not unlike the network news, there's been what a media wonk might call a narrowing of content choice in the music biz over the last tremulous year. Think eagle- and flag-adorned anthologies of patriotic music, prefab benefit shows screaming "consumer event," Alan Jackson's Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning) and Paul McCartney's Freedom. Singing anything critical is simply much more difficult than it used to be. We've seen dozens of acts quietly bury their edgier songs. We've seen radio playlists rewritten so as not to "offend listeners." And we've seen Republican officials and the entertainment industry -- long divided over "traditional values" issues such as violent content and parental advisory stickering -- bury the hatchet.
White House senior adviser Karl Rove has been meeting regularly with entertainment industry officials to discuss how they can help the war on terrorism.
Perhaps all this is good for the record business -- an industry that found itself shrinking by 3 per cent (about $300 million in revenues) last year. But it's hardly the stuff of great art.
Where are the alternative voices? Let's start with hiphop, the most socially important music of our time and, until recently, the most successful. Hiphop's sales led the plunge last year -- by 20 per cent, according to Def Jam founder and rap industry leader Russell Simmons.
And so did its vision. While Congress debated the Patriot Act and air strikes left Afghan cities in ruins and untold numbers of innocents dead, Jay-Z and Nas declared their own dirty little war for the pockets (if not exactly the minds) of the younger generation.
Jay-Z's dis of Nas, The Takeover, was based on a sample from the Doors' Five To One, an anti-Vietnam War song released during 1968's long hot summer whose title supposedly alluded to a demographic menace: five times as many people under the age of 21 as over. Here's J-Hova's slice: "Gonna win, yeah!" Released on September 11, his album, The Blueprint, sold 465,000 copies.
Nas came back with Stillmatic, an album seemingly conceived from a marketing blueprint that debuted during the height of hiphop's social consciousness.
To appease these aging fans, he included songs on Stillmatic like the decidedly non-flag-waving My Country and Rule, which bravely ask Bush Junior and the secret bunker crew to "call a truce, world peace, stop acting like savages."
But kids love that shit-talking, so there's Ether, dissing Gay-Z and Cock-a-Fella Records. Guess which of these songs gets the most rewinds?
In fact, many musicians are commenting on the war. They just aren't being heard. On a new album for Fine Arts Militia called We Are Gathered Here... , Public Enemy's Chuck D has set scathing spoken-word "lectures" to rockish beats by Brian Hardgroove.
Chuck takes apart the war mobilization effort and condemns the arrogance of the president's foreign policy on A Twisted Sense Of God. But while the song will be available as an MP3 on his Web site (slamjamz.com), the album has yet to find a distributor.
He says, "You got five corporations that control retail. You got four that are the record labels. Then you got three radio outlets that own all the stations. You got two television networks that will actually let us get some of this across. And you got one video outlet. I call it 5-4-3-2-1 Boom!"
Message music is being pinched off by an increasingly monopolized media industry suddenly eager to please the White House. At least two of the nation's largest radio networks -- Clear Channel and Citadel Communications -- removed songs from the air in the wake of the attacks.
And while pressure to maintain "blacklists" has eased recently, the détente between Capitol Hill, New York and Hollywood -- unseen since World War II -- has tangible consequences.
Bay Area artist Michael Franti and Spearhead were invited last November to play The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn. Franti obliged with a new song, Bomb Da World. Yet the song's chorus -- "You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can't bomb it into peace" -- was apparently too much for the show's producers. (NOW was the first to report on the controversy). Months later, after a Billboard magazine article, the clip finally aired.
"It's funny," Franti says. "In the past, I'd hear some folksingers singing folk songs or Give Peace A Chance and think, "God, this is really corny.' But then you realize, in a time of war it's a really radical message."
Little wonder that artists have quietly censored themselves. The Strokes pulled a song called New York Cops from their album, and Dave Matthews decided not to release When The World Ends as a single. It's easier to do an industry-sponsored benefit or to simply shut up and go along than to fight for a message.
The question isn't only whether protest music can survive the war, but whether protest music can also survive niche marketing.
Take KRS-One's new album, Spiritual Minded. In part a reaction to the September 11 attacks, the album reconciles Christian spirituality with a radical notion of diversity, putting together Bronx beats, Cantopop, biblical chapter and verse and the words "peace" and "As-Salaam Alaikum" in the same song.
"We live in a Christian nation," he says. "I can only give the public that which it can digest."
But if this is his most subtle effort yet to promote a message of peace and unity, it is still a record that needs to be marketed. So while Spiritual Minded has been a dud in the hiphop world, it topped the less lucrative gospel charts earlier this year.
Even indie labels no longer provide an alternative, says Joel Schalit, the Bay Area-based editor of Punk Planet and a member of dub-funk band Elders of Zion. Schalit's new book, Jerusalem Calling (Akashic Books), features a chapter indicting the indie punk scene, a movement that began as a highly charged reaction to Reaganism and major labels and ended up a calcifying, apolitical, "petit bourgeois" feeder system for the same majors.
"There haven't been people rushing out to print 7-inch singles attacking American foreign policy like there were during the Gulf War. A lot of label owners, especially on the independent level, are very concerned that promoting ideology is not the same as promoting art."
Rapper M-1 argues that hiphop has not yet produced much anti-war music because a lot of "conscious rappers" were never clear about their political positions in the first place, and September 11 revealed their basic lack of depth.
"There's a lifestyle that goes with not being aligned with the politics of U.S. imperialism. It's not just a one-day protest," he says.
But perhaps, in this connected world, we also possess accelerated expectations. History shows that radical ideas don't take hold overnight.
As Craig Werner, author of A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race And The Soul Of America (Plume, 1999), tells me, "The foundation of the anti-Vietnam War music was in the folk revival. It was almost as if there was an anti-war movement that was in place that was doing the groundwork."
In the long run, Nas's My Country and Rule, with their laser focus on cause and effect, or Outkast's anti-recessionary global humanism on The Whole World may prove to be more prophetic.
For now, confusion and flux and omnidirectional rage carry the day. Referring to the second Bush, Bay Area rapper Paris recently wrote in What Would You Do, a track on his upcoming Sonic Jihad album: "Now ask yourself who's the one with the most to gain / Before 911 motherfuckas couldn't stand his name / Now even niggas waving flags like they lost they mind / Everybody got opinions but don't know the time." From Alternet
Before 9/11 rappers couldn't stand Bush -- now they patriotically wave flags.