Songs in the Key of Strife

Jamie Laurie, one of two frontmen for the suddenly successful alt-rock/rap outfit Flobots, is onstage at a crammed Pontiac Garage, the smaller room at the House of Blues, explaining his choice of neckwear: an American flag.

“It’s not about blind patriotism or desecrating the flag,” says Laurie, who also goes by the more lyrical name Jonny 5. He then quotes the late poet Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” and says it’s all about the America of the future.

“We are building a movement!” he shouts.

Such sloganeering might be easily dismissed as rock ‘n’ roll bravado, but the Denver-based Flobots are doing something that hasn’t been seen in a while: bringing overtly political, message-oriented music back onto the Top 40. Their outwardly upbeat “Handlebars” single — with its lyrics warning of guided missiles, political assassinations and nuclear holocaust — has just broken through that threshold. Flobots’ full-length album, Fight With Tools, has already hit the Top 15 on the albums chart.

“Handlebars” stands out at a time when pop radio reverberates to the teen-scream shenanigans of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers, the post-crunk club grooves of Flo Rida and Lil Wayne, and all things American Idol.

From listening to pop radio, few would know that the United States is involved in two wars and a hotly contested presidential election, or that economic worries abound. The most pressing issue on Katy Perry’s mind seems to be telling everyone “I Kissed a Girl”, the song that has dominated contemporary-hit airwaves this summer.

It’s a far cry from the late 1960s and early ’70s, when Top 40 made room for explicit social-issue songs from both ends of the political spectrum, ranging from Edwin Starr’s “War” and the Guess Who’s “American Woman” to Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets” and Gordon Sinclair’s “The Americans”.

In the ’80s, the Clash climbed into the Top 10 with a swipe at a Middle Eastern crackdown on rock ‘n’ roll (“Rock the Casbah”), Band-Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (the inspiration for USA for Africa’s No. 1 “We Are the World”) went Top 15, Midnight Oil’s plea for Aboriginal rights (“Beds Are Burning”) hit the Top 20, and U2’s Martin Luther King Jr. tribute, “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, went Top 40. More recently, Styx’s “Show Me the Way” became an anthem for the Gulf War in the ’90s and reached No. 3.

Aside from such post 9-11 tunes as Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” and Paul McCartney’s “Freedom” in 2001, and Toby Keith’s 2002 fist-pumper, “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)”, not much else dealing with our jittery life and times has crossed over to mainstream pop success.

It’s an omission that many people have noticed: “Radio serves you meatloaf, and you know there’s steak back in the kitchen,” observes socially conscious rapper Scott Johnson, who has a haunting unreleased track, “The Messenger”, about a soldier whose duty is to tell families their loved ones have died in Iraq. “But no one wants to bring the steak out.”

Of course, the question becomes whether there’s anyone out there making steak and, if so, whether there’s consumer demand for it in a world of sugarcoated pop. Some people aren’t so sure.

“The scale of the casualties of the war, as devastating as they are today, was greater back then (in Vietnam),” says Jeffrey Hyson, history professor and pop-culture commentator at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. “Plus, there was a draft. Young people, then and now, are consumers of popular music and there would have been more urgency (back then) about current events. And that would be felt in the kind of music they’d be demanding.”

He points to the failure of any of the Iraq-themed Hollywood movies to find an audience. “(People) want to be able to escape when they go into a movie theater, put on their ear buds, or pick up a trash novel. Were the stakes higher, it wouldn’t be as easy to simply escape, and you might see more willingness to engage things that address the state of the world.”

Others suggest that shifts in radio-station ownership in the ’90s have narrowed musical choice and shaped listener demand for material that’s not going to rock the boat. Longtime North Texas DJ Redbeard, host of the nationally syndicated In the Studio show, believes one effect of broadcast deregulation — which lifted the cap on the number of stations one company could own — has been to put more emphasis on the bottom line.

“It causes radio to become more of a mirror rather than a leader,” he says. “So when something comes down the pike musically that smacks of controversy — and that may blow either way politically and might incite people to feel or react — that’s considered a risk. And, with shareholders, risk is a bad word.”

“And so you’re back to the ’50s,” says Dave Marsh, author of books on Bruce Springsteen and the Beatles, host of “Kick Out the Jams” on Sirius satellite radio and editor of Rock & Rap Confidential, an online newsletter about music and politics.

“Why would any (musician) who’s ambitious care about what radio stations think? They’re not stupid. They know radio stations won’t play (something controversial). College, public and satellite radio might play it, though. The other interesting thing about this is that even the Toby Keith, jingoistic material is at a minimum.”

