Musician-activists have had it rough lately: An Eddie Vedder anti-war gesture prompted a mini-walkout at one Pearl Jam concert, and the Dixie Chicks are still coping with the fallout from singer Natalie Maines’ off-the-cuff ashamed-of-Bush remark.
No whining, say some punditsmusicians should stick to music, because hey, what do they know about politics? It’s an argument that doesn’t impress D.C. punker Ian MacKaye.
“I might counter: You look at the White Housethey’re a bunch of fucking businessmen,” MacKaye says. “What do they know about politics?” So when Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore asked the EvensMacKaye’s latest project, which also includes ex-Warmer Amy Farinato contribute a song to the recently launched Protest Records project, they said yes.
“[We wanted to be] counted among those who thought it was a bad idea to kill thousands of peopleor tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands,” explains MacKaye, who says he opposes war in general. “Music is a shared experience, and I think that’s…why it’s an important part of protest.”
The sharing at www.protest-records.com has been pretty extensive; launched with five songs on March 22, the online “label” now boasts 70 free-for-the-downloading tunes in MP3 format. It’s attracted nearly 3 million visitors.
Not least because it welcomes submissions “regardless of [the contributing artist’s] profile,” Protest Records is both haven and platform for musicians seeking to protest a range of issuesnot just war, but “greed, sexism, racism, [and] hate-crime.” Still, war and its latest American incarnation shadow many offerings; the site is heavy with such titles as “New New New War War War,” “Rogue State,” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.”
The Protest Records discography features artists as mainstream as the Beastie Boys and as eclectic as media artist Matt Rogalsky, whose “Two Minutes Fifty Seconds Silence for the USA” splices together the silences from President Dubya’s “48 Hours” ultimatum speech on March 17. (The track is credited both to Rogalsky and to the commander in chief.)
Rogalsky’s recording illustrates one of MacKaye’s points: Protest songs aren’t always “a blast of the bugle”; sometimes they offer up ideas “in a way that can help people think about the current situation.” The Evens’ two-and-a-half-minute contribution, “On the Face of It,” leans toward the latter. Neither anthemic nor rousing, the music is slow and sparsely arranged, and could aptly be described as either resigned or hypnotic. Lyrical references to “bridges burned,” “conspiracy and atrocity,” and “hypocrisy and inconsistency” will resonate with listeners critical of the Bush administration’s motives and diplomatic style; those worried about the long-term consequences of our country’s Iraq intervention may appreciate the Evens’ lament that “We should count our days numbered.”
But work began on “On the Face of It” well before the war started. “It’s not necessarily about this waror even about war, for that matter,” MacKaye says. Though it’s certainly not out of character with Protest Records’ Bush-and-crossbones insignia, the song is general enough to fit less political, more personal contexts. Ultimately, it’s excessive self-interestwhat the song’s final lyric calls “the tragedy/of the strategy/of looking out for number one”that “On the Face of It” cautions against. A world dominated by self-concern, MacKaye says, is “not the kind of world I care to live in.”Joe Dempsey