What Happened to Protest Art?

In September 1975, The Grateful Dead released what was to become its highest chart-topping album for the next twelve years, Blues for Allah. In an interview at the time, the group’s lyricist, Robert Hunter, described the album’s title song as ‘a requiem for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, a progressive, democratically-inclined ruler (and incidentally a fan of the Grateful Dead) whose assassination in 1975 shocked us personally.’ Hunter went on to note proudly that the lyrics of the album, inspired as it was as much by Bach as by Eastern influences, were printed in Arabic on the back of album.
This remarkable, trance-like title track referenced Biblical prophecy, Ozymanides, and A Thousand and One Nights. But most of all, it brought attention to the death of one of the Middle East’s then-universally acknowledged enlightened rulers who disdained excess displays of wealth and who opened the first schools for female students in the country. The construction of this vast, progressive-rock tone-poem is a straight line of discursive guitar themes later superimposed by poignant, haunting vocals. It includes two sections, ‘Sand Castles and Glass Camels’ and ‘Unusual Occurrences in the Desert’, in which powerful political statements were woven into the artistry. ‘What good is spilling blood?/It will not change a thing’, observes one line; another is a plea for a resolution of Muslim/Jewish conflict: ‘Let us meet as Friends/the Flower of Islam/the Fruit of Abraham’. Prophesizing the geopolitics of the region, the song grimly warns: ‘The ships of state sail on mirage/and drown in sand.’
Such compelling protest art could have been written today in view of the interminable geopolitical situation in the Mideast. Yet, it hasn’t been, and it won’t be. We are bereft of any near equivalent; the integrating instinct of music, politics and passion nowhere present, nowhere promoted. Certainly, there is no shortage of ‘unusual occurrences in the desert’ – or anywhere else for that matter – to inspire truly creative works of radical brilliance. Yet none of that kind of meaningful protest that defined the eras of the late sixties and the entirety of the seventies is to be found in our current rock/popular music groups. Why? How have we missed this? Where were the songs to protest the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Where are the poignant ballads against the spread of terror or the failures of the so-called ‘War on Terror’? The sixteen-year occupation of Afghanistan? The high rates of American soldier-suicides? Consider the power-lyrics of Vietnam-era anti-war works by such groups as Buffalo Springfield or as found in Joan Baez’s ‘Where Are You Now, My Son?’ (‘Yours was the righteous gun/where are you now, my son?’). Why are we incapable of this? Where are the artists of impact and deep intelligence to make sense of a world in which the irrational is the new and newer normal? Must we only be satisfied with Pearl Jam performing a bland cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Master of War’? Are we just to accept that these talented groups cannot come up with meaningful statements of their own?

This post was published at Ludwig von Mises Institute on December 25, 2017.

 

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