Redbeard says there’s even an unofficial phrase to describe a station’s passing on a song that raises too many red flags. “In my business, there’s a term called ‘being Dixie Chick-ed,'” he says, referring to the uproar over Dixie Chick Natalie Maines’ 2003 statement that she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.” Many radio stations dropped the group from their playlists.

It’s become a verb for being blacklisted, he continues. “It’s like having the death penalty put on you.”

Stephen Brackett, the co-frontman of Flobots who also goes by the name Brer Rabbit, says that radio initially didn’t want to touch “Handlebars”. “Every single radio station that we gave ‘Handlebars’ to, their initial reaction was, ‘Oh, hell no.'”

At Current TV, the cable station co-owned by Al Gore that explores the lines between pop culture, politics and social activism, music programming vice president Deanna Cohen says she’s having an opposite problem: For a coming election-related special, she’s having trouble finding artists who appeal to Current’s 18-34 demographic and who openly support John McCain.

“Even if some artists might support the war or McCain, it would be an unpopular decision to say so, and that translates into what you’re seeing in music right now — a lot of fear,” she says.

Yet for all of that, political music continues to be made, even if it doesn’t cross over to pop radio. Neil Young’s 2006 album, Living With War, was a scathing verbal assault on the Bush administration, while in the same year, Springsteen recorded a tribute to pioneering protest singer Pete Seeger with We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. Green Day’s best-selling 2004 American Idiot disc also had social themes. Yoko Ono’s dance remix of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” is now No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Club Play chart.

Punk bands from NOFX to Sick of It All have also recorded anti-war tracks, and “conscious hip-hop” — whose most popular exponents are Kanye West and Common — has delved into politics. In fact, the extremely political new disc from rapper Nas — officially untitled because he wanted to call it a racial epithet but bowed to pressure to change it — crashed into Billboard’s Top 200 album chart last week at No. 1, selling more than 200,000 copies in its first week.

Certainly, the Internet and digital distribution make it easier for people to get their music heard, with or without radio. And some think a sea change is happening.

“I hear it all the time on a consumer level — a lot of people are getting fed up with the type of music being played,” says Larry Griffin Jr., better known as Symbolic One, or S1, the rapper/producer of the North Texas conscious hip-hop group Strange Fruit Project. “It’s all the same.”

Flobots’ Brackett says that word-of-mouth and a growing fan base in the band’s native Colorado persuaded nervous stations to try “Handlebars”. (No doubt, it helped that the band had signed to Universal.)

“They played the song once and they’d get a flood of phone calls,” he says. “(The stations) are still after ratings, but there are songs that will come through and will alter what’s acceptable and push the boundaries. … I’d be very surprised if we didn’t start seeing more of this.”

Sean Ross, music and programming vice president with Edison Media Research, an opinion and marketing research firm, says concerns about the corporate silencing of topical music are overblown.

He points to such songs as “Handlebars”, Coldplay’s “Violet Hill”, Green Day’s “Holiday”, Black Eyed Peas’ “Where Is the Love?”, Pennywise’s “The Western World”, Pink’s “Dear Mr. President”, John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change”, Carrie Underwood’s “Just a Dream” and Song Trust’s “Bring Him Home, Santa” as tracks that implicitly or explicitly address social issues yet still received airplay in recent years.

“Anti-war music has come and gone in waves over the past few years,” Ross says via e-mail. “While it was easy to believe that artists had been scared into silence, many just needed a year or two to get an album out. Similarly, a lot of songs with references to Hurricane Katrina are just coming out now. So we could indeed have the next big statement sitting as a demo on some artist’s laptop as we speak.”

Notable Political Songs That Became Mainstream Hits (with videos)

Message in the music:

Here are some notable political/issue songs, from the left and right, that crossed over to become mainstream hit singles. They are listed in alphabetical order by artist, and we’ve indicated where they peaked on Billboard’s Hot 100. This isn’t meant to be a complete list (and some tracks considered iconic, such as the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, didn’t chart as singles). It’s merely a reflection of some of the socially oriented pop hits of the past 45 years:

The Beatles, “Revolution” (1968) Chart peak: No. 12

The Fab Four countered some of the late-’60s extremism with this mocking track.

The Clash, “Rock the Casbah” (1982) Chart peak: No. 8

One of the more controversial tracks from the British left-wing punk band, this became an anthem for many American soldiers in the first Gulf War. The song, supposedly inspired by an Iranian crackdown on pop music, was the group’s highest-charting U.S. single.

Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son” (1969) Chart peak: No. 14

John Fogerty attacked what he saw as the unfairness of a draft system that sent working-class kids to fight in Vietnam while their better-off friends got deferments.

Crosby Stills Nash & Young, “Ohio” (1970) Chart peak: No. 14

This track was inspired by events at Ohio’s Kent State University where four students were killed by National Guardsmen during a Vietnam War protest.

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Dion, “Abraham, Martin & John” (1968) Chart peak: No. 4

A salute to two presidents and a civil rights leader, this touching tribute was less a protest than a plea for understanding.

Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965) Chart peak: No. 39

Features the oft-quoted line, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

Grandmaster Flash, “The Message” (1982) Chart peak: No. 62

This blast of muted rage was arguably the most potent example of urban social protest to hit the charts since Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” in 1973.

Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On” (1971) Chart peak: No. 2

“What’s Going On” encapsulates in a few minutes both the anger and despair of many dealing with the fallout from the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and civil unrest in the ’70s.

The Guess Who, “American Woman” (1970) Chart peak: No. 1

It was a group of Canadians who gave an angry shout to their neighbors south of the border in this anti-imperialist rant later covered by Lenny Kravitz.

Impressions, “People Get Ready” (1965) Chart peak: No. 14

Carried skyward by Curtis Mayfield’s distinctive vocals and a sense of angelic calm, it’s also a low-key encouragement to join the civil rights movement.

Toby Keith, “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)” (2002) Chart peak: No. 25

In the aftermath of 9-11, Keith’s rousing dose of musical patriotism resonated with many Americans, while others decried it as pandering and jingoistic.

Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction” (1965) Chart peak: No. 1

This folkie anthem of unease captured the mood of a decade in transition.

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John Cougar Mellencamp, “Rain on the Scarecrow” (1986) Chart peak: No. 21

Mellencamp has recorded many socially aware songs and this one was an anguished plea for the survival of the family farm and small-town life.

Midnight Oil, “Beds Are Burning” (1988) Chart peak: No. 17

The plight of Australia’s Aborigines is the focus of this song from one of the most popular, and ferociously political, bands to emerge from the far side of the Pacific.

Peter Paul & Mary, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (1963) Chart peak: No. 2

Peter Paul & Mary took this Bob Dylan song into the Top 10. R&B singer Sam Cooke saw in it as a cry for racial justice and later recorded his own version.

Public Enemy, “Give It Up” (1994) Chart peak: No. 33

Though other tracks, namely “Fight the Power” and “Don’t Believe the Hype”, are better known among hip-hop fans, “Give It Up” is the one that got this incendiary rap group onto contemporary-hit radio.

Rage Against the Machine, “Guerrilla Radio” (1999) Chart peak: No. 69

A head-slamming call to arms against political and musical apathy, “Guerrilla Radio” helped turn the politically charged RATM into a modern-rock radio staple in the ’90s.

Barry Sadler, “Ballad of the Green Berets” (1966) Chart peak: No. 1

Sadler was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces when he recorded this track, which was seen as a response to the pessimism of the likes of Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”.

Gordon Sinclair, “The Americans (A Canadian’s Opinion)” (1974) Chart peak: No. 24

Canadian radio/TV host Sinclair recorded a spoken-word toast to American ingenuity, bravery and charity. It’s hard to believe there was a time when a speech could get major airplay on commercial radio.

Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA” (1984) Chart peak: No. 9

Often misunderstood by those of all political persuasions who listen only to the chorus, it’s actually a slam against the ill treatment of Vietnam War veterans.

Edwin Starr, “War” (1970) Chart peak: No. 1

With its shouted, sing-along chorus “War” is one of the most hard-hitting protest songs to hit the charts. Springsteen’s version reached No. 8 in 1986.

Sting, “Russians” (1985) Chart peak: No. 16

The former leader of the Police lashes out at the American and Russian intransigence of the Cold War.

Styx, “Show Me the Way” (1991) Chart peak: No. 3

A re-edited version of this, featuring the voices of children whose parents were stationed in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War, transformed it into an anthem.

Temptations, “Ball of Confusion” (1970) Chart peak: No. 3

The ever-smooth Temptations weren’t known for politically pointed singles, but this litany of the world’s late-20th century woes proved to be the exception.

Stevie Wonder, “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” (1974) Chart peak: No. 1

In the early ’70s, Wonder released a batch of socially themed albums, including “Fulfillingness’ First Finale”, which included this jab at the Nixon administration.