A new music for an age-old plague

The sound is etched in the national memory like a voice from a long-forgotten dream: The familiar melody of the “Star Spangled Banner” being wrenched and warped through a Stratocaster guitar, a stack of Marshall amps and the body of a thin, electric haired African-American into the cry of a country ripped asunder by war, where the values and institutions once taken for granted have been cast in the new, harsh light of distrust and anger.

It’s a sound, in fact, born of a time not unlike our own.

Yet in contrast to the 1960s, which culminated in Jimi Hendrix’s early morning performance of the National Anthem at the Woodstock Music Festival, our own decade has produced no corresponding soundtrack to map the fears and paroxysms that have gripped America since the morning of September 11, 2001 and the emotional, physical and financial upheavals that followed in its wake.

The collision of art and social awareness reaches back far longer than the ‘60s, from Woody Guthrie spinning tales of labor camp organizers and their brutal treatment at the hands of the authorities, to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a searing account of the aftermath of a lynching, an all-too-common occurrence in pre-civil rights America of the1930s.

In the decades that followed, musicians would question their elected officials in more overt ways. With the advent of rock and roll in the ‘50s, the political establishment began, for the first time, to sniff out the subversive potential hidden within popular music. That potential would burst into the open in the mid-‘60s, as musicians rode a wave of protests centered around America’s undeclared war in Vietnam. The violence of the era coupled with its enormous social upheavals to provide fuel for a decade of nearly unprecedented creativity. The music and lyrics reached beyond the clichés of an earlier time to question, provoke, and celebrate ideas and customs never before addressed in so overt a manner.

The list of great, socially conscious songs from that era reads like a ‘60s greatest hits list: “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones; “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye; “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan; “White Rabbitby Jefferson Airplane, and countless others all helped usher in a new, darker and more fully aware sensibility to popular music.

While bands like the Sex Pistols and Gang of Four would carry that spirit forward into the next two decades, by the turn of the century any pretense musicians may have harbored about addressing issues beyond their own fickle desires seemed to have been abandoned entirely.

Or perhaps we simply need to look deeper. In the weeks and months following 9-11 there were grand pronouncements by noted critics to the effect that the terror of that day would lead to a new renaissance of socially minded artists invading the airwaves of the nation.

That never happened. But look beyond the cavern of popular entertainment into its far corners, and you’ll find webs of independent music that run like arteries to the very heart of what it means to be a human being in the twenty-first century.

Among the more recognizable of these acts are: Drive-by Truckers, and their tales of rural poverty and desperation; Radiohead, perhaps the penultimate band of modern paranoia and all-encompassing dread; Nick Cave, a former goth-rock poster boy turned chronicler of black-humored, urban nightmares; The Roots, who, despite their gig as Jimmy Fallon’s house band, continue their run of impressively forward thinking albums; and Tom Waits, a musical surrealist who has become ever more outspoken about America’s involvement in the Middle East, as one listen to “Hell Broke Luce” off his latest studio album will attest.

While none of these artists indulge in the kind of hand-on-heart grandstanding of bands like U2, by putting a human face on the terrors of the moment, they may have accomplished something even more important. To my ears, these bands have produced music that stands its ground in the face of conformity; that calls out hypocrisy and the politicians who use race and religion to convince people to vote against their own best interests; that stares into the face of the pampered elites who deride the working class of this country as lazy malcontents while handing out billions in corporate welfare.

As this country moves towards another Gilded Age—the period during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when corporations consolidated their stranglehold over the American working classes—it’s time for artist, of all stripes, to earn their place in society and address the times we live in.

As Occupy Wall Street and other movements spread throughout the country, it’s time we had a music the equal of that energy.


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