It’s hard to believe in this era of Biebers and Ushers and Jonases that the pop charts used to pack a political punch.
Although protest music doesn’t register on today’s charts, the genre still thrives outside the pop mainstream.
Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction (penned by P.F. Sloan) was a certified No. 1 hit in 1965, and caused an uproar among several American conservative groups who felt the lyrics were unpatriotic ("The eastern world, it is exploding/ Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’/ You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’/ You don’t believe in war but what’s that gun you’re totin’/ And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’"). One suspects that Miley Cyrus will never get quite this incendiary.
Although protest music doesn’t register on today’s charts, the genre still thrives outside the pop mainstream. In their documentary Sounds Like a Revolution, co-directors Summer Love and Jane Michener deftly trace its evolution over the past 50 years. The idea for the doc came to Love after a chat with her mother in 2003.
"By the time the invasion of Iraq happened, you had a huge wellspring of activism, millions of people marching, the largest pre-war demonstrations ever," says the Toronto filmmaker. "And I was inspired. My mom and I were having a conversation around that time and she said, ‘Where’s the music? Where’s the soundtrack of this generation?’ I thought that was a very good question."
Love travelled around North America between 2003 and 2008, interviewing modern-day musical activists like Michael Franti, rapper Paris and punk bands NOFX and Anti-Flag. Although they create wildly disparate sounds, the doc shows just how much these musicians have in common: a loathing of George W. Bush and the Iraq war, a desire to distribute their own music on indie labels (in several cases created by the artists themselves) so they don’t have to compromise their lyrics, and impressive internet savvy they use to connect with their respective fan bases. During the 2004 U.S. election, NOFX lead singer Fat Mike created the website Punkvoter.com, an attempt to engage punk youth in the voting process.
These artists don’t need to appear on the cover of Entertainment Weekly to attract sizeable crowds — the film devotes a large chunk of time to Michael Franti’s annual Power to the Peaceful festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, which regularly draws 50,000 people. Of all the artists profiled in the doc, he caters most directly to the neo-hippie demographic. Among his fans, Franti’s song Bomb the World has become an anti-war anthem to rival Give Peace a Chance. "We can bomb the world to pieces," he sings, "But we can’t bomb it into peace."
"I connected with Michael early on, because I saw him changing a business model that he didn’t agree with," says Love. "He didn’t just acquiesce, he was trying to make it into his own, and in a way that he could feel proud of later on. Even in the film he says, ‘20 years from now, when my son asks, "What did you do during this time?" I can say proudly that I was there doing something.’ That’s why I connected with each one of these artists; I felt like I needed to do something. This is my small piece of the puzzle."
Although Sounds Like a Revolution focuses on 21st-century protest music, the spectre of the 1960s and early 1970s hovers in the background. Early on, David Crosby tells a remarkable story about the genesis of Ohio, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s classic indictment of the Kent State shootings on May 4, 1970 ("Four dead in Ohio"). Seeing the famous photos of the incident a few days afterward in Life magazine, Neil Young wrote the song on the spot, placing the blame squarely on Richard Nixon ("Tin soldiers and Nixon coming"). The band recorded the tune the same night and it was rush-released within a matter of days by their label, Atlantic Records. It went to No. 14 on the Billboard charts.
That chain of events could never happen today, and Sounds Likes a Revolution explains why. Indeed, the film is at its best when it delineates how the noose gradually tightened on politically charged music at major labels. The doc takes the viewer on a tour of relevant events, from Ice-T’s Cop Killer controversy at Warner Music in 1992 to the Dixie Chicks’ backlash during the lead-up to the Iraq War. (At a concert in England, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines had said, "We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas," the band’s home state. It led to a boycott of their music by several country music radio stations.)
"Today’s highly corporatized environment leads to a general risk aversion," Love argues. "That risk aversion is in every aspect of the industry, and it didn’t exist on the same level in the 1960s as it does today. I find it slightly condescending when people think that no generation since the ‘60s counterculture has cared [about politics]. Part of my personal mission was to prove that the business context had changed, and to make any value judgments about the music or the message was wrong, because the context is so different today."
Sounds Like a Revolution suffers from some repetition in its musician interviews, but the film makes a convincing case that there’s more protest music today than at any other time in history — it’s just being distributed in a different way.
Love was thrilled when Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name — a powerful track condemning racism — went to No. 1 in the U.K. charts at Christmas last year, the result of a massive online protest against the manufactured-by-Simon-Cowell pop idols that traditionally inhabit that spot.
"It’s exactly the kind of backlash that you would expect from a hyper-commercialized environment," she says. "The U.K. is even worse than the U.S. in my opinion for this sort of bubble-gum pop karaoke. This was a retaliation against all of those values. It was about the need for some content, something more today. That’s what people are craving."
Sounds Like a Revolution opens in Toronto on June 25. It opens in Ottawa on July 2.
Greig Dymond writes about the arts for CBC News.