1.02.2007

The Paltry Anti-War Songbook on Iraq

by Rick Rockwell

The latest theory: great protest songs need years to gestate and of course, they need the pen of a great songwriter.

Could this be why there really is no anti-war songbook for the Iraq War?

Or could it be something more? Could it be a generational pushback against those aging hippie Baby Boomers? (They are so uncouth with their long, graying hair.) Could it be that the media from corporate-controlled radio to shallow so-called news programs have decided the patriotic course is to shut down dissent? Think there isn’t an inherent media bias against those who believe the war is wrong (even though that’s the vast majority of the country now)?

Here are a few examples to check before you disagree and see if you can spot the inaccuracies or skewed language used by the so-called journalists in these pieces:

Cindy Sheehan on MSNBC's “Hardball;”

Glenn Beck with Representative-elect Keith Ellison on CNN Headline News;

Neil Young discusses Living With War on CNN.

Let’s face it though, weak songs are the real reason the current anti-war songbook is so paltry. (For a listing of many anti-war songs, check here and here.) Certainly, lack of radio or television airplay cripple these efforts and it is hard to perform in a media environment that is openly hostile. However, Neil Young’s Living With War was such a dud it was not only savaged by the critics but also it was parodied on Saturday Night Live for its one-dimensional qualities. The man may not have another “Ohio” in him unfortunately. Of course, there’s “When the President Talks to God” by Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst). However that song is just as one-dimensional as anything on Living With War. The critics (this one included) believe a great protest song should be more than an editorial with some strumming (and there’s very little of that in Oberst’s song). The song should have some literary elements to stand up over time.

Certainly, Pearl Jam's "World Wide Suicide" from 2006 is a great rock song with a commentary on war but it is rather oblique as a protest song: there's really no ringing call to action in it.

So back to the idea that great protest songs need gestation. Bob Dylan released “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War” in 1963, even before the big Vietnam War escalation. At that time there were less than 17,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam. Depending upon your state of reference though, the first U.S. advisors died in Vietnam in 1959 (some sources also note an advisor was killed in 1945 just after World War II, but there was that 14-year gap before any others were killed). So Dylan needed about four years to work up his anger against the growing war in the appropriate ways.

Perhaps Neil Young and Conor Oberst were premature with their attempts. If this theory holds, it seems 2007 should be the year for the classic Iraq War-era protest song.

(Check the double-feature below. Neil Young discusses protest songs with ABC News and Conor Oberst performs “When the President Talks to God” on The Tonight Show. The promotional photo of Neil Young is from Paramount Classics for the documentary-concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold.)









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