Protest music has moved from the fringes of American society during the Vietnam era to high-profile recognition at today's annual Grammy Awards.
Political songs by such masters as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young all got short shrift from music-industry professionals who voted on the Grammys in the '60s and '70s. But a larger, more sophisticated membership this year has nominated 12 acts for work commenting on the Iraq war, President Bush's policies, Hurricane Katrina and terrorism's global shadow.
Two of those acts, the Dixie Chicks and John Mayer, will perform during the live, three-hour show starting at 8 p.m. today on CBS.
Nominated for: Rock album ("Living With War"); Key lyrics: "Let's impeach the president for lying and misleading our country into war."
Onstage commentaries may come from presenters, including '60s folkie Joan Baez and hip-hop's Black Eyed Peas, whose upcoming CD is said to tackle social issues. And such politically active musicians as Neil Young, the Flaming Lips and Dylan, are in line for potential winners' speeches.
This time around, the 12,000 voting members are welcoming music that reflects the issues of our times, according to the president of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
Neil Portnow calls songs about war, politics and social concerns "part of what the creative community does best, which is to reflect the feelings, emotions and opinions of millions of people through music."
American musicians have been documenting social and political struggles since the birth of our nation. Woody Guthrie ("This Land Is Your Land," 1940) and Seeger ("Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" 1956) helped usher in modern protest music, and the torch was grabbed by Ochs and Dylan in the '60s.
When the message is combined with stimulating music, protest songs stand the test of time. Dylan recorded "Blowin' In the Wind" in 1963, CSNY recorded "Ohio" in 1970, and Marvin Gaye sang "What's Goin' On" in 1971. While those tunes are still heard today, none won a Grammy.
"Protest music is not a new phenomenon at all," says Professor Craig Russell of California Polytechnic State University. "Any time people feel disenfranchised or upset or patriotic, we put it into our songs."
The latest crop of acts to record protest music, plus earn Grammy nominations, is wide-ranging: Classic rocker Young and metal band Ministry devoted entire albums to war and terrorism. Dylan commented on Katrina, Bruce Springsteen sang "We Shall Overcome," alt-rock's Flaming Lips skewered Bush and even middle-of-the-road rocker Mayer mused about "Waiting on the World to Change."
The Dixie Chicks, with five nominations, including the prestigious album of the year ("Taking the Long Way") and record of the year (for the single "Not Ready to Make Nice"), already have enjoyed a measure of revenge against conservative critics. A big showing on Grammy night would complete a rebound from boycotts of their CDs and concerts that came after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized Bush onstage in 2003.
"I'm so happy that artists are saying something," says R&B mogul Michael "Blue" Williams, who has worked with OutKast, Macy Gray and Queen Latifah. "Music is supposed to be the voice of the streets and what's going on."
Onstage statements on any subject, including Iraq and Bush, will be broadcast tonight, the Grammys' Portnow says. (A short delay will be used to catch any violations of federal broadcast rules on profanity and taste.)
"Our only issues are ... the amount of time that we can give to do that, because it is not a political forum, it's a musical show."
Still Not Ready to Make Nice
Tonight's 49th annual Grammy Awards include 12 acts that voiced political and social commentary in their nominated material. This wide-ranging crop of nominees marks a departure from decades gone by, when a more- conservative Grammy membership gave protest music the short shrift. The Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, global terrorism and President Bush's policies have spawned protest music by rock, country, reggae and metal artists. Even the spoken-word category has three politically flavored entries. Here is a look at the contenders:
The Dixie Chicks
» Nominated for: Best album, country album ("Taking the Long Way"); record, song, ("Not Ready to Make Nice"); country duo or group.
» The issue: Lead singer Natalie Maines confronts critics who assailed her for criticizing President Bush.
» Key lyrics: "It's too late to make it right, I probably wouldn't if I could ... 'Cause I'm mad as hell."
» Impact: The song became a rallying cry for the group and supporters. The rock-flavored CD was not marketed to country radio.
» Critical success: "Not Ready to Make Nice" reached No. 23 on Billboard's Hot 100 and was the No. 1 video on VH1 for 14 weeks.
» Nominated for: Rock album ("Living With War"); rock song, solo rock performance ("Lookin' For a Leader").
» The issue: A call for global peace and an attack on Bush and American foreign policy.
» Key lyrics: "Let's impeach the president for lying and misleading our country into war."
"Looking for a leader to bring our country home."
» Impact: Young energized his core baby-boomer audience, which remembers protest tunes of the Vietnam era.
