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The Olympian (Washington)

Subtle Songs of Protest Hit a High Note

Chris Macias

The Dixie Chicks nearly lost their careers after bad-mouthing President Bush on the eve of the war in Iraq, but today there is a surge in protest songs by popular artists. They're not just penned by the people you'd expect to be topical, such as Neil Young or Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.

Songs with anti-war sentiments are popping up from some unlikely places in the pop music marketplace:

• With a casual listen, you might think Mat Kearney's "Girl America" is just another acoustic hip-hop song about a girl gone bad. But the "girl" is a metaphor for the United States, and she's "dying while she's trying just to stop this fight."0818 01 1

• Pink once primed listeners to "Get the Party Started," but she blasts Bush on her latest album with "Dear Mr. President," singing, "How do you dream when a mother has no chance to say goodbye?"

• John Mayer's "Waiting on the World To Change" laments his generation's political powerlessness and inaction - a topical change of pace from the voice behind "Your Body Is a Wonderland."

• "Coming Home" by John Legend is an R&B slow jam about a homesick soldier. This from a singer who specializes in songs about breaking up and making out.

The difference between the protest songs of the 1960s - think "Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire or Edwin Starr's "War" - and today's is that these newer messages tend to come in more subtle musical packages. And they can be so hummable that people may mouth the words and never know they're dissing the president.

"Particularly in the '60s, artists tended to just come out with much stronger messages with less fear of upsetting anybody," says Lee Abrams, the chief creative officer for XM satellite radio. "Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan didn't give a damn. When the Dixie Chicks came out with their Bush statement, a lot of country radio stations stopped playing them. A lot of record companies don't want anything over the top. It's symbolic of the era we're in."

Norah Jones' piano and breathy vocals are so soothing that the music could be a theme for Bed Bath & Beyond. But at the piano stool, the singer's taking a stand against the current political state in "My Dear Country":

" 'Cause we believed in our candidate

"But even more it's the one we hate

"I needed someone I could shake

"On Election Day."

Artists such as Linkin Park say they do a balancing act, especially on Linkin Park's latest album, which features a detour into politics with "Hands Held High."


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"We're not a band that wants to be political or preach to fans," says Linkin Park drummer Rob Bourdon. "All of us are very involved in all of the lyrics, especially critiquing them, and were very aware that it didn't come off that we had a political agenda or were preaching. We don't like that when we're listening to music."

The rock band has sold millions of records with songs about self-loathing and inner angst, but "Hands Held High" wouldn't play so well in the red states:

"Like this war's really just a different brand o f war

"Like it doesn't cater the rich and abandon poor ...

"For a leader so nervous in an obvious way

"Stuttering and mumbling for nightly news to replay."

All Top 40 music with a message depends on a common denominator: a tune that sticks in your head. Minus the scathing lyrics, Pink's "Dear Mr. President" sounds like a campfire song. The song is built on strummy acoustic guitars and harmony vocals from the Indigo Girls. Think of it as "Kumbaya" for the anti-Bush set.

"The best protest songs have melodies that are simple enough to be sung by almost anyone," says Christopher Reynolds, a music professor at the University of California, Davis. "'We Shall Overcome' is probably best in this regard. But in some cases the tune is why the song survives. The popularity of the Christmas carol 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,' which almost no one realizes originated as an anti-war song, is the reason why that song is still sung."

The pop charts otherwise look like one big fiesta, populated by such tunes as "Party Like a Rockstar" by Shop Boyz and Justin Timberlake's "Summer Love." Politically minded songs such as "Hands Held High" and "Dear Mr. President" tend not to be released as singles. These tracks are usually buried in the middle of an album - or in the case of John Legend's "Coming Home," at the very end.

"A pop star is trying to play to the greatest amount of people all of the time," says Dan Mason, program director and station manager of Sacramento's Top 40 radio station KDND. "They'd segment the audience by being too in your face. Artists might not mind that, but the record label will want to play it more conservatively. A song like ('Dear Mr. President') is also one that plays differently in Sacramento than the Midwest or the heartland. You've got to sell those concert dates in California, but you've got to play in Kansas, too."

More overt protest anthems may be coming soon. After the umpteenth song about partying and summer love - and with approval ratings for the Iraq war continuing to tank - the pop music landscape is primed for an even bigger swell of anti-war tunes.

"I tend to look at things as cyclical," says Abrams of XM satellite radio.

"The late '60s were pretty powerful as far as lyrics, then the '70s got back to this boyfriend-girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt sound. In the '80s, (political awareness) kind of came back, then in the late '80s, you had the 'hair bands.' Then it got more political with grunge. The current crop of artists, generally speaking, are hit machines.

"I do think we're about to get into a period of time where we'll see the messages getting stronger," Abrams adds. "The political conditions are certainly right."

©2007 The Olympian

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