The Bush Era: Protesting Too Much About Not Protesting Enough?

During the Bush administration, everyone seemed to agree: there were no protest songs. Or, at least, no good ones. At any rate, it definitely wasn’t like the ’60s. In her latest blog post for NPR, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein provides a welcome correction to this idea, noting both how many protest songs there were and how widespread the perception was that releasing a protest song was a bad idea. But even if there were protest songs, surely they didn’t have the same effect as in the ’60s, right?

Well, that depends whether we’re talking about an actual effect or an assumed effect, and when it comes to the ’60s, we always seem to be talking about the assumed effect. That decade’s hagiographers have been very successful at encouraging the idea that music helped to end the war, but just because people were listening to Bob Dylan doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have opposed the war without him. As for our current decade, the implication seems to be that because the Dixie Chicks got into trouble for making a snide anti-Bush remark, the powers that be must have a vested interest in suppressing music that expressed opposition to the government—which would then mean that protest songs are indeed dangerous. This was a real perception, certainly real enough to have a chilling effect, as Brownstein remembers:

My own band, writing and recording our fifth record during the winter of 2001, put more than a few songs about Bush and the war on what was to become One Beat—specifically “Combat Rock” and “Faraway.” It’s interesting to note that, upon the album’s release in early 2002, interviewers focused on the so-called risk we were taking by including those songs.

Ultimately, though, it’s unlikely that the administration’s effort to stifle dissent was aimed at music specifically. More likely is that it was aimed at the press (successfully) and at partisans more generally; pop was just collateral damage. Still, maybe it was ignored because music has gotten so toothless that it’s not worth worrying about anymore, right? Well, not really. The dominant view of the ’60s always forgets all the bubblegum and parent-pop that was even more popular than the politically engaged stuff, and overstates the reach and importance of the artists we’ve come to value. It seems more likely that music wasn’t more politically engaged in the ’60s; rather, it was more culturally prominent, more of a megaphone for the values of the majority, and thus more representative of public opinion. When music is smaller, why should politics pay attention to it?

The funny thing about all this, of course, is that the election of Barack Obama represents a rejection of “the ’60s,” or at least its dominance over our political and cultural dialogue. By picking Obama over Hillary Clinton during the primaries, Democratic voters seemed to indicate a desire to move away from arguments about culture war and identity politics. Music, on the other hand, still seems stuck in the boomer mire; even the supposedly transformative album of 2009 can be legitimately described as “psychedelic.” There seems a disconnect here.

Eight Years Gone [NPR]