Today's dissent is out of tune

New York TimesOctober 20, 2011 

'Every successful movement has a soundtrack," the songwriter Tom Morello told reporters after he had tried to fire up the crowd at the Occupy Wall Street Protest last week with a Woody Guthrie tune and one of his own labor songs.

Perhaps he is right, but the protesters in Zuccotti Park in New York - and cities across the nation - have yet to find an anthem. Neither is the rest of the country humming songs about hard times. So far, musicians living through the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression have filled the airwaves with songs about dancing, not the worries of working people.

Where have all the protest songs gone?

To be sure, a handful of songwriters are tackling the issue. Ry Cooder, the blues and rock guitarist known for his exploration of roots music, lambastes bankers and conservatives in his latest album, "Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down" (Nonesuch). Similarly, Morello, who began his career as the guitarist and chief ideologue for the band Rage Against the Machine, makes an unapologetic call for leftist revolution in his new album, "World Wide Rebel Songs" (New West Records).

On Tuesday, Everlast, a Los Angeles songwriter who mixes rap and country blues, released an album, "Songs of the Ungrateful Living" (Martyr/EMI), with the song "I Get By," a brooding meditation on the problems of the working-class people facing unemployment and foreclosures in today's economy. "I voted for change and it's kind of strange/now it's all I got in my pocket," he sings on the track.

These recent releases add to a trickle of politically charged songs since the banking crisis precipitated the economic downturn. In 2009 Justin Sane of the punk band Anti-Flag wrote "The Economy Is Suffering, Let it Die," a scathing indictment of the bank bailout. The following year, the soul singer Aloe Blacc captured the heartbreak of unemployment in his single "I Need a Dollar."

No hits this time

Yet none of these songs have been big hits, and none is likely to have the impact that a song like Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" had in the early 1960s.

The scarcity of songs about the economic disaster stands in contrast to the flurry of pop songs in the mid-2000s blaming President George W. Bush's foreign policy for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Anti-war songs came not only from stalwarts like REM and Neil Young but also from younger performers like Green Day, Bright Eyes and Pink.

"What I have noticed is that the financial crisis has been a far more difficult topic for songwriters to wrestle with," said Dorian Lynskey, the British critic and the author of "33 Revolutions Per Minute" (Ecco/HarperCollins), a recently published history of protest music. "What do you say about a financial crisis where the villains are obscure and the solutions are obscure?"

Sane, the lead singer of Anti-Flag, said the consolidation of the major record labels and the concentration of radio stations in the hands of a few companies have made it harder for songwriters who have anti-establishment messages to get record deals.

At the same time, some major acts, like U2 and Radiohead, have backed off writing political songs and are using their concerts and tours to promote causes.

The nature of protest has changed as well. Traditional rallies, songs and speeches are less important than the constant electronic conversation over the Web.

"In the 1960s music was the social media of the day," said Ralph F. Young, who has written a book on dissent in America. "Today protesters have Facebook and Twitter to disseminate their message."

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