While there are still a number of people who think that — to paraphrase Frank Zappa — musicians should just shut up and play their guitars, this year’s crop of Grammy nominees is surprisingly heavy with topicality. So does the fact that artists such as Green Day and Kanye West have a shot at taking home multiple awards signal a sea change in the current pop culture climate?
Longtime music industry exec Danny Goldberg, now the CEO of the Air America radio network, offers a qualified “yes” to that question. “Musicians and writers swim in the same ocean as everybody else, so when politics are more interesting to people, they’re more interesting to artists as well,” he says. “There are only so many political songs you can listen to, even if you agree with the politics. Most of them are boring; only a few people have the genius to write a “Give Peace a Chance” or an “American Idiot.”
Judging by past performance, however, NARAS didn’t always recognize that genius when it reared its pointy head. In fact, a cursory look at the Academy’s track record reveals an apparent antipathy towards songs that might generate controversy. Bob Dylan, as has often been noted, was shunned during his so-called “protest era,” as were folk legends like Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger (who had to wait until 1996 to pick up his first award). Even John Lennon’s “Imagine” couldn’t rally support among Grammy voters, being passed over in favor of “You’ve Got a Friend” for 1971’s song of the year honor.
As me-decade self-absorption gave way to grunge-rock navel-gazing during the ’80s and ’90s, industry attitudes towards musical agitators were pretty much a moot point — until George Bush took office, that is. Brickbats from the pop realm didn’t take long to appear, but a backlash didn’t occur until country queens the Dixie Chicks joined in the chorus in 2003, which Goldberg says makes sense.
“There’s not one audience out there for music, there are dozens,” he explains. “A lot of the Dixie Chicks’ audience came to them from country radio, and a certain part of that audience is made up of diehard Bush supporters. The culture that sustained them was offended in a way that the culture that sustains Green Day or Eminem wouldn’t be offended by their commentaries.”
Public Enemy front man Chuck D echoes that sentiment in speculating as to why Kanye West faced a considerably more moderate outcry after suggesting — during a relief telethon that aired in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
“There are obvious cultural differences and some people might think they need to take a hands-off approach because of those,” he says. “It’s harder to say that Kanye West, as a black man, should just shut up and be happy, than it would be to say the same for the Dixie Chicks.”
Other constituencies have, of course, been heard from in recent times. Even the steadfastly apolitical Rolling Stones punctuated their 2005 album “A Bigger Bang” with the opinionated “Sweet Neo-Con,” a stance that hasn’t been universally applauded. “I think it’s almost become a hipster pose to politicize these days,” says Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis. “The Stones will record ‘Sweet Neo-Con,’ but they won’t play it live, and certainly not at the Super Bowl, which might offend some people.”
Peter Baron, MTV’s VP of label relations, says that most artists truly have no political viewpoint or choose not to express any. Then there are acts like Green Day, that use musicvideo. “‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ was a well-thought-out clip that didn’t hit the audience over the head,” he says. “And then you have Kanye West, who, when he has a mic in his hand, will always speak his mind. But I don’t think any artists have ever used MTV or the VMAs for a political platform.”
It’s certainly become harder to offend Grammy voters in recent times, insofar as social content goes. “We are promoting artists and artistry that is often outspoken and a little left of center,” says Recording Academy prexy Neil Portnow.
Steve Earle, who was pilloried by talking heads like Bill O’Reilly for expressing sympathy for so-called “American Taliban” John Lindh on “John Walker’s Blues,” took home a best contemporary folk album award at the 2004 kudocast.
The winning disc’s title? “The Revolution Starts Now.”
Earle, ever the contrarian, couldn’t have thought that he was portending a shift in the pop paradigm. But it’s difficult to ignore the activism that’s crept — like kudzu — into the fields of fluff that normally envelop the major Grammy categories. It’s too early to tell if the phenomenon will be a lasting one, or if Green Day’s “American Idiot” will be a lone shot in the bow. Air America’s Goldberg, a longtime veteran of the cultural wars, thinks that a new golden age of populist pop might be on the horizon.
“The main similarity (between the late ’60s and today) is the controversial war in both eras,” he says. “I graduated from high school in 1967, and at that time, there were only a few people who could write a political song. Sure, the Jefferson Airplane had a couple, and later on, so did Marvin Gaye, but not as many as people seem to remember.
“There’s a lot more going on today, but the late ’60s has become a mythological time due to the self-promotional abilities of the baby boom generation. I think there’s a far greater number of effective responses in music today than there were back then.”