Posts Tagged ‘protest songs’

Mere Anachrony: When The President Talks To God

With the ten year anniversary of the Iraq War coming up this month, I’ve been thinking some about the war’s legacy and specifically asking one question: Given the sizable opposition to the war, why were there no real notable protest songs about Iraq?

Of course, there were some protest songs, mainly from the traditionally political acts you’d expect to release antiwar songs: Neil Young, Pearl Jam, The Beastie Boys, etc. But all these acts were long passed the peak of their relevance, and the songs were so predictable that they were greeted with little more than a shrug. There were some attempts by mainstream acts, like “Mosh” by Eminem, but nothing commensurate with controversy the war generated. Sadly, the most substantial political moment of the last decade in pop music probably involved the Dixie Chicks…

There are certainly a lot of reasons for this: the political apathy of the post-Baby Boomer generations, the corporatization of the music industry, the blandness of pop music in general, etc. But it’s also worth pointing out a simpler explanation: It’s hard to write a good protest song. Continue reading

Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #54: Masters Of War

They don’t come much more finger-pointing-y than “Masters of War.” Just a little over a year after The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was released, Bob Dylan would tell The New Yorker’s Nat Hentoff that his next album (Another Side of Bob Dylan) wouldn’t have any “finger-pointing songs”:

“Those records I’ve already made, I’ll stand behind them, but some of that was jumping into the scene to be heard and a lot of it was because I didn’t see that anybody else was doing that kind of thing. Now a lot of people are doing finger-pointing songs. You know—pointing to all the things that are wrong. Me, I don’t want to write for people anymore. You know, be a spokesman…. From now on, I want to write from inside me.”

And yet what makes “Masters of War” so effective as a protest song is that it is so intensely personal. If you look at protest songs of the last few years (and George W. Bush spawned practically a whole genre of them), they are full of vitriolic plays on words (“Texas führer,” “this Weapon of Mass Destruction that we call our President,” “you and Saddam should kick it like back in the day,” etc.) and clichés (“Fuck Bush,” “No blood for oil,” “Does he ever smell his own bullshit?”). Basically, they pick an easy target and toss schoolyard insults at it. In other words, they suck. Continue reading

Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #23: Blowin’ In The Wind

Grandma Simpson: How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?
Homer: Seven!
Lisa: No, Dad, it’s a rhetorical question.
Homer: Rhetorical, eh?  Eight!

—“Mother Simpson,” 1995

Like so many great lines of literature before it (“To be or not to be?” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” etc.), the refrain of Bob Dylan’s most famous song has become a cliché. The line—“How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?”—has become so commonplace and simple after nearly 50 years in the public consciousness that it is easy to laugh at the plainness of the sentiment.

Even at the time of its release, though, people were laughing at “Blowin’ in the Wind.” According to Bob Spitz, Dave Von Ronk, one of Dylan’s early mentors, had a pretty dismissive reaction to the song:  “Jesus, Bobby—what an incredibly dumb song! I mean, what the hell is ‘blowing in the wind’?…I figured Bobby could grind out a tune like that on the worst day he ever had in his life.” Even Dylan himself would occasionally sound modest about the song, saying in 1966, “I was never satisfied with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’ I wrote that in ten minutes. ‘Blowin’ in the Wind,’ was a lucky classic song…but it was one-dimensional.”

Continue reading

Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #30: Subterranean Homesick Blues

Bringing It All Back Home, the album that begins with “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” marked a major sea change in Bob Dylan’s career, for two main reasons. The first reason is well-known and much-discussed: Dylan went electric. The first side of the album, including “Subterranean,” was all electric, alienating many of his loyal folk fans.

Along with that change, though, came a more subtle change in the kind of lyrics Dylan was writing. As a folk singer, his songs had been of a more traditional folk variety: Most of the songs on Dylan’s first four albums could be classified either as love songs or protest songs.

Of course, Dylan stretched the definitions of both of these classifications, coming at them from new perspectives and angles (“Blowing in the Wind,” generally considered a prototypical “protest” song, for example, doesn’t actually “protest” anything in particular), but he was generally working within an established genre or framework; the lyrics to his early songs are straightforward and at times even literal.

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” changed all that. Continue reading

Ranking Bob Dylan Songs, #62: The Times They Are A-Changin’

Welcome to a new series! You’ve read Josh’s attempts to rank the Bill of Rights. You’ve read Tim’s attempt to rank everything in history. Well, now John’s going to rank Bob Dylan songs. Keeping it manageable, he’s sticking with songs from the 1960s. No live versions and no bootlegs. We’re going with songs from studio albums, from “Bob Dylan” to “Nashville Skyline.” And what the heck? Since the Basement Tapes were recorded in ’67, we’ll throw that in the mix too. So including all nine studio albums, plus the Basement Tapes, but NOT including songs on the Basement Tapes that don’t include Dylan as a writer/performer, we’re looking at 121 songs. We won’t be ranking the first 111 in any particular order, but the top ten will be counted down once we get there (probably in like 2013).

62nd may seem too low for such an iconic song, but for a while I was debating whether or not to put this in the top 100. “The Times They Are a-Changin’” is certainly Bob Dylan’s most overrated song. If and when Dylan ultimately dies, “The Times” will most likely be one of the first three songs mentioned in any obituary (the other two being “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Blowing in the Wind”). And yet it is a very flawed song: It sounds a little too preachy and predictable—like the cookie-cutter protest song. It doesn’t attain the protean magic of “Blowing in the Wind” or innovative audacity of “Like a Rolling Stone.” Continue reading