Protest music muscles its way back onto the pop charts.
DALLAS — Jamie Laurie, one of two frontmen for the suddenly successful alt-rock/rap outfit Flobots, is onstage at a crammed Pontiac Garage, the smaller room at the House of Blues, explaining his choice of neckwear: an American flag.
“It’s not about blind patriotism or desecrating the flag,” says Laurie, who also goes by the more lyrical name Jonny 5. He then quotes the late poet Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” and says it’s all about the America of the future.
“We are building a movement!” he shouts.
Such sloganeering might be easily dismissed as rock ‘n’ roll bravado, but the Denver-based Flobots are doing something that hasn’t been seen in a while: bringing overtly political, message-oriented music back onto the Top 40. Their outwardly upbeat “Handlebars” single — with its lyrics warning of guided missiles, political assassinations and nuclear holocaust — has just broken through that threshold. Flobots’ full-length album, “Fight With Tools,” has already hit the Top 15 on the albums chart.
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“Handlebars” stands out at a time when pop radio reverberates to the teen-scream shenanigans of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, the post-crunk club grooves of Flo Rida and Lil Wayne, and all things “American Idol.”
From listening to pop radio, few would know that the United States is involved in two wars and a hotly contested presidential election, or that economic worries abound. The most pressing issue on Katy Perry’s mind seems to be telling everyone “I Kissed a Girl,” the song that has dominated contemporary-hit airwaves this summer.
Where’s the beef?
It’s a far cry from the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Top 40 made room for explicit social-issue songs from both ends of the political spectrum, ranging from Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Guess Who’s “American Woman” to Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” and Gordon Sinclair’s “The Americans.”
In the ’80s, the Clash climbed into the Top 10 with a swipe at a Middle Eastern crackdown on rock ‘n’ roll (“Rock the Casbah”), and U2’s Martin Luther King Jr. tribute, “Pride (In the Name of Love),” went Top 40.
Aside from such post-9/11 tunes as Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and Paul McCartney’s “Freedom” in 2001, and Toby Keith’s 2002 fist-pumper, “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American),” not much else dealing with our jittery life and times has crossed over to mainstream pop success.
It’s an omission that many people have noticed: “Radio serves you meatloaf, and you know there’s steak back in the kitchen,” observes socially conscious rapper Scott Johnson, who has a haunting unreleased track, “The Messenger,” about a soldier whose duty is to tell families their loved ones have died in Iraq. “But no one wants to bring the steak out.”
Of course, the question becomes whether there’s anyone out there making steak and, if so, whether there’s consumer demand for it in a world of sugarcoated pop. Some people aren’t so sure.
“The scale of the casualties of the war, as devastating as they are today, was greater back then [in Vietnam],” says Jeffrey Hyson, history professor and pop-culture commentator at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Plus, there was a draft. Young people, then and now, are consumers of popular music, and there would have been more urgency [back then] about current events. And that would be felt in the kind of music they’d be demanding.”
He points to the failure of any of the Iraq-themed Hollywood movies to find an audience. “[People] want to be able to escape when they go into a movie theater, put on their ear buds or pick up a trash novel. Were the stakes higher, it wouldn’t be as easy to simply escape, and you might see more willingness to engage things that address the state of the world.”
Can’t touch this
Others suggest that shifts in radio-station ownership in the ’90s have narrowed musical choice and shaped listener demand for material that’s not going to rock the boat. Longtime North Texas DJ Redbeard, host of the nationally syndicated “In the Studio” show, believes one effect of broadcast deregulation — which lifted the cap on the number of stations one company could own — has been to put more emphasis on the bottom line.
“It causes radio to become more of a mirror rather than a leader,” he says. “So when something comes down the pike musically that smacks of controversy — and that may blow either way politically and might incite people to feel or react — that’s considered a risk. And, with shareholders, risk is a bad word.”
Redbeard says there’s even an unofficial phrase to describe a station’s passing on a song that raises too many red flags. “In my business, there’s a term called ‘being Dixie Chick-ed,’ ” he says, referring to the uproar over Dixie Chick Natalie Maines’ 2003 statement that she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” Many radio stations dropped the group from their playlists.
Stephen Brackett, the co-frontman of Flobots who also goes by the name Brer Rabbit, says radio initially didn’t want to touch “Handlebars.” “Every single radio station that we gave ‘Handlebars’ to, their initial reaction was, ‘Oh, hell no.’ “
At Current TV, the cable station co-owned by Al Gore that explores the lines between pop culture, politics and social activism, music programming vice president Deanna Cohen says she’s having an opposite problem: For a coming election-related special, she’s having trouble finding artists who appeal to Current’s 18-34 demographic and who openly support John McCain.
“Even if some artists might support the war or McCain, it would be an unpopular decision to say so, and that translates into what you’re seeing in music right now — a lot of fear,” she says.
Make room for the message
Yet for all of that, political music continues to be made, even if it doesn’t cross over to pop radio. Neil Young’s 2006 album, “Living With War,” was a scathing verbal assault on the Bush administration, while in the same year, Springsteen recorded a tribute to pioneering protest singer Pete Seeger with “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” Green Day’s best-selling 2004 “American Idiot” disc also had social themes. Yoko Ono’s dance remix of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” is now No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Play chart.
Foo Fighters won a Grammy and other acclaim for last year’s “The Pretender,” which got widespread airplay. Frontman Dave Grohl has only alluded to the meaning of the song, but it’s commonly viewed as a condemnation of the Bush administration.
Punk bands from NOFX to Sick of It All have recorded anti-war tracks, and “conscious hip-hop” — whose most popular exponents are Kanye West and Common — has delved into politics. In fact, the extremely political new disc from rapper Nas — officially untitled because he wanted to call it a racial epithet but bowed to pressure to change it — crashed into Billboard’s Top 200 album chart last week at No. 1, selling more than 200,000 copies in its first week.
Certainly, the Internet and digital distribution make it easier for people to get their music heard, with or without radio. And some think there could be a sea change happening.
“I hear it all the time on a consumer level — a lot of people are getting fed up with the type of music being played,” says Larry Griffin Jr., better known as Symbolic One, or S1, the rapper/producer of the North Texas conscious hip-hop group Strange Fruit Project. “It’s all the same.”
Flobots’ Brackett says word-of-mouth and a growing fan base in the band’s native Colorado persuaded nervous stations to try “Handlebars.” (No doubt, it helped that the band had signed to Universal.)
“They played the song once, and they’d get a flood of phone calls,” he says. “[The stations] are still after ratings, but there are songs that will come through and will alter what’s acceptable and push the boundaries. … I’d be very surprised if we didn’t start seeing more of this.”