine's hot singles chart for July 11, 1970, tells the story.

The Temptations' ode to a turbulent world, Ball of Confusion, sat parked at No. 3, while Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Kent State lament Ohio stood at No. 30. Songs such as the 5th Dimension's Save the Country, Edwin Starr's War, the theme from the antiwar film M*A*S*H and Little Richard's Freedom Blues also appeared in the Top 100 - highlighting how the country's subversive mood was inspiring artists and selling records.

So, as Lebanon and Israel sink into growing conflict, the war in Iraq claims more lives than ever, gas climbs to $3 a gallon and Hurricane Katrina's aftermath continues to challenge aid workers and the government, what sits on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart in 2006?

Nelly Furtado's Promiscuous. Shakira's Hips Don't Lie. Busta Rhymes' I Love My B----.

Which raises a pointed question: Where are the classic modern protest songs?

True enough, artists such as Neil Young and Pearl Jam have recently released antiwar tunes. Pop punkers Green Day earned a Grammy in 2005 for the chart-topping protest record American Idiot.

But there seems no contemporary counterpart to classic protest hits such as Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin', Marvin Gaye's What's Going On?, Curtis Mayfield's People Get Ready, and a string of Temptations songs that included Ball of Confusion and Papa Was a Rollin' Stone.

Otis Williams, the quiet leader of the Temptations and its only surviving member from its '70s heyday, thinks he knows why.

"I talked with a noted songwriter . . . This guy wrote big hits for Tavares and Peaches and Herb, and he said, 'I cannot get a song placed if I don't have a cuss word in it,' " said Williams, 66.

Inspired by Sly and the Family Stone, Williams prodded noted producer Norman Whitfield into crafting their first socially conscious hit in 1968, Cloud Nine - Motown's first Grammy winner and the beginning of a genre dubbed "psychedelic soul."

"At first, our fans were saying, 'What the hell are the Temps doing now?' . . . But I like to think our music was telling the truth, like soothing ointment for a troubled soul," Williams said. "I don't think (today's stars) are in a state of mind to talk about worldly woes. Today, if you're not talking about (sex) or jumping on somebody . . . they don't want to hear it."

While rock and pop artists such as Pink, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young have earned media coverage this year for their protest songs, that work hasn't sold well or received much radio airplay.

For example, Young's Living With War record has sold just 212,000 copies, and Springsteen's protest revival The Seeger Sessions has sold only 526,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. In comparison, Springsteen's last record, 2005's Devils & Dust, sold 220,000 copies in its first week.

The possible culprits are many: tightened radio play lists, a less turbulent social scene (no military draft to galvanize youth, a muted civil rights movement) and a fragmented audience that seems less tolerant of such controversial messages. Teens may download their own favorite protest songs these days, but that rarely produces the kind of cultural consensus that makes for enduring pop hits.

"In the late '60s, more than any degree before or since, young people had a common soundtrack, thanks to Top 40 radio," said Craig Werner, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He's also author of the 1999 analysis A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America.

"Black fans would have known the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and white people would have known Aretha Franklin and James Brown," Werner said. "The commercial (radio) market today tends to play a weirdly interracial mix - a Britney Spears kind of sound which is poppy and R&B and plays away from the specifics of people's experiences. The popular music industry, I think, tends to back away from acts that are really pushing protest material."

Werner's observations were echoed by Boots Riley, leader of the rap act the Coup. Known for his trademark blown-out Afro and incendiary lyrics, Riley's latest Coup record, Pick a Bigger Weapon, addresses America's contribution to Saddam Hussein's rule and calls for armed revolt against the government.

He said modern-day protest songs often are buried inside CDs by performers who know the songs won't get radio play, though they may resonate with fans. Particularly in rap's early days, Riley said, artists such as N------ with Attitude and Ice Cube mixed "gangsta" lyrics about violence and partying with messages about resisting the government and the corrosive effects of poverty.

"Hip-hop is still putting out anti-authority protest songs, even with the absence of an organized (civil rights) movement in their community," said Riley, who cited a post-9/11 radio crackdown on material deemed unpatriotic as a particular problem. "A lot of people said, 'I'll still have one song to deal with these issues - maybe even three or four songs. But I've got to put out these other, commercial songs, or radio won't play me.' "

There may be no better example than Jadakiss' 2004 single Why, a kinetic rap song that sandwiches protest lyrics inside lines with a more conventional, gangsta rap flavor - asking, "Why did Bush knock down the towers?" That line earned a rebuke from Fox News Channel pundit Bill O'Reilly and demands for edits from some radio stations.

