Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Hanging up Our Harps: The Fading of War(-protest) Music in America

Ryan O’Dowd


May 3, 2013

By Ryan O’Dowd

Aaron Belz recently provided a survey of war-protest music from Vietnam to the “Cold War paranoia” that followed, sampling lyrics from Dylan, Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, John and Yoko, Springsteen, REM, and Sting.  He left us wondering why we no longer have the big albums and celebrity musicians that once united young generations.

Indeed, prior to the 1960s, music and national meta-narratives went hand-in-hand, gathering people around their common pro-war causes.  But as Belz and historians of music note, our haphazard involvement in Vietnam joined a sprouting cultural revolution to provoke widespread dissent among Americans and a corresponding sympathy for the people of Vietnam.  The music industry in America had matured at just the right time to spread the new anti-war narrative.

Significantly, however, the earliest music of dissent was still largely a voice in search of a new cultural center – one of non-violence and utopian peace, even if only for the hippie generation. The movement and its music nevertheless opened the way for the eventual fraying of the soldier-state-citizen triad. 

One factor in this breakdown has been the increasing complexity of warfare after 1990 and especially after 9/11.  Combat devolved from force-on-force conflict to an ambiguous and placeless preemptive War on Terror, a war lacking well-defined political and military objectives, exit strategies, and concrete ties to national security interests.  Unlike their response to Vietnam, Americans had little sympathy for Cold War adversaries, insurgents, or terrorists, but also less of a sense of our military role in international affairs.

In turn, politicians became the scapegoats and American soldiers the victims.  Media coverage put us face-to-face with those who daily endured the horrors of terrorism, with its roadside bombs and a fight against an invisible enemy on a shapeless battleground.  It showed us the long-term effects of minor concussion injuries (MTBIs), and the reality that soldiers serving second, third, and fourth tours in Iraq and Afghanistan were rapidly adding to unprecedented levels of those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, divorce, and depression.  By 2010 the numbers of homeless veterans surpassed those after the Vietnam War; many of these are women and too many are single parents. 

There actually hasn’t been a shortage of musicians writing protest music in these last two decades: U2, Neil Young, Eminem, OutKast, Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, and John Mayer, to name a few.  Rap, metal, and indie-bands have produced even more music in very recent years.  If there is a common thread, it is a critique of political leaders and call to bring American soldiers home.  But where is the old national buzz?

In a 2007 review of pop music, Jon Pareles argued that the righteousness of the Vietnam-era music had gradually been replaced by “sorrow and malaise.”  The “brooding” tone of resignation in recent music dulls its force and prevents it from drawing us together

This may be partly right, but Pareles overlooks a more deeply rooted cause.  Alongside changes in warfare and music, an even more radical evolution of technology has facilitated our access to an almost infinite array of consumer goods.  Gone is the prominence of LP and CD covers.  Today’s consumer (and soldier) has access to instant gratification via social and musical media: Napster, YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, blog posts, and Twitter.

One scholar comments, “this much broader form of information consumption is also evident in the crumbling edifice of the troubled music industry itself, its key messages drowned out by cacophonous discussion.”[1]  Indeed, who can name any of the obscure songs created during the short-lived Occupy movement?  Our unlimited freedom to create our own micro-narratives of self-interest has displaced any long-term sense of collective identity and cultural responsibility.

Christians do well to reflect on the way ancient Israel’s poetry and music gathered the nation around a common story, whether in victory, defeat, or exile.  The familiar image of hanging up of harps in Psalm 113 reflects a situation not unlike our own.  Yet where Israel coped with the loss of music in exile with new corporate music(!), our nation is only united by the noise of the individualized marketplace.  The pattern in the Psalms should encourage artists and citizen-consumers alike to seek out music that fills this widening void, not just in protest, but in pointing a way forward. 

-  Ryan O'Dowd is a biblical scholar and pastor living in Ithaca, NY.  As a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force, he spent the last three years teaching leadership and ethics to ROTC students at Cornell University.  He also works closely with the staff and students at the Chesterton House Christian Study Center at Cornell.

[1] Conrad Amenta“Why Protest Albums Can’t Teach Dissent: The Emergent Complexity of Post-9/11 Protest” in The Politics of Post-9/11 Music: Sound, Trauma, and the Music Industry in the Time of Terror, ed. Joseph P. Fischer and Brian Flota (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), 57-68.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”