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Revolution Rock?

The regrettable decline of the protest song.

The first time I played Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Magic, one of its songs stayed with me for hours afterward. No big news there; especially when he reunites with the E Street Band, Springsteen always plugs back into anthemic mode. What was surprising this time was that it was the disc’s most explicit anti-war number. Arriving near the record’s end, “Last to Die” is driven by mournful-pageantry violins and a bustling, nearly desperate intensity that recalls Springsteen’s earlier, ’70s work. From the opening line--“We took the highway till the road went black”--it places listeners in the mind of an American soldier in Iraq going about his job, increasingly numb at what he’s doing and seeing, “stack[ing] the bodies outside the door.”

“Last to Die” is neither the best nor worst Springsteen song of all time, but the fact that it works as both words and music automatically makes it one of the sharpest of the recent anti-war, anti-Bush songs. In the last few years, the protest song has been on something of a comeback tour. Old schoolers (Springsteen, John Fogerty), alt-rock veterans (Pearl Jam, Green Day, Beastie Boys, Flaming Lips), and relative newcomers (Bright Eyes, the Roots) have all become furious enough by what’s happening here and abroad to write their own protest songs. But unless you’re a music geek or a web troller, chances are you’ve never heard--or heard of--most of them.

The problem could be radio’s reluctance to play these songs, some type of veiled censorship. (Let’s not forget that after September 11, the monolithic Clear Channel dispatched a memo to radio stations suggesting they suspend playing such incendiary songs as … “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor.) But the under-the-radar quality of modern tunes of dissent points to an artistic problem as well. Compared with so many topical diatribes that came before (and a few current exceptions, like Springsteen’s “Last to Die” and a good chunk of Neil Young’s riled-up but grabby Living with War album last year), too many rely more on bile than beat. Which means the protest song has arrived at an odd place: more necessary than ever, and more marginal, too.

I was reminded of this situation last month, when I took part in a panel discussion on war and popular culture at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans' Memorial complex. To prep for a talk on the way pop music has (or hasn’t) influenced public opinion on war, I listened again to the Vietnam-era standards: Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Edwin Starr’s “War”--you know the list. I was struck by the way the songs grew angrier and more heated by the year. The gentle anti-violence sentiments of Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” from 1961 gave way by decade’s end to far angrier missives like Creedence Clearwater Revival’s scathing “Fortunate Son.” The transition is similar to what we’re seeing now. Paul McCartney’s mixed-message, post-September 11 “Freedom” (”I will fight for the right/To live in freedom,” it declared, over a lackluster, nursery-rhyme melody that telegraphed its ambivalence) has been replaced by the rattled, angry likes of Bright Eyes’ “When the President Talks to God.”

But something else about the old hits struck me as well: how musically strapping and vibrant they still were. From all of the above to the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” and even a hokey bit of cash-in apocalypto like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” the songs stayed with you in every way. It was protest as pop, a tradition that continued into the ’80s with Nena’s anti-nuke “99 Luftballons” and Little Steven and company’s rabble-rousing, rock-to-rap “Sun City.”

Although the current batch means well, it also includes some of the worst songs--topical or otherwise--of the last decade. The Beastie Boys openly question the link between warfare and corporations in “In a World Gone Mad,” but the sludgy track is borderline unlistenable. Green Day’s “Living with War” has wonderfully sarcastic Billie Joe Armstrong lyrics about the absence of national sacrifice (“We’re doing something/We’re making changes/Like changing the brand of crap we buy”), but a melody you’ll forget the minute the song ends. The Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Neo Con” was more a publicity stunt than a good song; Pearl Jam’s “World Wide Suicide” was another example of the band’s largely shapeless bluster; and Pink’s “Dear Mr. President” was the first and hopefully last time we'll hear Bush bashing done with a folksy, adult contemporary twist.

The near-misses are even more exasperating. Eminem’s “Mosh” had brilliant imagery and atmosphere--it felt like a march right into the end of the world, and his line about a “mosh pit outside the Oval Office” was terrific--but three years on, I had to play the song again to remind myself how it sounded.

Bright Eyes’ “When the President Talks to God” is a self-conscious attempt to follow in Dylan’s, Ochs’, and Woody Guthrie’s footsteps, yet like too much of Conor Oberst’s work, it’s labored and strained. Country music has weighed in with some decent entries--Darryl Worley’s “I Just Came Back from a War” and Tim McGraw’s “If You’re Reading This” come to mind--but since the genre is more of a storyteller’s medium, it doesn’t do societal rage as well as it does personal heartbreak (in these cases, tales of soldiers who’ve died or returned in a faith-shattered haze).

The closest thing we’ve had to a topical pop hit in the last few years, improbably, has been the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is the Love?,” which paired a sing-songy, lite-rap chorus with rhymes that dared to equate the CIA with terrorists. Even if the song wasn’t that teed off--it was mostly a laundry list of generalized societal ills and didn’t even have anything approaching Eminem’s quick-cut take on America’s role in emboldening Bin Laden in the ’90s--the mere fact that it made the pop charts at all was remarkable.

Why haven’t any of the others joined it there? It’s easy to rattle off a list of possible explanations: a decline in pop songwriting, a form of elitism that feels pop hooks cheapen the message, audience (and radio) fragmentation that prevents one genre-specific song from reaching a truly mass audience. Maybe it’s psychological: In the way the new songs are almost defiantly tuneless, they seem self-defeating, as if musicians have faith in themselves as spokespeople but have lost faith in the power of song. They appear to accept the notion that only the converted will hear (and like) these songs, a thought that never seemed to have occurred to Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes when they wrote “If I Had a Hammer,” or to Peter Tosh and Bob Marley when they worked up “Get Up Stand Up.”

Whatever the reason, modern rockers seem to have forgotten that protest songs shouldn’t be the equivalent of homework, and that the message goes down a lot easier when the “song” is as powerful as the “protest.” As another old-timer, Dick Clark, might have put it: It helps if it has a beat, and you can demonstrate to it.

DAVID BROWNE contributes to the New York Times,, Spin and other outlets. Goodbye 20th Century, his biography of Sonic Youth, will be published in May 2008.

By David Browne