What Happened to the American Protest Song?

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Quick—name a song whose lyrics protest the war in Afghanistan. Got anything? Now try Iraq. Did you get one? Two? Still nothing?

You wouldn’t be alone. In the Vietnam era, the protest song was an institution. Today, it’s a rarity; even an oddity. What changed?

It would be wrong to compare the scope of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to Vietnam. Combined, our generation’s wars resulted in about 6,500 American deaths, while 58,000 died in Vietnam. The ratio is something like 9:1 in terms of the dead, and 5:1 in terms of the dead and wounded combined.

But then, what kind of answer is that? Sixty-five hundred dead and 41,000 wounded is hardly a pittance, and, at their peaks, our modern wars were arguably the most contentious political issues in the country. They engendered liberal opposition and inspired the dual forces of nationwide dissent and conservative counter-protest.

So why did it never translate to music? I’ve got three guesses.

1. Helplessness Blues, or the Cynicism of Young Americans

The counterculture movement of the ’60s depended very much on the idea that people could be agents of change. These were the sons and daughters of the World War Two generation, and though their ideals and mores were very different, they still believed in the power of the American citizen. They wanted the government to reflect their beliefs about the emerging world, and they thought it was possible to achieve that end.

Today, we’re not the children of the World War Two generation. We’re the children, and increasingly the grandchildren, of the Vietnam generation. The impact of the social revolution can’t be denied, but nor can the fact that it petered out, giving way to the capitalism of the ’80s, the stasis of the ’90s, and whatever you like to call the slow denouement we’ve endured over the last decade.

In 2008, many saw the participation of youth in the Obama candidacy as the resurgence of the proactive liberal in America. When his influence proved minimal against the momentum of the system, though, the enthusiasm vanished. The “great man” theory of history had proved inapplicable in our time, and rather than the rekindling of some great movement, the aftermath of Obama’s election was perhaps its death knell.

All of which is a long-winded way to say that we don’t believe anymore. If one of our favorite artists wrote an overt protest song, referencing Iraq or Afghanistan by name, it might feel strange rather than inspiring. It’s not something we can relate to, and it’s not something that matters on anything but a superficial level. Yes, the liberals among us opposed the wars, but the defining emotion was helplessness, not anger.

The revolutionaries of the ’60s believed in the power of their cause. We believe the system is too entrenched. Why would we sing about the injustice of a war when it can’t be avoided?

2. Selfishness of Young Americans

Protest music doesn’t have to center around military conflict. It does, most often, but songwriters like Woody Guthrie and Phil Ochs were masters at exposing the flaws and hypocrisy in domestic facets of the system. Those men are gone, but the foibles are not. In other words, there would be plenty of local fodder for American songwriters even as Iraq and Afghanistan wind to their slow conclusion.

And maybe those elements would be seized, if not the prevalence of selfishness in young Americans. That word, “selfishness,” sounds harsh, but I don’t mean it that way. I don’t think there’s a moral flaw inherent to our generation, or that we lack the principles and ethical fiber of our grandparents or any of that hokum. Instead, I think our selfishness is a rational response to cynicism.

Besides the brief flare-up of civic spirit in 2008—which, as mentioned, quickly lost its luster in the face of the machine—there hasn’t been much in the way of American pride in the young left. Over and over, we’ve watched the corruption of the system prevail, and the only logical response is to turn our backs.

A quick personal story—I gave money and time during the last presidential race, and election night is still one of my fondest memories. It felt like a critical war had just been won. My thoughts on this topic are far from universal, but what I think I’ve learned in the ensuing four years is that the war was already lost. Now, when I get calls asking for my time and money in the build-up to November, I politely try to get off the line as fast as possible. More than anything, the pleas remind me that I was too credulous then. I’m not ashamed of my belief—in fact, I’m still proud of it—but I would feel like a fool if I repeated myself.

And I only mention my experience because I think it’s representative. There are optimists out there, but in general we’re disenchanted. The only way to deal with that feeling is to look inward, to care about yourself and your family, and to try to ensure your own safe passage against an unfavorable tide. This is selfish by definition, but it’s not evil.

Our music reflects that path. For the most part, our great songs are not about mass anger or systemic change. They’re about ourselves; how do we assert our individuality, how do we find happiness and love, and how do we survive? America will go its own way, but the individuals who live here don’t have to go along. Selfishness is our version of hope.

3. The Powerful Conservative Voice

The hippy counterculture took conservatives by surprise in the Vietnam Era, and they were overwhelmed by the power of the opposition’s voice. It took a decade to recover, but they vowed never to be surprised again.

Today, the voice with the most fury and righteousness, paradoxically, comes from the foot soldiers of the establishment. We don’t see many protest songs, but we’re overwhelmed with country music extolling the virtues of America and its troops. And as we see with the Tea Party, the right has somehow managed to marshal all the power while remaining the angriest people in the country.

The tone may have been set with the Dixie Chicks. When Natalie Maines told a London crowd in 2003 that she was “ashamed” to be from the same state as President Bush, it triggered a landslide (apologies) of opposition. The Iraq invasion was imminent, and the reaction to her words was immediate—the band was dropped by a major sponsor and shunned by many country radio stations, had its CDs destroyed in mass protests, received death threats from across the country, and even watched the single “Landslide” drop immediately out of the top 100. Maines was forced to apologize a week later in order to minimize the economic damage to the Dixie Chicks brand, and while the group has clearly recovered, the effect of the reaction can’t be underestimated.

Did it scare off other musicians who wanted to speak out against Bush? It’s hard to say. We know that Madonna responded to the backlash by changing a music video in which she was portrayed throwing a grenade at a Bush look-alike. On the other hand, the Vote for Change tour in 2004, featuring many of the country’s top acts, didn’t seem cowed. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder—who wrote one of the era’s few true protest songs with “Bushleaguer”—was particularly adamant, going so far as to attach a Bush mask to a microphone stand before slamming it onto the stage.

What the Dixie Chicks protest accomplished, rather than ridding the country of artistic opposition, was to simply diminish its importance. The “shut up and play” movement among fans gained traction, and the idea that entertainers should entertain, rather than express their political opinions, became pervasive even among the mainstream.

Can you imagine someone telling Bob Dylan to “shut up and play?” Can you imagine a musician of the ’60s losing popularity and having to apologize to Nixon because they questioned the war?

It’s hard to fathom, but that’s the present reality. Until the situation becomes much worse, forcing a new kind of action, change is merely a function of the individual life, and the protest song is nothing but an artifact.