[Since we are making him a regular contributor from now on, this is probably Mike Raine’s last guest post. Here he asks a simple question about past musical culture and ties the answer to our ‘generation X’ heritage’. Great read. Everyone has an opinion on this so lets hear it.]
To be read while listening to Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A Changin’
followed by Graham Nash’s Chicago
Where has the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll gone? This is something I often asked myself in high school as I started discovering the brilliance of Bob Dylan, CSNY, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, and countless other classic artists whose music contained a message and a political consciousness.
As I began to expand my musical interest, I realized that music was never going to be the center of a youth movement in the same manner it was in the 1960s. There are simply too many genres for kids today to choose from. Revolution was drowned out by a thousand different messages bombarding youth. It was easy to have a unifying message forty years ago. You essentially had three genres dominating the music world: rock and roll, folk, and blues. And they all had related messages of peace, love, and tolerance.
Personally, I blame disco. The coke-fuelled overindulgence of the disco scene was about selfishness, not brotherhood. Its music was mindless escapism. But this was only the beginning. From this point on, music became more diverse, lacking a focused message. There is a musical genre for every feeling you may have. Feeling angry? Listen to punk, heavy mental or gangster rap. Feel like partying? Listen to disco, pop, dance, hip hop, funk, or electronic. Feel like protesting? Listen to umm…… I’m not so sure anymore.
Yes, a few bands out there who get political on occasion. Think of Bruce Springsteen, REM, Bright Eyes, and most obviously, Rage Against the Machine. There are others, of course. But the point is that rock and roll is no longer a unifying force that politically conscious teens and twenty-somethings can rally behind.
What about U2, you ask. Clearly, U2 is an incredibly popular band – possibly the most popular band – but Bono has climbed so high on his pedestal you have to squint to see him. You have to give him credit for achieving more in the name of progressive politics and human rights than any of his predecessors in the music world. Still, most youth have hard time identifying with him because the level of esteem he now carries.
We are missing a new, young band or artist who professes a desire to make the world better and who can connect with young listeners on a large scale. And even if we were to find a new Dylan, would he or she have real impact? I am not too confident. As great and inspiring as Dylan was, he was a product of the times and came out at possibly the most opportune moment in music history for an artist of his style and message. In the early and mid 1960s while Dylan was earning the moniker “voice of a generation”, there was an incredibly unpopular war waging in Vietnam. A generation was coming of age that had never dealt with the consequences of all-out war the way their parents did. Television sets glowed in every living room with the realities of war, poverty, and racial segregation.
Possibly most importantly, the target generation in America was subject to military draft. Nostalgia can be a funny thing. It makes people gloss over the facts of earlier times. I am continuously amazed at the lack of importance given to the military draft and the role it played in instigating the youth movement of the sixties. It does not take much to forget that all the protests, sit-ins, die-ins, etc. that appear so altruistic when seen as brief black-and-white news clips actually had a very self-interested motivation behind them. There is something about the real possibility of dying pointlessly in a foreign land that motivates young people to take to the streets. Had there not been a draft that threatened to send an entire generation of young Americans off to their deaths, I am willing to bet that the 1960s would not be the blueprint for political consciousness it has become.
Over the span of years that mark the current war in Iraq, there are have been protests against the war, yet no one claims that the anti-war movement is currently as strong as it was in 1968. Sit in on any university political science class as they discuss the war and the public’s reaction to it and you will hear countless students lamenting the lack of action taken by their peers. Surprisingly, few of these passionate and frustrated students will provide a more thorough explanation as why this is the case other than to say that “young people just don’t care anymore”.
I think young people DO care about ending the war; they just don’t care as much. Students today would like to see the war end but they have people to see and Facebook pages to update and in when it come down to it, they are not the ones going to war. When seen in this light, it is easy to understand why anti-war protests don’t draw the numbers they did in the 1960s. This brings me back to the original point, the music.
The political music of the 1960s did not create a climate ripe for protests, the protests created a climate ripe for political music. Songwriters often write about what they see, and in the 1960s they were seeing upheaval and political activism. Dylan did not write The Times they Are A-Changin’ and wake up the next day to find that indeed something was a-changin’. He wrote the song because he saw and sensed that things were changing. Youth didn’t take to the street of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention because Graham Nash wrote the song Chicago. Nash wrote the song because the kids were in the streets.
So what does the lack of politically conscious music mean for today’s music lovers? It is a symptom of our times? Properly read, the symptom tells us we aren’t likely to be sent to war anytime soon and in the meantime, we have a lot of options in what we listen to.
So maybe the lack of political songs is a good thing. After all, if tomorrow I turn on the radio to hear Avril Lavigne singing “tin soldiers and Harper coming…”, I may start forwarding my mail to Khandahar. Well, I would do that as soon as I stop laughing at the thought of Avril Lavigne getting political.