Anti-war music gets little airplay on commercial radio
April 11, 2003
SAN FRANCISCO — Most musicians have avoided singing about the war in Iraq, and those few who have written new anti-war songs aren’t getting heard on radio, where a wave of expensive mergers has fostered more conservative programming.
John Mellencamp, the Beastie Boys, REM and other bands have created new songs protesting President Bush and the war. But major labels aren’t releasing them. Most are tucked away on Web sites where listeners can download them for free.
For the few artists who do speak out publicly, like the Dixie Chicks and Pearl Jam, the backlash has been swift. Radio stations banned the Chicks after singer Natalie Maines told a London audience she was sorry Bush hailed from Texas, and dozens of fans booed and walked out of a Pearl Jam concert in Denver after singer Eddie Vedder impaled a Bush mask on a microphone stand.
“To speak out against the war is not a popular mainstream cause,” punk icon Patti Smith told The Associated Press. “Perhaps they’re pro-war, perhaps they’re confused or concerned about their careers. … Whatever the reason, they’ve been painfully silent. I find it such an important time not to be silent.”
Country stations are busily broadcasting rallying cries to support U.S. troops. Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten,” which echoes Bush’s call for retaliation for the September 2001 terror attacks, has topped the charts for weeks.
But pop, rock and hip-hop stations are largely avoiding music that criticizes the war, said Sean Ross of Airplay Monitor, a Billboard publication that tracks what’s being played on commercial radio. “The only protest song that got any kind of traction was the Beastie Boys record,” he said.
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The New York rappers’ “In a World Gone Mad,” which accuses a power-hungry Bush of waging a “mid-life crisis war,” got played about 400 times a week just before the war started. Now, it’s being heard just 100 times a week — much less than their releases usually get.
Musicians — and industry analysts — say consolidation among radio stations and record companies has made their corporate owners much more focused on the bottom line and unwilling to take chances.
“The music business is pretty much broken right now,” said Mellencamp, who recently released “To Washington,” a folksy, anti-Bush anthem. “Record companies, they’re not looking for material like this.”
REM’s “Final Straw,” which pleads for love and understanding, has received virtually no airtime on commercial stations. “Thank God for the Internet,” bass player Mike Mills said. “We’re fighting against a corporate culture that makes it practically impossible to get a protest song on the air.”
During the Vietnam War, many disc jockeys found receptive audiences for such bold anti-war proclamations as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.”
“Radio stations sought out the material because their audience was looking for that,” said Mellencamp, 51. Today, “there’s a lot of these radio chains, and they can’t afford to offend anybody.”
Clear Channel Communications, the nation’s largest radio company with more than 1,200 U.S. stations, underscored the industry’s cautious approach after the September 2001 terror attacks, when it sent its radio stations a list of more than 150 songs it said were potentially offensive. The list included John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train.”
After resounding criticism, the San Antonio-based company said it never banned any of the songs, and insisted that local programmers decide what to play. It also denies having a pro-war bias now, insisting that corporate headquarters had no hand in a series of rallies its stations organized to support the troops.
Analysts say it’s only natural for Clear Channel and other radio conglomerates to avoid controversy.
“Everybody is dancing as fast as they can to pay the mortgages on all the stations that they have acquired and that makes them risk averse,” said Holland Cooke, a consultant with McVay Media, an influential programming adviser. “And when you are playing it safe, it makes more sense to wave the flag than burn the flag.”
Flags are getting waved in country radio. Worley performed “Have You Forgotten?” at MacDill Air Force Base last month when Bush spoke to 5,000 servicemembers and the families of deployed soldiers.
Also getting play is Clint Black’s latest song, “I Raq and I Roll,” with such bloodthirsty lines as “I’m a high-tech G.I. Joe/I’ve got infrared. I’ve got GPS. And I’ve got that good old-fashioned lead/There’s no price too high for freedom, so be careful where you tread.”
But even Madonna, who has rarely been shy about speaking her mind, withdrew the video for her new single “American Life,” in which she wears military garb next to dancers in camouflage, and a grenade is thrown in the direction of a Bush lookalike.
“Our culture has shifted to the right,” Smith said. “It’s not just about the songs, it’s about the mindset.”
She’s thankful for singers like Mellencamp who see it as their duty to speak out.
“I consider myself a songwriter. It is a songwriter’s duty, if he so chooses, to report the news,” Mellencamp says. “Today, I don’t know if young people feel inspired to do that because they weren’t around in the ’60s.”
Associated Press Writer Nekesa Moody in New York contributed to this report.
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