- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

Years from now, when the sons and daughters of Generation-Xers are backpacking in exotic Iraq before they set off to college, some enterprising soul will inevitably compile a nostalgic boxed set of anti-Bush protest songs.

Picture the ad (one hesitates to assume there still will be televisions as we know them):

“Hey, is that ‘21st-Century Freedom Rock?’ ”

“Well, turn it up.”

In one sense, this already has been done. NOFX frontman and PunkVoter.com creator “Fat” Mike Burkett cobbled together two volumes of “Rock Against Bush” CDs, which included contributions from Foo Fighters, Sum 41, the Offspring and Ministry, to influence potential young voters in the 2004 election.

Defeat at the polls has not stemmed the tide.

For the last three years, songs that in one form or another castigate the president for greed, imperialism, ignorance and arrogance have become as ubiquitous as black gobs of discarded chewing gum on city sidewalks.

Unlike the days of radical Greenwich Village folkies or disaffected anti-Reagan/Thatcher punks, they are not confined to any genre or age group.

You’re as likely to hear one from 54-year-old John Mellencamp (“To Washington”) as you are from 40-year-old rappers the Beastie Boys (“In a World Gone Mad”) and 25-year-old Conor Oberst (“When the President Talks to God”).

At this point, it’s useful to ask a few questions, beginning with, “Is any of this stuff any good?”

Yes and no. Contemporary protest music ranges wildly in quality.

There’s the idiotically banal (Paula Cole’s “My Hero, Mr. President”):

Daddy’s little helper, silver foot in your mouth/Policeman of the world gonna start another war/Connecticut Yankee in a cowboy hat/You’re my hero, Mr. President

The profane (NOFX’s “Idiot Son of an …”):

He’s not smart, a C student/And that’s after buying his way into school/Beady eyes, and he’s kinda dyslexic/Can he read? No one’s really quite sure

And the artfully obscure (the New Pornographers’ “The Electric Version”):

Introducing for the first time

Pharaoh on the microphone

Sing, “All hail”

A more important question, culturally speaking, is whether these protest songs translate into a meaningful movement.

Some say no, the reason being: There’s no draft — no reviled institution that directly threatens the lives of young people.

Observed New Republic writer Jason Zengerle in an online piece about Mr. Oberst: “Today, because there is no draft — and hence no powerful motivation like self-interest to serve as an organizing principle — there is no broad-based antiwar or countercultural youth movement to influence Oberst, much less to look to his music for anything more profound than entertainment.”

I figured it might be useful to look at contemporary protest music from a comparative angle. How does it stack up against the Woodstock generation? Will the work of Mr. Oberst and company last like, say, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” have?

Here’s what a couple of Woodstock Festival vets had to say.

Joe McDonald, the Northern California lefty and former frontman of Country Joe & the Fish, doesn’t see a movement with real collective force: “I don’t think that there is a type of music today that could be called protest music — unless you include music from the various protest movements like Earth First!”

Still, he adds via e-mail, pop music today is generally more sophisticated than it was in the Vietnam era, even when one doesn’t include the anti-Bush bumper crop.

“I think that contemporary music has quite a bit of content in it of political and social subjects, much more than the ‘50s and even the ‘60s,” Mr. McDonald says. “Of course, if the content is violently against the status quo, it will not get air play. But rap music seems to push boundaries all the time.”

The indefatigable singer-songwriter Richie Havens (he’s to appear at the Birchmere on Feb. 25), has noticed politics-packed songs from many of the young performers who open for him. However, he says, their impact is often limited to local rather than national audiences.

Moreover, Mr. Havens says, while it’s heartening that young artists are speaking up, vintage ‘60s protest music is as relevant as ever: “Most interestingly, all of the music that was done back then turned out to be prophetic. We didn’t know it would loom as large as it does today.”

In the end, according to Mr. Havens, protest music then and now is like background radiation, and the big bang happened in the ‘50s. “Rock ‘n’ roll is what I like to call the first-generation primal scream. Every generation thereafter has had its day, its chance to chime in,” he says.

Makes you wonder: What will they be protesting when our current troubles are as distant as Vietnam is from us now?

In the meantime, given the nature of the enemy we face, I just hope we’re all still around to hear it.

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