True Sounds of Liberty
The Reporter's protest song project
By Michel Cicero 07/21/2011
Complaining may not be socially acceptable in these days of personal boundaries and manufactured enlightenment (unless it concerns cigarette smokers and taxes) but can anyone deny how much there is to bitch about? Our constitutional rights as Americans are eroding as quickly as our beaches, the middle class has all but vanished, habitable property sits vacant while the poor sleep in cars and under bridges (in the cities that will allow it) and yes, the rich are actually getting richer. We continue to sacrifice our kids for a war against a theoretical enemy. We ignore nuclear leaks and hunt Wikileaks. Infrastructures are disintegrating, yet construction jobs are scarce. We may be guaranteed the right to pursue happiness, but few have the time. We’ve traded sturdy cloth for paper; red, white and blue for green; stars and stripes for dollars and cents. War, debt, healthcare, tax revolt, foreign oil, big pharma, ozone holes, polar melt. British Petroleum, Halliburton, General Electric, Goldman Sachs. The Gulf oil disaster, Operation Enduring Freedom, bailouts, housing crisis.
Are we outraged or tired? If we’re tired, no worries; we have artists who aren’t. Or do we? In previous times of trouble, echoes of protest projected from the radio, the television, the cinema, the campus quad, the sidewalk. Their songs gave voice to our discontent and energized our revolt. The music focused us. From Negro spirituals to folk, reggae to rap, and punk rock to metal, songs of protest have not just offered hope, they’ve fueled revolution. So where is today’s protest music? Can you think of more than a handful of songs recorded in the 2000s? Do you ever hear them on the radio? Neither do we. And that’s why we thought it would be a neat exercise to solicit some.
A few months ago we invited local musicians to take a stab at writing protest songs. We received more than 50 submissions and chose 11 that we thought best represented diversity of genre and subject matter while actually qualifying in some way as protest. We approached it as an experiment, remaining as unattached to the results as possible while secretly hoping for the intensity of Rage Against the Machine or the lyrical muscle of Bob Dylan.
Predictably, folk was the dominant genre but somewhat surprisingly, most of the submissions came from post-hippie, boomer generation types who have a tendency to wax a tad too sentimental. “Where are the youth?!” we cried as we listened to yet another mushy plea for peace. The most prevalent theme was greed and wealth distribution, followed by religious zealotry. There was a nod to gay marriage, a laundry list of complaints for God almighty, a handful of laments and a whole lot of “keep your chin up” songs of encouragement, but almost nary a call to action.
VCReporter spoke with Rock City Studios owner Dan Peyton, a former staff songwriter for Screen Gems/Columbia from way back who has some experience writing protest music. We asked him if it seems like young musicians are politically apathetic as compared to those in the late ’60s, early ’70s. He said it’s not so much apathy as it is cynicism that afflicts them. “In the ’60s, people really believed they could create change. Now government is so much bigger and more powerful, we watch big business crash the economy and none of them go to jail. So if we pick up placards and go to the street are they going to pay attention? I see in a lot of young people — they don’t feel they can do anything about it, it’s so far beyond our reach.”
In 1971, Peyton was charged with the task of writing the title song for the movie Getting Straight about student protests at a university. It starred Elliot Gould and Candice Bergen, and quite uncannily, the day it opened was the same day demonstrations at Kent State erupted in violence, killing four students and wounding nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis. The timing temporarily threatened the film’s success but by the end of the year it became a top grosser for Columbia. “There was great division and anger in the country,” remembers Peyton, who thinks people tend to forget that when they feel nostalgic for the era.
Another song from Getting Straight, “Go Home Pigs,” was later sampled by Eminem for the song “Guilty Conscience” earning Peyton some cash and putting the old song to good reuse. The film’s climax involved students going berserk, running through the school smashing windows while Gould and Bergen had sex in a stairwell. Today’s audiences would likely have a good laugh, but such incendiary subject matter with an equally challenging soundtrack is rarely produced by Hollywood today.
As we at VCReporter sifted through the protest song submissions, we couldn’t help but wonder if we were alone in thinking that in order to qualify, the songs had to evoke anger, or at least displeasure. Peyton agreed. “First, you have to be pissed. A protest song really at its core is saying, ‘We don’t like this, we protest this.’ People think ‘We Shall Overcome’ is a protest song but it’s not. It’s an affirmation of their worth [as human beings]. Protest is like tear down the walls, rip the place down and trash it.”
While none of the songs we chose for the protest compilation made us want to riot in the streets, a few of them did get our blood moving. Dirty Words’ “American Dream” and New Liberty’s “Can’t Be Divided,” the most rock and roll songs of the group, have that anthemic sing-along quality that empowers both the song and the listener. The kids in Dirty Words (which has since disbanded to form other projects) wrote “American Dream” as a rejection of the bourgeois symbols of success and happiness their conservative Christian parents clung to. “It’s saying, ‘Yeah you got a nice family and nice cars, but you sure ain’t happy, and I’m not going to grow up to be unhappy like you,’ ” explained guitarist/vocalist Kasey Herbison. “It doesn’t sound very nice when I say it, but that’s really what it is.”
