By Amy O’Brian
Around the posters and protesters at a recent Toronto peace rally, silence hangs as ominously as the looming threat of war. The crowd occasionally attempts a weak chant but their enthusiasm is pathetic. And then, somewhere in the distance, a deep and melodic voice begins to sing.
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.”
An attractive young man on a BMX bike weaves through the protesters. From speakers in his backpack the comforting, yet mobilizing, voice of Bob Marley emanates.
“Won’t you help me sing, these songs of freedom.”
The words to Marley’s Redemption Song are burned in almost everyone’s minds, but no one in the crowd raises his or her voice to join the preeminent pacifist anthem.
“All I ever had: Redemption song; Redemption song.”
Music that once moved crowds to tears and tantrums seemingly has no effect – the attendees appear too deflated to find redemption in any song.
In the 1970s, the anti-Vietnam movement was fuelled by music. But the same songs that expressed the tension and fears of a generation are now merely background noise for the crowd that looks more interested in what’s for lunch than the peace it supports.
Perhaps the songs’ impact has dulled over decades of radio play and pop-culture analysis, their message and ability to incite action lost over time. But more likely, the songs of Marley, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and other protest artists of the 1960s and 70s simply belong to a different time.
The messages of today’s music are fragmented. Some music fans gather in mosh pits to vent the benign anger of teenage woes. Others gather in monstrous sports arenas to stare blankly at high-resolution jumbotrons displaying every detail of Britney Spears sprayed-on outfit while she “innocently” gyrates with her entourage of male dancers. Some seek out the neofolk of socially-concious artists who voice discontent about globalization or violence against women.
But the music industry hasn’t produced an artist in decades who was capable of mobilizing society en masse towards a revolutionary cause. Groups like Rage Against the Machine, Ani Difranco or the Rheostatics are politically motivated, but haven’t gained anywhere near the popularity or impact of Dylan, the Greatful Dead or John Lennon. With airwaves inundated with pop music, many people haven’t even heard today’s revolutionary rockers.
In the 1970s, if you hadn’t heard of Joan Baez, Cat Stevens or Dylan, you were probably living in a hut somewhere in the marshlands of Tennessee or the backwoods of Newfoundland. Popular artists wrote catchy tunes that lured listeners with melodies, then hit them over the head with lyrics that challenged politicians, police, religion, and every aspect of the status quo. But politicized music fell from the airwaves in the 1980s and 90s as corporate interests began creating generic brands that were more interested in selling products than promoting platforms.
But the recent globalization movement and resurging interest in political activism has sparked a desire for socially conscious music.
Artists are once again mobilizing for a good cause. On September 21, our televisions were usurped by a gang of philanthropic artists for “America: A Tribute to Heroes.” The broadcast was an impressive example of artists uniting for a cause, but don’t mistake it for a revolution – it was merely a reaction and no new anthems were produced.
The broadcast raised $150 million and demonstrated the artist’s somber reverence shown for the victims of the attacks. But it also showed that the new “War on Terrorism” is more likely to revolutionize the music industry than the other way around. David Segal of the Washington Post noted that country music, which has sufferef a severe downturn in recent years, is back in high demand.
“It’s patriotic and earnestly focused on the sort of tales of perseverance that have become all too prevalent in recent days,” Segal wrote.
Resurging interest in spiritual music shows that consumer priorities have been rearranged. The hostile, self-involved, woe-is-me attitude of certain rockers and rappers no longer interests consumers. It’s a bad time to strain vocal chords over the difficulties of fame or adolescence. It’s a good time to look at the bigger picture and get spiritual in song.
Over the past two weeks, Amazon.com’s bestseller charts have shown a significant jump in the sales of religious and patriotic music.
Even before the events of Sept. 11, rockers were getting righteous. The hugely popular and influential band U2 who once sang against political injustices, is now pumping out catchy but benign tunes about beauty and spirituality.
Similarly, Sinead O’Connor, who once ripped up a picture of the Pope to symbolize her disdain for patriarchal power, has become a quiet and humble member of the Catholic church.
The days of betting out angry resistance songs seem to be over. All the music industry has been able to give in recent years is money and the occasional re-mix of a Sixties classic. The soundtrack of social movements may, from now on, be crammed with gospel anthems and the patriotic twang of country music.
But will the voices of Faith Hill or Rita McNeil blaring from renegade backpacks have the same impact as Marley’s musical call for peace?
“How long will they kill our prophets while we stand aside and look? Some say it’s just a part of it, we’ve got to rewrite the book. Won’t you help to sing, these songs of freedom. Cause all I ever had, Redemption song.”