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

War Protest Music: What Is It Good For?

Aaron Belz


April 12, 2013

By Aaron Belz

America’s involvement in Vietnam inspired protest songs that range in style from Bob Dylan’s plaintive “Masters of War” (1963) to Joan Baez’s “Saigon Bride” (1967) to John and Yoko’s “Give Peace a Chance” (1969) to Edwin Starr’s R&B chart-topper “War” (1970). At Woodstock, Jimi Hendrix ripped a cynical National Anthem on his Stratocaster—warped, off-key, and full of virtuosity. The Birds, Simon and Garfunkel, the Grateful Dead and others joined the fray.

But the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 did not mark the end America’s involvement in war protest music. In the 1980s there was a renewal of interest in the subject, including Paul Hardcastle’s “19” (1985), memorable for its flatly-stated sound bite sampled over synthesizer: “In World War Two, the average age of the combat soldier was 26. / In Vietnam he was 19. / In-in-in-in-in-in-in Vietnam he was 19.” Frankie Goes to Hollywood contributes “Two Tribes” and a club remix version of “War” as tracks on their otherwise hedonistic Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984). 

The ugliest of the 1980s protest songs was Billy Joel’s seven-minute “Goodnight Saigon” (1982).  It has a beautiful melody, inspiring chorus, and some of the worst lyrics in popular music: “We came in spastic / Like tameless horses. / We left in plastic / As numbered corpses.” It gets worse: “We had no home front, / We had no soft soap. / They sent us Playboy, / They gave us Bob Hope.” At concerts, Joel would invite Vietnam veterans to come up on stage and sing the barroom chorus: “And we would all go down together / We said we'd all go down together / Yes we would all go down together.”

The bloom was officially off when protest pop turned to Cold War paranoia. One memorable example is Sting’s “Russians” (1985). Capitalizing on couplets, such as “In Europe and America / There’s a growing feeling of hysteria,” Sting makes only one mistake, allowing rhyme to dictate his choice of cliché: “Mr. Kruschev says, ‘We will bury you.’ / I don’t subscribe to this point of view.” But the song has its charms, not the least of which is an eerie ticking sound amid a jumble of radio signals at the start. 

Eighties alternative rock was not unaffected. The Smiths’ hit single “Ask” quips, “If it’s not love, then it’s the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb, the bomb that will bring us together.” The introverted Morrissey had stumbled into perhaps the most memorable slogan of 1980s protest rock, and in a song ostensibly about “shyness.” The descent into irony continued with 1987’s R.E.M. hit, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”  Catchy as heck and eminently danceable, the song buries any semblance of protest in absurdist Dylanesque riffing.

A scan of the post-1990 pop charts yields nothing comparable to Edwin Starr’s Motown classic. A single irascible comment by the Dixie Chicks ("Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas") drew fire from almost every quarter, and they were duly punished. There is also a humorous one-off by the Beastie Boys, “In a World Gone Mad” (2003) which has hilarious and direct lyrics:

You and Saddam should kick it like back in the day
With the cocaine and Courvoisier,
But you build more bombs as you get more bold
As your mid-life crisis war unfolds.
All you want to do is take control—
Now put that “axis of evil” bulls--- on hold!

Later in the song, the Boys wax silly: “What am I, on crazy pills? We gotta stop it!” Which of course proves the point that we are a far, far stretch from the pathos of “Masters of War.” 

How can this decline be explained? If there’s been a change, something between Rosie the Riveter and covert drone attacks on Pakistan, it’s the increasing impersonality of war. If we’re sending our young people into combat, by land, air, and sea, we have pathos. What hurts our enemies inevitably hurts us, even in victory. If we’re sending robots to our dirty work, maybe our protest songs will be similarly passionless.  

—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010). 

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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.”