“This is our American Dream
My kid’s on the football team
Two-story house that’s always clean
Someone tell me why I’m not happy — right now”
— “American Dream,” Dirty Words
The confluence of an increasingly imperialistic government and widespread voter apathy in the U.S. is leading to a perfect storm of revolution that New Liberty’s Shane Mac wouldn’t mind writing the soundtrack for. “I’ve always been interested in the idea of a revolution and what occurs when a large number of people disagree with the justifications or ‘reasoning’ for certain events. New Liberty has a strong interest in living free and exercising our rights as human beings, not just as citizens or whatever the powers that be choose to call us.”
James McKinney of De La Crank contributed a clever and contemptuous ditty about class division. “Livin’ Like the Rich Folks Do” is a sonic attack on “the filthy institutions that have looted the nation, under the slack-jawed supervision of our complicit government, whose only regulation was the amount of zeros you could fit on a check to a senator,” he says. In true protest spirit, McKinney calls the song “a plea for people to open their eyes and see plainly that the ruling class is morally bankrupt and any faith that is put in these people is an absolute waste.”
The Mandala Virus, a young alternative rock group from Santa Paula, was moved to write a song after reading an article about the 400 individuals whose net worth comprises more than half the country’s wealth. “I was born and raised in Vermont, and had a humble middle-class upbringing,” says JJ Sicotte, the band’s vocalist. “I never had a lot, but always had enough to be comfortable. This all changed the past few years with the recession. This song talks about our frustrations, but ultimately there is still hope because the middle class is the heart of the country and will always prevail.”
That ghostly middle class is all but absent from Ventura City Councilmember Carl Morehouse’s countrified “Rich and Poor,” which was written during the Bush years but is perhaps even more relevant today.
“Now they talk of God and country as if they own the words.
But I know God and country, and know that’s just absurd.
They wrap themselves up in the flag, like some kind of football team
While sending poor kids off to die and keeping their hands clean.”
— “Rich and Poor,” Carl Morehouse
Morehouse confesses, “I am one of the few people I know who owns up to having voted for Nixon the first time I was able to vote in 1972.” But he admits he quickly became disillusioned. “The working man keeps getting suckered in by words big corporation supporters use, and the middle class is fast disappearing.”
Another Bush-era song was graciously submitted by Ojai songstress Julie Christensen who, once upon a time, sang with Leonard Cohen and has worked with the likes of Todd Rundgren, k.d. lang and Iggy Pop. Her song recorded with her band Stone Cupid is a scathing indictment of George W.’s self-serving foreign policy and paradoxically inhumane religious agenda.
In the summer of 2004, Christensen became acutely aware of the power the Christian right had over voters. She began a personal campaign, pleading with her more liberal Christian friends “to speak out against the hijacking of their religion.” She said her friends couldn’t be bothered to seek out alternative faith-based news sources. “I felt so betrayed when Kerry and Edwards had said they would count every vote, but then caved. Many of the record numbers of newly registered Democrats were told by their [religious leaders] ‘not to vote for a pro-choice candidate’ like Kerry.” She checked out a website about the “rapture index” that Bill Moyers had suggested and was driven to write something. Of the song, she says, “I’m happy about the mega-church, Nascar, sort of country feel of it. I thought maybe I could appeal to that audience and do a bait-and-switch. Things are even worse now, alas.”
One of the more unusual submissions was The Julian Day’s electronic song “Idolatry,” another declaration against organized religion. “Christianity is big business, especially the Catholic Church,” said a member of The Julian Day, from Ojai.
“The Vatican City itself is a blasphemy. Can you imagine Jesus approving of such a place? Nowhere in the Bible does it say ‘build a Vatican City and install a pope.’ ”
“I don’t believe in idolatry,
I’m hindered by false prophecy,
and I don’t believe that God hangs out in a church”
—“Idolatry,” The Julian Day
It’s not just Christianity he takes issue with. “Islam is just as bad in its creation of starving, neglected children by practicing polygamy. The Mormon Church had its time along the same lines. The only religion I have any affection for is Buddhism. It’s simple and straightforward.”
The only antiwar song to make our list was submitted by the band Grace Gravity. “War Against War” is a call to stop all fighting and turn instead to our compassionate natures. “We have to go beyond the constraints on our consciousness that have been put in place by the media and government,” says vocalist Terri Hitt.
VCReporter may not be breaking new ground with our local protest song compilation. We don’t expect to move mountains or even parking meters. Dan Peyton told us that the end of the Vietnam War may have had as much to do with a cultural paradigm shift as a protest movement. As literary great Aldous Huxley once pointed out, the relationship between art and protest is an ironically inter dependent one, as the artist uses the horrors of life to produce art. “Perhaps it’s good for one to suffer,” he wrote in Antic Hay. “Can an artist do anything if he’s happy?”
While injustice may be an excellent muse, that doesn’t mean the result only serves the art. We wouldn’t underestimate the power of a voice, a word and a melody to effect change. Even if it’s only a subtle change of heart.
Phil Ochs, one of history’s greatest protest songwriters, may have said it best in the liner notes for Pleasures of the Harbor: “In such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.”
The VCReporter Protest Project compilation is available for download at www.soundcloud.com/vcreporter. Tracks will also be available for listening at VCReporter’s Westside ArtWalk pop-up gallery, July 23-24, in conjunction with a visual protest exhibition (see story Art & Culture). 89 S. California St.