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The political climate leading up to the presidential election is as intense and epic as any since the ’60s. Yet unlike now, that bygone era had a soundtrack that was synonymous with the revolutionary spirit of the times. One didn’t have to look any further than the Top 10 to find protest anthems like Edwin Starr’s “War” or Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” These days, a scan of the charts wouldn’t tip anyone off to the fact that we’re fighting multiple wars or in an economic free-fall. A recent No. 1 song, T.I.’s “Whatever You Like,” compiles a long list of his favorite luxuries, like Patrón on ice, Bentleys, and a willingness to gas up his jet.
Not that the ’60s protest songs didn’t have their own limitations: They often came off as self-righteous harangues, and their direct call-to-action style lacked the fun, escapist vibe many listeners look for when they turn on the radio. Two of the genre’s better-known practitioners, Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, had a famous falling-out over the format in 1965, when Dylan threw Ochs out of his limo after exclaiming, “You’re not a folksinger. You’re a journalist.” Yet Ochs was a master of the genre. He was witty without being condescending and pointed without being shrill. He penned the protest chestnut “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and the self-explanatory gem “Draft Dodger Rag.” Due in part to his frustration with getting his anti-war message across, Ochs became increasingly self-destructive; he ultimately hanged himself in 1976. Ochs’ death didn’t kill the protest song, but today it’s a mutt (half stump speech, half ditty) that’s been neutered, leashed, and dressed in a silly peace-symbol sweater.
Though it’s almost impossible to match the poignancy and intensity of Ochs’ mission, musicians still occasionally attempt to tackle pressing issues, and some hew to Ochs’ tradition (Todd Snider even wrote a tribute to him, “Thin Wild Mercury,” that recounted the infamous limo expulsion). Here, a guide to how well some recent entries match up.
“A Few Words in Defense of Our Country”
Harps and Angels
Briefing: A pointed analysis of the last eight years, in the form of a Tin Pan Alley tune.
Staying on Message: Newman efficiently excoriates George W. Bush’s two terms, via backhanded compliments. “While they’re the worst that we’ve had/Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen,” he sings, before favorably comparing the administration to the Spanish Inquisition, Hitler, and Stalin.
Cringe Factor: Newman has long slipped sardonic satire into songs almost unnoticed because of his laid-back accompaniments and soft-spoken delivery. This song is no exception, but some listeners may be put off by his critique of a few Supreme Court Justices: “A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the court now too/But I defy you, anywhere in the world/To find me two Italians as tightass as the two Italians we got/And as for the brother/Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either.”
Preaching to the Choir: Perhaps some folks will mistakenly take the title of the song at its word, but mostly this will only be heard by Newman’s base. However, with the current bleak economic outlook and loss of international status, Americans on the left and the right are more open than before to the notion that our empire is headed for a fall.
Expiration Date: The song has a timeless quality in comparing the current American government to leaders across history, from the Caesars through King Leopold. In a classy move, Newman sets his final verse of lyrics against the first eight bars of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” an early contender for the national anthem.
Ochs Rating: 4.8/5 Ochs
Briefing: A lacerating indictment of Fox News Channel.
Staying on Message: Nas does a heckuva job sticking to his talking points as he takes the media to task for spreading lies, ignoring real problems, and propagating a right-wing agenda. As the song implies, he focuses on Rupert Murdoch–owned media, but he also finds time to slam CBS and Comcast, overtly sparing only one network: “Tryin’ to track us down with GPS/Make a nigga wanna invest in PBS.” Jim Lehrer ain’t playin’!
Cringe Factor: “Sly Fox” is an energetic, guitar-riff-driven hip-hop song that’s one of the better efforts from Nas’ recent untitled album. It’s also fairly tame by hip-hop standards—only three S-bombs and one F-bomb. Overall, the song makes a good case for the argument that hip-hop is a more tuneful and timely medium for social commentary than rock or folk.
Preaching to the Choir: Few on the right will probably ever hear “Sly Fox,” seeing as it is featured on an album, whose cover features a big “N,” created by whip marks, on Nas’ back. Perhaps, though, some members of the O’Reilly nation might be intrigued by the controversy that stemmed from O’Reilly denouncing Nas as a proponent for violence in rap music for appearing at a free concert at Virginia Tech last year.
Expiration Date: The song is rife with allusions to current events and media figures that may not age well: “They say I’m all about murder-murder and kill-kill/But what about Grindhouseand Kill Bill?.” Maybe he’s still pissed about Quentin Tarantino’s N-word fixation?
Ochs Rating: 3.3 Ochs
There’s Me and There’s You
Briefing: A artsy blend of musique concrète and orchestral jazz that pays tribute to the victims of the Iraq war.
Staying on Message: To understand that this song protests the Iraq war, you have to read the press release, which explains that Herbert sampled the incubator that kept his prematurely born son alive and that “each beep represents 100 people killed in Iraq, from the start of the war in 2003 to October 2006.” Well-intentioned, yes. Straightforward, not so much.
Cringe Factor: Once you’re aware of the symbolism of each electronic blip, it’s almost as if you become complicit in those deaths by gradually becoming accustomed to their frequency. It’s the aural equivalent of those pamphlets that say, “By the time you finish reading this, another person has died of disease X.” The lush horn and string arrangements and the haunting choral vocals are very pleasant, but the discordant, discomforting beeps will have you thinking that your playback device is malfunctioning.
