walked to the end of the line waiting to enter the Bring 'Em Home Now
concert, I observed the devolution of the liberal American protester. It
started with the old lefties who arrived early, simply out of habit, then
regressed to the young idealists with anti- this or that petitions in hand,
before ending in the primordial ooze of hipsters—their ambivalence gently
lapping at the shores of dissent.
Meanwhile, an attack was being waged. Pamphleteers trolled the line for
sympathetic eyes, offering communist newspapers for a dollar an issue, mailing
lists for everything but paper conservation, and various Bush puns on pins. It
was enough stimuli to make Times Square jealous.
Once inside, and having missed Margaret Cho's crowd warm-up—a feat no more
impressive than Yao Ming slam dunking on a Fisher-Price hoop—I found myself
watching a cross between Cirque du Soliel and Depeche Mode. The band was
Fischerspooner and their singer yelled, "This war is ridiculous!" I kept my
sentiments to myself. Sometimes a glass house needs to be broken.
Afterwards, Moby came on stage and prefaced his performance with the
reassuring disclaimer, "Not to sound like a crazy old hippie…" Then, with
vocal help from the Cultural Director of MoveOn.org, he strummed the
Forrest Gump classic, "For What It's Worth."
This was the first sign that even the artists were facing an identity crisis.
While Moby recognized the stigma of the '60s protest hippie, others like
Devendra Banhart, fully embraced it. His freak-folk entourage and wispy "it's
simple, we don't want to kill" lyrics surely triggered a few LSD flashbacks.
On the other end, however, was Peaches. By no means a throwback, her brand of
barf-out-loud gender play is entirely of this generation: confused but certain
that shock value has meaning.
If any artist brought a sense of hope and individualism to our time of war, it
was Conor Oberst. Old Bright Eyes himself crooned the crowd to its feet,
singing "I guess God just calls a spade a spade, when the president talks to
Incendiary and poignant, he sang, "In truth, the forest hears each sound, each
blade of grass as it lies down. The world requires no audience." Those just
hearing him for the first time smiled, like they'd just felt what they should
have felt all along. One even turned to me and said, "He's like Dylan."
Another throwback? No. Not this time. Oberst may draw comparisons, but it's
not in image. It's in words. Just as Dylan reminded folks of the way Woody
Guthrie made them think about themselves, Oberst has the ability to do the
same for a new generation. When it comes to politics in music, that's all you
can ask for.
Americans, for all our flag-waving, are a hard bunch to inspire towards
action. Those of us who know change is needed seem to think the struggle ends
at pointing it out. Michael Stipe fell victim to this during his set, saying
Noam Chomsky once lamented that in all his travels and lectures, Americans are
the only ones who ask "What can I do?" In nearly every other country Chomsky's
visited, people tell him what they're doing.
It was a point without a point, perpetuating the very complacency it derides.
But that was the underlying theme of the Bring 'Em Home Now concert: the
co-opting of various protest images in the absence of real protest substance.
Here's an idea: take that Hammerstein Ballroom full of people and tell them
something they can do. Tell them to cancel their newspaper subscriptions if
they want the print media to report the truth. Tell them to suspend their
cable payments until providers take Fox News off the air. Tell them not to pay
their taxes if they want the war to end in Iraq, maybe even send it to war
Imagine what would happen if those 6 in 10 people who supposedly oppose this
war just withheld their money from the government. That's what Cindy Sheehan
did. Too bad all the people who came out to see her at last week's concert
weren't motivated to do the same.
I'm one to talk. You won't see me doing any of these things either. So long as
my life seems unchanged by war and I am able to afford tickets that cost $30,
you won't even see me raise a stink.
What we need is someone to help us see beyond ourselves. Guthrie and Dylan did
that. And so did Oberst, for just a flicker of his three-song performance. If
we can inspire our musicians and artists to inspire us back, then maybe we
have a chance. People like me (and I'm sure that includes you—we online music
'zine readers aren't too different) need to know there's more than just safety
in numbers. There's power to force change.
The next time a protest concert rolls into your town (should you be so lucky),
forget about your inflammatory pins and t-shirts. Leave your
bureaucratic-bound petitions at home. They're just substitutions for the real
thing. Help raise the level of thought and action to something more than just
a vague bygone idea of the American protester.