Protest song is back - with a vengeance

And this time the lyrics are not just antiwar. From hip-hop to punk to rock, artists are wailing against President Bush.

The term protest music often conjures up images of unkempt folkies strumming guitars and warbling their dissent in Greenwich Village coffeehouses.

All that has changed.

Folk music no longer dominates the genre. Today, rebellious political rhetoric can be found in hip-hop, punk, country, metal, alt-rock, and everything in between. Not only has protest music diversified, it seems to be rapidly on the rise.

Some of the new songs, unsurprisingly, address the war on Iraq. But whereas protest songs during the Vietnam era were broadly antiwar in their message, the new batch of political tunes aren't narrowly focused on the recent war. It's more personal than that. Most of the music is targeted at the actions and policies of one man: George W. Bush.

And it's often incendiary stuff.

"For better or worse, Bush has stirred up a lot of vitriol in the music community," says David Browne, head music critic for Entertainment Weekly. "There's always been protest songs against presidents, but they have never been near to the level of venom you're seeing now."

That isn't to say no songs are championing the administration's foreign policy - country music has produced hits such as Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)." But they're being drowned out by the sheer volume of musicians working to oust the Oval Office's current occupant.

The musicians range from punk rockers to pop acts to older artists like Patti Smith and Rickie Lee Jones. In all, Mr. Browne reckons protest songs seem to have been more numerous in the past year and a half than in the late '60s. "There just wasn't that concentration of songs during the Vietnam War," he says.

Leading the charge in the current round of Bush-whacking is Fat Mike, frontman for the veteran punk rock group NOFX. Mike created the current Billboard-charting compilation entitled "Rock Against Bush," a collection of sneeringly rebellious punk rock songs including ones from mainstream acts like Sum 41, OffSpring, and the Ataris. Twenty-six bands offered songs for the compilation, and many more joined the tour that followed.

The idea for the album emerged from the controversy over the Florida vote count in the previous presidential election. The outcome still rankles Fat Mike, who believes the result was unjust.

"After the 2000 election I was pretty upset," says Mike. "I needed to come up with a way I could use my celebrity to expose the fraud of the election."

Mike also soon founded the provocative website punkvoter.com, which aimed to harness the youth vote.

"Punk rockers have been against government policy from the start, but it's never been specific," asserts Mike. "This is the first time we've been focused on one thing - getting Bush out of office."

Toby Veg, organizer and cofounder of punkvoter.com is amazed at the genre's outpouring of bile aimed at the president. "In one sense, the Bush administration has been great for punk music. I mean, how do you reconcile a genre based on anarchy? It really speaks to exactly how much punk musicians dislike Bush," says Veg.

It's not just the punk rockers who are turning to the microphone to assail the president. The Beastie Boys, legends of hip-hop, are releasing their long-awaited new recording, "To the 5 Boroughs," on June 15, and its lyrics are loaded with jabs at Bush. The personal nature of the current protest music is something of a modern phenomenon.

Alternative-rock heartthrobs and MTV darlings Incubus have offered up perhaps the most strident attack on the president with their latest single "Megalomaniac." The controversial video, which has now been relegated to the marginal hours by MTV, depicts a "Leave It To Beaver" family drinking crude oil instead of milk, and a smarmy, baby-kissing Bush look-alike, all shown in a graphic style eerily reminiscent of Nazi war propaganda.

You'd think that the hip-hop, punk, and hard rock bands would hand out the most spirited shots at the embattled president, but that has been left to the smooth, jazz-tinged tunes of singer Rickie Lee Jones. The songwriter felt that the music community was initially too quiet after the Patriot Act was passed.

"Everybody was afraid to speak out against him [Bush]," says Jones in a recent telephone call. "It was a very dangerous time. The atmosphere was very reminiscent of fascist Germany.... I've never been an activist, but I wanted to start doing something."

Jones makes no bones about her views about the president on her new compact disc "Evening of My Best Day." Despite its soft atmospherics, the opening tune off the track, "Ugly Man," may be the sharpest attack on a president to date, while the up-tempo bounce of "Tell Somebody (Repeal the Patriot Act Now)" is similarly self-explanatory in its rebellious intentions. Jones wants to be clear that what she is protesting is not the Iraq war, but the actions of George W. Bush. Asserts Jones, "Call it what it is! It's not a war, it's George Bush - the man wielding the weapon is the problem."

The goal for all these musicians is to create change, but how effective can a song actually be? The audience is primarily young, disillusioned non- voters. Fat Mike says the Rock Against Bush concerts are a far more effective tool. Audiences are greeted with a barrage of public speakers in between sets, and those who buy the compilation also receive a free DVD that offers more detailed information and advocacy tips.

Volume II of the Rock Against Bush compilation will come out Aug. 10 and includes such mainstream pop acts as No Doubt, The Foo Fighters, Green Day, and Yellowcard.

Whether this new burst of protest activity from the music community will have an effect on the coming election remains to be seen, but Fat Mike seems confident nonetheless.

He says punkvoter.com is getting 14 million hits per month and 500,000 unique users a month. Asserts Mike, "On Nov. 4 there will be between 200,000 to 500,000 kids showing up to vote for the first time because of Rock Against Bush and punkvoter.com."

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