Preaching to the Choir: The avant-garde nature of the song, even divorced from its intent to protest, makes the song a difficult listen. If the samples weren’t so intrusive, the song could probably pass for a modern big band number.
Expiration Date: The song is oblique enough, in that it isn’t inextricably tied to the current conflict. And it has the benefit of not being too direct and too specific; by approaching the rising death toll from the novel perspective of mathematics, the song may have a longer tenure.
Ochs Rating: 2.3 Ochs
“Can It Be (Half a Million Dollars and 18 Months Later)”
MURS for President
Briefing: A hip-hop critique of the current state of the union.
Staying on Message: MURS is clearly dissatisfied with the country’s present path: “The world’s gone crazy/Since we last spoke/Bloodshed and war/The absence of hope./Shootin’ at the school/The economy’s a joke.” Eventually, though, the song becomes more about MURS’ dissatisfaction with his own path: “Numb from the liquor and the antidepressants/Pressure from the label, studio stressin’/Almost lost my passion to pursue this profession.”
Cringe Factor: While MURS wisely admonishes rap artists for being too materialistic and falling into thug stereotypes, he also has the self-importance to attribute not only the failing state of hip-hop but that of the entire free world to his two-year absence from the scene. To underscore that point he uses a primo Jackson 5 sample for the song’s chorus: “Can it be I stayed away too long?”
Preaching to the Choir: Of all the songs featured here, this one will probably, and deservingly, have the greatest audience. It’s a welcome, catchy return to conscious hip-hop. Nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine too many Joe the Plumbers offering an open ear to a Los Angeles rapper with tentacle dreads.
Expiration Date: Though MURS is short for Making Underground Raw Shit, MURS for Presidentis his major-label debut. While that may compromise his underground status, it may also allow his message to reach more listeners. If only he could avoid predictable beef lines like, “Coulda done a Nas and screamed hip-hop is dead/I got up off my ass and did something instead.”.
Ochs Rating: 3.6 Ochs
“Mission Accomplished (Because You Gotta Have Faith)”
Briefing: An acoustic commentary on the Iraq war by an avowed Ochs disciple
Staying on Message: Snider’s anti-war song is about as unfocused as Operation Iraqi Freedom itself. Snider, who’s usually more on-target, creates a stoned, scattershot assembly of a Will Rogers quote, a Midas touch reference and an overlong flying metaphor—all barely held together by drool and a hemp rope. If it weren’t for the context, it might hardly be recognized as a protest song.
Cringe Factor: A catchy tune or a disarming joke can help a political message go down more easily. However, a guitar riff from George Michael’s “Faith,” plus several minutes of a grating military cadence and lack of a hummable chorus make getting through the song more of a chore than a creative liberty.
Preaching to the Choir: Assuming that non-lefties even make it past the gatekeeper title of Snider’s release, Peace Queer, the opening song would quickly stop them in their tracks. Everything from the snarky name to the lurching gait and joyless vibe would probably even deter most moderates. To wit, such graceless Dubya-drubbing lyrics, “Met a soldier in a recruit booth/Said he’d make a man out of me and stole my youth/Workin’ for a man who could not stop lying/Drove us all off a cliff and called it flying.”
Expiration Date: Just like he did on his superior 2006 anti-Dubya anthem, “You Got Away With It (A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers),” Snider avoids any proper nouns on “Mission Accomplished.” If nothing else, he ensures that the song isn’t just limited to the facts at hand. Finally, somebody with a smart exit strategy.
Ochs Rating: 2.1/5 Ochs
Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman
“The Lights Are On in Spidertown”
The Fabled City
Briefing: A cryptic assailment of the military-industrial complex. Probably.
Staying on Message: Sprawling and incoherent, the song conveys only a vague sense of dread and discontent. Morello employs allegories that are either hackneyed or nonsensical, often in the same line: “Stand back storm troopers attack/On a bright May Day man/I must be gettin’ soft/I dunno, what do you think mister?/Looks like 10 fat pigs in a nine pig trough.”
Cringe Factor: Morello’s deadpan baritone makes him sound more bored than angry. Without a decent hook in sight, Morello trudges through his confused lyrics and the music—acoustic guitar, minimal drums, and light keyboard accompaniment—isn’t powerful enough to distract from them. Woody Guthrie, an obvious inspiration of Morello’s protest-folk persona, the Nightwatchman, wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar. If that guitar could hear this song, it might take on Morello after the bad guys were finished off.
Preaching to the Choir: If fans of his guitar style in his day job, Rage Against the Machine, wanted music that was both more sanctimonious and much weenier, then this is their lucky day. Morello’s activist pedigree and the general unlistenable nature of this song make sure that no one beyond Rage devotees and leftist yes-men will make it through to the end.
Expiration Date: Because he traffics in abstractions, Morello doesn’t limit his song to any particular period. However, the song is atrocious enough that no era, save the literal end of civilization, would be an appropriate time to listen to it.
Ochs Rating: 0.6 Ochs