Between Sounds Faded and Sounds Made

Between Sounds Faded and Sounds Made

t's been a year since the world watched at Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. I remember sitting in a Chicago bar and hearing the crowd erupt into cathartic applause when the news was announced. Not only were eight years of Bush finally drawing to a close, not only was John "One Hundred More Years" McCain prevented from taking over, but a biracial man was elected in a country built on racism--and after running a campaign that appealed to the broad hunger for "change" in this country.

The wave of young discontent that swept Obama into office was no mirage. It was the result of a palpable frustration that had been brewing among young people for a long time. The 2008 elections saw a massive amount of 18-to-22-year-olds expected to go to the polls--the biggest since the baby-boomers. Naturally, the fervor for not just something different but something better could be felt in almost every sector of youth culture, especially music.

As I pointed out in an article last year:

"Artists as disparate as the Arcade Fire, Common, Vampire Weekend and Santogold threw a considerable amount of weight behind the Obama camp. Looking back it seems impossible to even list all the artists who took the opportunity to lend their voices. Compare this to the fact that John McCain couldn't even get Abba on his side, and you start to get the picture of how much things have swung... 

What is striking to this writer, however, is how many of the artists backing Obama this time around want a lot more than just a new face in the White House. A recent issue of the indie-music magazine Under the Radar produced especially for the election carried a photo-spread of of artists holding up self-made placards with demands like "End This War Now!" (Sharon Jones) or "Subsidize Wind and Solar Energy," (the Decembrists), outrageous facts like "96% of musicians lack healthcare" (the Dresden Dolls), or simple sentiments like "I Want to Live in Woodrow Guthrie's America" (Akron/Family)."

The list goes on and on. Who can forget the inclusion of Will.I.Am's "Yes We Can?" Or how Young Jeezy was forced to publicly endorse Obama after comments of his were taken out of context? And nobody who follows hip-hop can forget the Russell Simmons/DJ Green Lantern produced Obama mixtape.

Musically, election '08 wasn't the usual humdrum of bands and artists trotted out for the stale ploy of "turning out the youth vote." Rather, music reflected how the Obama camp had become a lightning rod for all manner of discontent among a generation of young, in-debt working people staring down the barrel of a world well beyond their control.

The past year, though, has also given us a hard dose of the difference between Obama the candidate and Obama the president. We've seen his method for dealing with economic crisis: crumbs thrown to the same working people whose tax dollars are used to bail out the companies that sank it. We've seen him waffle on Guantanamo and ramp up the occupation of Afghanistan. And we've seen him cave to the far-right fringe on healthcare time and again. It's clear that if any "change" is going to come from this administration, it's going to be forced by us.

In a few ways we've already seen what such a bottom-up rising can look like. The outpouring of support for LGBT liberation has best been seen in the form of the large National Equality March last month; so large was it that Obama attempted to "head it off" the night before by announcing he would end the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" rule in the military. 

But the ways in which our music was pulled out into this same realm a year ago have to a great degree scattered to the wind. At a glance, however, it might be easy to credibly ask that same question that arises in times of turmoil: "where is the protest music?"

Tom Morello, who remains possibly one of the best-known (and most prolific) artist of real rebel music, hit it right on the head when he recently told the NME:

"For those who want a more just world, there’s still reason for optimism because we don’t have this Attila The Hun-type character in the Oval Office. But change doesn’t come from the top, it comes from people like readers of NMEwho stand up for their rights where they live, work and go to school... It’s very important to have people in the world of culture offering dissident voices at all times – it was true under Clinton, it was true under Bush, and it’s certainly true under Obama."

It's not like these kinds of acts have really gone anywhere. The Ted Leos and KRS-Ones of the world are still doing their thing (and doing it quite well too). But the experience of the election is instructive. Real, relevant art needs the space to breathe and thrive. Obama's own tactic of invoking the history of social movements may have been the calculated move of a politician, but it also gave a real opportunity for young people to rally around something bigger than an election. The amount of young voters now turning to grassroots activism today is proof that the election wasn't the end.

This kind of outpouring from the bottom-up (albeit in the context of a top-down election) was what allowed these artists to not only throw their lot in with Obama, but gave them the confidence to speak out on everything from healthcare to the war to police brutality. If this kind of flowering of dissent on artists' part seems to have faded to the background, it's only because the election was no substitute for the kinds of movements that can shift a whole society.

Anyone longing to see our music transformed into a vibrant and groundbreaking platform for real and radical change can't help but think of the risings that came about in the late '60s and early '70s. How many commentators have we heard comparing today's acts to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Marvin Gaye or Earth Wind and Fire? Popular conceptions of the '60s lead us to believe that this era was just that way and that's the end of it; the music and protest went hand-in-hand. But it was only the radical movements for racial equality and against the war in Vietnam that changed the terrain enough for artists to start speaking out. 

Contrary to the celebrity-centric ways in which we're taught to think today, it can't be forgotten that artists are themselves people whose own confidence and emotions have a relationship to the world at large. There's no denying that the ongoing economic crisis, the lack of jobs, the continuing scapegoating of anyone outside the norm, all have provoked a wide anger among young people--the kind which we haven't seen in generations. And though this anger hasn't gone anywhere since the election, this crop of youth are only just figuring out how to fight back. 

The formula's simple: if we want more relevancy in our music, then we need to make ourselves relevant. When we finally figure out how to make that happen, then the music of the elections will seem like a tea party in comparison.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies ( and is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and the Society of Cinema and Arts.  His articles have also appeared in Socialist Worker, ZNet, MR Zine, and CounterPunch.

He can be reached at