» Critical success: It's No. 15 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Recorded in nine days, the CD drew some criticism for lack of staying power.
» Nominated for: Male pop performance ("Waiting on the World to Change"); album, pop vocal album, rock album, solo rock vocal performance.
» The issue: A younger generation wishes war would end and is ready to take the reins of America.
» Key lyrics: "Now if we had the power to bring our neighbors home from war / They would have never missed a Christmas, no more ribbons on their door."
» Impact: He has showed the anti-war sentiment building among younger Americans.
» Critical success: At No. 15 on Hot 100, the single is Mayer's most successful.
» Nominated for: Contemporary folk/Americana album ("Modern Times"); rock song, solo rock performance ("Someday Baby").
» The issue: The CD contains "The Levee's Gonna Break," which Dylan adapts to describe chaos during and after Hurricane Katrina.
» Key lyrics: "Some people on the road carrying everything they own / Some people got barely enough skin to cover their bones."
» Impact: It helped keep the debate about the government's handling of Katrina aid in the minds of Dylan's fans.
» Critical success: "Modern Times" was Dylan's first No. 1 album since "Desire" in 1976.
The Flaming Lips
» Nominated for: Alternative album, album engineering ("At War With the Mystics"); rock instrumental performance.
» The issue: Criticism of Bush's ability to lead and America as the world's policeman.
» Key lyrics: "You haven't got a clue ... You used your money and your friends to try and trick me."
» Impact: The band illustrated that protest music can be delivered on a subtle, clever level.
» Critical success: The album received four- and five-star reviews from most reviewers.
» Nominated for: Traditional folk album ("We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions"); long-form music video.
» The issue: The title track is a timeless call for equality for all people and for peace.
» Key lyrics: "We'll walk hand in hand ... we shall live in peace some day."
» Impact: It educated new generations about pioneering folk singer-activist Pete Seeger.
» Critical success: The album premiered at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and stayed in the top 20 for a month.
» Nominated for: Reggae album ("Who You Fighting For").
» The issue: Such songs as "War Poem" and "Sins of the Father" protest war and nation-building.
» Key lyrics: "Seek asylum from the terror ... shelter from the raging anger raining down on Earth."
» Impact: The band expands upon reggae's tradition of political and social commentary.
» Critical success: The album cracked top 10 of Billboard's reggae chart.
» Nominated for: Metal performance ("Lies, Lies, Lies")
» The issue: "Lies, Lies, Lies" is part of an album ("Rio Grande Blood") attacking Bush and American policies.
» Key lyrics: "America has been hijacked, not by al-Qaida, not by bin Laden, but by a group of tyrants."
» Impact: An ambitious effort shows wide reach of modern protest music.
» Critical success: "Lies, Lies, Lies" is the second single from "Rio Grande Blood" nominated for a Grammy, after "The Great Satan" in 2006.
» Nominated for: Metal performance ("Eyes of the Insane")
» The issue: The song talks of soldiers seeing horrors in what the band calls a needless war.
» Key lyrics: "The eyes of the insane on a demented campaign ... Death raising his ugly face."
» Impact: Like Ministry, Slayer shows protest music is not just for classic rockers.
» Critical success: The song was used in the film "Saw III." "The Christ Illusion" album premiered at No. 5 on the Billboard 200.
» Nominated for: Spoken-word album ("New Rules: Polite Musings From a Timid Observer").
» The issue: The comic says Bush, Republicans and the lazy mainstream media must go.
» Key passage: "The next major destructive storm must be called Hurricane George."
» Impact: He shows that protesting can have a humorous side.
» Critical success: The printed version made the top 10 of The New York Times' best-seller list.
» Nominated for: Spoken-word album ("The Truth, With Jokes")
» The issue: The commentator-turned-U.S. Senate hopeful bashes Bush and the GOP.
» Key passage: "The depravity of the Bush administration is only outmatched by the rot in the heart of the Republican Congress."
» Impact: He gives a humorous first-person account of political activism.
» Critical success: The print version premiered at No. 1 on the Times' best-seller list.
» Nominated for: Comedy album ("The Carnegie Hall Performance")
» The issue: Dark-edged comic skewers Bush, Congress and former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum.
» Key passage: "I think it's high time we nominate a president who's dead. That's what these times call for."
» Impact: Liberal views reach millions via concerts, CDs and television appearances.
» Critical success: Black's biting commentary has earned him a regular spot on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on cable's Comedy Central.
Copyright 2007 Gannett