What happened to political music after Sept. 11? Protest songs have been out of style for some time, but Evan Serpick says the truest form of patriotism demands righting America's wrongs
Rage Against the Machine
Credit: Rage Against the Machine: Sam Mack/Retna

What happened to political music after Sept. 11?

At a rally protesting the recent World Economic Forum in New York City, I saw the most incredible thing: a folk singer. He stood in front of a throng of politically-motivated young people and sang pointed songs of protest, anger, and hope:

I hear these words just every place I go,
Who are these people? Who elected them?
And how do I replace them with some of my friends?
Can you hear us? Are you listening?
No power without accountability!”

Strange, right? Musical dissenters have been few and far between for a couple decades now, and since Sept. 11, voices of protest have been even less welcome than usual. Of course there are still a few mangy political types who roam Manhattan’s East Village with a guitar and a gripe. But this was no unknown beatnik — it was Billy Bragg, a well-known beatnik, maybe the only well-known beatnik still making records. And his voice was a welcome reminder that music has the power to transcend entertainment, to open minds, to be politically conscious, and to change the world.

There are still some mainstream bands that focus on politics. In hip-hop, there are folks like dead prez and the Coup, but they rarely rise above the underground the way Public Enemy once did. Rock bands like System of a Down and the now-defunct Rage Against the Machine sell millions of albums criticizing U.S. foreign policy.

But inevitably, such bands have trouble pleasing anybody with their message. The real activists fault them for hypocrisy, i.e., selling records (and getting rich) via one of the world’s biggest corporations while decrying global capitalism. And the vast majority of their fans, suburban mooks who like the music’s crunch and could care less what they’re screaming about, get incensed when the band finally puts its money where its mouth is. When Rage planned a benefit concert in New York City to raise money for the Mumia Abu-Jamal defense fund, local radio station K-Rock complained and many fans demanded refunds. For all their anger, bluster, and piercings, fans of bands like System and Rage (and less-political colleagues like Limp Bizkit and Korn) tend to agree with their parents’ political views.