Growing up in the 60’s, my older brother, Wayne, made certain that I was properly schooled in the fine art of psychedelic rock. He was generous with his sophisticated collection of vinyl and kindly tolerated my tagging along to live concerts by The Who, Blues Magoos, and Fever Tree. We even saw Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs once.
My friends and I followed musicians like baseball card athletes as they migrated between The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Buffalo Springfield, and Blind Faith. I came to understand that Frank Zappa was equal parts profound & bananas and that the best version of Summertime Blues was recorded by Blue Cheer. In that explosively creative era, popular music evolved rapidly in the wake of the innovative leadership of the Beatles.
But as the decade was wrapping up, the Vietnam War was escalating. I remember how depressing CBS News sounded every evening, a nightly drumbeat of American casualty numbers accompanied by unsettling images from the front lines. The closest that my friends and I approached an understanding of the war was that it was morose, no end in sight, and that we were approaching draft age.
Even our favorite bands felt the impact. A local group known as The Moving Sidewalks lost their keyboard and bass players to the U.S. Army. The two remaining members added another talent and reorganized the band as ZZ Top.
In time, musicians began to unify the nation’s growing discontent with Washington by producing a list of “protest songs” initiated by Stephen Stills’ very civil For What It’s Worth. The cleverness of pop lyrics increasingly focused on poking Congress and President Nixon in the eye, leading up to the Woodstock music festival in August of 1969. The most undisguised slight came from Country Joe & The Fish singing their original rag with a chorus ending in, “Whoopee! We’re all going to die.”
Counterculture suddenly became serious business in 1970 when members of the Ohio National Guard overreacted to a student protest on the Kent State University campus. Skittish guardsmen fired 67 rounds into the crowd, killing four students and injuring nine others. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young immediately released a responsive song with the lyrics, “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We're finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming,Four dead in Ohio.”
America matured immensely in the decade that followed. The war was brought to a terrifically awkward end, Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, and the United States military transitioned into a respected volunteer profession. While much was gained in the transformation, the musical voice of antiestablishment was somehow lost.
Out of curiosity, I read the lyrics to all the songs on the current American Top 40 this week. Most are readily forgettable complaints about dysfunctional relationships. There are a few unique and thoughtful scripts, two brief and repetitive ditties, and one libretto with a contrived reference to Jeffrey Dahmer. I believe that we can surmise the reason that the weapons of sheet music have gone silent is that the worldview of Washington leadership is now in synch with the majority of traditions-rejecting songwriters. Nowadays Clancy can’t even sing a protest song.
It is often said that suffering emotes the most powerful music. And while there is certainly no shortage of performing talent in America, there is no Vietnam provoking their collective objection. Rather, there is a gradual social seduction being masterfully orchestrated directly from the White House. Even 70’s folk rocker James Taylor recently threw in all his chips with the surrendering statement, “we need to make some sacrifices to our freedoms.”
Dissent from younger, creative folks does exist. It is simply not concentrated in response to a single threat. When clever videographer Caleb Bonham recently interviewed college students at George Mason University, he received the following prioritization of political issues that are on the minds of students: (1) Benghazi?(2) Obama’s “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” promise?(3) DOJ spying on AP reporters?(4) The Fast and Furious gun-running scandal?(5) IRS targeting conservative groups?(6) The botched rollout of Healthcare.gov?(7) Obama bypassing Congress to delay elements of Obamacare, and?(8) NSA collection of citizens’ email and phone data. Encouraging.
Millions of American left brains have been exercising the OODA process for a long time; Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It is time for a complementary renaissance from those whose gifts lie in the right brain. We need bigger music and meaningful words, someone who can call out the statists and sound a call to action for citizens. Where are those artists who will renew the soul of the nation in song? Where have all the flowers gone?