Are musicians afraid to protest war with Iraq? When only six rockers sign an anti-war petition, David Browne wonders when music lost its conscience

By David Browne
Updated December 17, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Dave Matthews: Jean-Paul Aussenard/

Are musicians afraid to protest war with Iraq?

Remember when rock stars did crazy, zany things like voice their opposition to armed conflicts around the world?

Me neither, and I’m just old enough to recall those flag-burning, draft-card-trashing days. Off the top of my head, I can easily name a dozen anti-Vietnam songs from the ’60s and a bunch of anti-nuke/anti-Cold War tunes from the ’70s and ’80s (including Nena’s ”99 Luftballoons,” believe it or not). I’m having a much harder time conjuring anything since then, starting with the Gulf War of 1991, during which most rock stars seemed to have their mouths sewn shut. Some went as far as to band together for a ”We Are the World”-style single to support U.S. troops instead of commenting on why we were there to begin with.

What got me thinking about this unusual state of affairs was last week’s announcement that a coalition of celebrities dubbed Artists United to Win Without War had issued an open letter to the White House opposing war with Iraq. The names on the list include Ethan Hawke, Kim Basinger, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Helen Hunt, Danny Glover, Noah Wyle, former ”Baywatch” star Alexandra Paul — and, if my tabulation is correct, all of six musicians, three of whom are in R.E.M. (The others are Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne.)

Granted, the current scenario is much more complex than it was in the ’60s or the Ronnie-talk-to-Russia ’80s. Pop’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks was a slew of songs that ranged from ruminative to jingoistic, an accurate reflection of the varied ways in which we all attempted to deal with that devastation.

But with war seemingly around the bend, and the Bush Administration more than eager to get on with it, you’d think the pop community would rally a little. But so far it hasn’t. Not only are there a mere six musicians on that petition, but only one of them, Matthews, is a current hitmaker. Are musicians afraid to go against the status quo and risk alienating the public? (During the Gulf War, Randy Newman’s quietly released ”Lines in the Sand” got him in a lot of trouble, whereas Styx’s ”Desert Storm Mix” of their dreadful ”Show Me the Way” was a hit.) Are they merely waiting for something to happen? Is the corporate consolidation of the business hanging over their heads, making them wary of speaking out? Where’s Zack de la Rocha when you need him?

Presumably, we’ll have to wait until combat begins before we can evaluate pop’s response to an Iraqi war. But why do I have the feeling that even then it’ll be muted? When Phil Ochs sang ”I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” nearly 40 years ago, he meant it a statement on warriors who refused to fight. Today’s pop stars would probably miss the irony in its title.

Have musicians lost their political voice?