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Combat Rock

Where are all the protest songs? With war looming, only a few musicians are singing out.

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We may be a nation divided, but at least America is in ”agreeance” on something: Fred Durst makes for one very strange peacenik.

”Am I the only guy so far who’s said something about the war?” the Limp Bizkit frontman asked backstage at the Feb. 23 Grammy Awards, minutes after declaring ”this war should go away” from the podium. ”I heard a lot of people were gonna do it.”

He heard wrong. Although the ceremony opened with the somber warning of Simon & Garfunkel’s ”The Sounds of Silence” and ended with an all-star version of the Clash’s fiery ”London Calling,” explicit political commentary wasn’t on the bill. In fact, as the country inches closer to war with Iraq, America’s popular musicians have largely remained silent; it’s a far cry from the ’60s and ’70s, when such songs as Edwin Starr’s ”War,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ”Ohio,” and Marvin Gaye’s ”What’s Going On” could tackle pressing issues while still scaling the charts.

”At that time, the music mattered,” says Grammy winner India.Arie, who, during an acceptance speech in the non-televised portion of the show, challenged artists to speak out against the war. ”My generation is outside of that movement. The further we get from a time with that much political change, the more we forget.”

Evidently, today’s high-profile acts have a short memory, with only a handful — including Sheryl Crow, System of a Down, and Bruce Springsteen — going on the record with political beliefs. Notes R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, a lifelong cause celeb, ”The apathy level is higher than it was 15 or so years ago.”

But why? ”Political music is nothing without context,” says Brit folkie Billy Bragg, best known in the U.S. for recording the songs of Woody Guthrie with Wilco. Bragg believes current events have yet to affect young people as they did during the Vietnam War: Bob Dylan released ”Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963, but the protest movement didn’t fully mobilize until America’s sons were called up to fight in the late ’60s. ”When you receive a draft card in the post, you suddenly become quite politically aware,” Bragg says. And that awareness makes a difference, says Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello: ”In the ’70s…Edwin Starr could sing ‘War’ because he was constantly inundated with the ugly face of what the war machine was doing.”

While contemporary protesters have yet to face such daunting Vietnam-era obstacles as attack dogs, tear gas, and armed National Guardsmen, many of today’s artists are wary nonetheless. ”It’s harder to say things without people being in your face these days,” says System of a Down’s Serj Tankian, who, with Morello, cofounded the political action group Axis of Justice. System recently attended an L.A. peace rally and shot footage they may use in a video for the antiwar song ”Boom!” from their recent Steal This Album (sample lyric: ”Every time you drop the bomb/You kill the god your child has borne”).