"I zero in on the Dixie Chicks speaking out against (President) Bush . . . There was a backlash at retail, a backlash at radio . . . enough to make a person ashamed," said Warren Zanes, vice president of education and public programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

"People always want to put things in boxes - the box of music we dance to, the box of music with protests," Zanes added. "But why do we want to put music in boxes when it can do all of these things at the same time?"

* * *

Protest songs in America stretch back to the beginnings of slavery, when religious hymns and spirituals began to appear advocating freedom for those kept in bondage. As issues moved from the plight of slaves to the plight of women, working people, victims of segregation and war in Vietnam, popular music kept pace - often through folk artists.

But other performers, particularly in soul and R&B, concealed their intentions with a tactic known as "masking" - presenting songs with a literal meaning on the surface and a deeper coded meaning underneath, Werner said.

For example, Aretha Franklin's Respect was a woman's plea for her man's consideration on the surface but was also received as an anthem about black pride and perseverance.

"By the end of the '60s, what happens is people stop masking," Werner said. "The Black Power movement comes along and says, 'We're not going to be polite anymore - we're going to get in your face.' It becomes a badge of honor being controversial."

But that transition didn't come easily. Motown Records owner Berry Gordy famously resisted releasing Marvin Gaye's antiwar masterpiece What's Going On? - partly inspired by his brother Frankie's experience serving in Vietnam - relenting only when Gaye refused to record anything else.

"(Gordy) was scared of topical music," said Allan Slutsky, producer of the Grammy-winning documentary about Motown's session musicians, Standing in the Shadows of Motown. "His money had been made in feel-good music . . . All of a sudden, here's this guy talking about the ecology being ruined and people being blown up."

Soon, however, protest became popular: Soul superstar James Brown and a maturing Stevie Wonder were spending time with civil rights leaders and speaking out. Brown's 1968 Black Power anthem, Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud, was a No. 1 R&B hit for six weeks, prompting Look magazine to ask, "Is this the most influential black man in America?"

But once Saigon and President Nixon fell, the public appetite for protest music also seemed to wane, according to the Temptations' Williams. As more performers saw dollars in developing such songs, faithful fans had to wonder whether they were in it for the money or the message.

"Here's the negative part of a protest song going to No. 1: There will be people inspired by it, not because they're interested in protest, but because it's No. 1," said the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's Zanes.

Some performers echoed the public's protest fatigue. "Every time you turned on the news, you were seeing and hearing about Vietnam and kids being killed on campuses," said Williams. "After a while . . . people eventually start to say, 'Can't somebody sing something positive?' "

* * *

It may be easy to blame artists or an unfriendly radio climate for the diminished state of protest music these days. But Zanes wondered if there might be another, less apparent culprit: the audience.

"One thing that makes a song like Edwin Starr's War go up the chart is that there's an audience that wants to hear it," he said. "Looking at our current moment as more apathetic, we have to ask the question: As audience members . . . are we not as engaged . . . when Sting sings about the rain forest?"

That's a theme that resonated with Jinho "Piper" Ferreira, the vocalist-emcee with Oakland, Calif., rap-rockers Flipsyde - a band earning attention because of its overtly political material.

"People say they're tired of the same old music, but when you give them something different, they're hesitant to embrace it," said Ferreira, whose latest work, We the People, was named best hip-hop album of 2005 by the Washington Post. "Radio didn't give us a chance . . . (because) they pretty much channel one type of music to the masses: sex and violence."

Indeed, even as disco, dance and rap music ruled through the late '70s, '80s and early '90s, there were some classic protest songs: Grandmaster Flash's The Message, Prince's Sign O' the Times, Public Enemy's Fight the Power.

But the rise of gangsta rap in the '90s bred a pop culture focused on showy wealth, aggressive partying and violent conflict - perhaps indoctrinating an audience to expect such themes as well.

"The culture is really stifled and has made many black artists feel like a defeated people," said Miles Solay, vocalist for New York-based Outernational, another up-and-coming band gaining praise for its politically charged lyrics. "You listen to a lot of hip-hop and it's get-low crap - misogynist stuff that's not uplifting. But it's not the people's fault. It's the result of a concerted campaign."

Rap impresario Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records and a host of other hip-hop-centered businesses, said today's biggest rap artists often avoid specific political commentary to focus on more generalized charity work.

"Name a hot rapper, they've got a foundation," Simmons said. "They do work in their communities. They invest in their communities. They're not so political - that's not the trend. The trend this week is to give."

Bottom line: Today's music audiences may be too fragmented, apathetic and celebrity-oriented to tune into protest music in large numbers - making the heyday of the form a high point we may never see again.

"Which comes first? Is it the audience which is eager for the song, or the song itself?" asked Zanes. "The equivalent of the engaged hippie, Lord knows what that would be in this day and age."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.

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