Presidential election years always bring out strong voices, and this year, spurred by economic unrest and the worldwide Occupy Wall Street movements that began last fall, socially poignant songs are making their way back to the mainstream.
Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band's energetic performance of "We Take Care Of Our Own," served as a grand opening to this year's 54th GRAMMY Awards telecast. Springsteen's new politically minded song also inspired the theme for an important segment of the GRAMMY telecast: the official remarks by Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow.
"['We Take Care Of Our Own' is] a clarion call that also represents the core of what we do at The Recording Academy 365 days a year," said Portnow, referencing The Academy's important advocacy initiatives and work of the GRAMMY Foundation and MusiCares Foundation that help "take care" of the music community.
With a new video released Feb. 10, "We Take Care Of Our Own" is continuing to stimulate discussion in the online community. NPR's Ann Powers has described the song's "gloves-off" lyrics as a "strong election-year statement." Similar to his previous songs such as "Born In The U.S.A." and "The Rising," Springsteen's mix of optimism and underlying pointed social commentary will likely have an effect on listeners and fellow artists.
"When an artist like Bruce Springsteen does something on their own accord, it really starts to send a message to some of the elite, most well-respected songwriters and artists," says George "Rithm" Martinez, a U.S. cultural envoy, hip-hop artist and founder of the Global Blocks artists collective.
Another recording making waves is Chimes Of Freedom: The Songs Of Bob Dylan, a collection released in January featuring Dylan cover songs in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International. Artists contributing songs include GRAMMY winners Adele, Pete Seeger, Lucinda Williams, Raphael Saadiq, and Diana Krall, among others. The album is "dedicated to people worldwide who are unjustly imprisoned or threatened for the peaceful expression of their beliefs."
Scheduled for release this spring, Occupy This Album is another compilation making up the socially conscious soundtrack of 2012. The album culls tracks from a diverse range of artists, including Martinez, Ani DiFranco, Our Lady Peace, Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, and Matt Pless. According to the album's press release, all proceeds will go "directly towards the needs of sustaining this growing movement."
"We have had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of submissions," says Jason Samel, executive producer for Occupy This Album. "Once the idea got out there and people heard about this album, people from all over the country started writing protest music again and sometimes putting it up online. It's spreading like wildfire."
"I think with people like Springsteen and the people on this album coming out and releasing songs to the mainstream public, you'll see more people embrace the idea of protest songs and political and social songwriting," says Pless, the singer/songwriter who befriended Samel in Zuccotti Park in New York last fall and inspired the creation of Occupy This Album.
Unlike the music inspired by the social movements in the '60s, blogs and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter provide a direct and instantaneous forum for people, helping to fuel dialog and spark social change.
"I think there's a lot of political energy out there now that wasn't there even a year or two ago," says DiFranco, who has contributed her a capella cover of the popular protest song "Which Side Are You On?" to the compilation. "The youth culture, the political environment and the cultural environment are reflective, so I hope we'll see more and more progressive thought reflected in music."
Some artists may fear a backlash from music fans if they step forward with a political statement, as evidenced by Dixie Chicks' frontwoman Natalie Maines' after her remark about President George W. Bush in 2003. The controversy and reaction resulted in the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready To Make Nice," which garnered Record Of The Year honors in 2006.
Our Lady Peace frontman Raine Maida wrote an op-ed piece last year in Canadian newspaper The Globe And Mail about why he supports the Occupy movement. Maida subsequently received an initial wave of criticism, much of it suggesting he had no business making political statements as an artist.
"There's a Churchill quote that I try to paraphrase with this kind of stuff: 'Beware of people who are loved by everyone because it means they probably never took a stand on something,'" says Maida. "If you live by that motto and that creed, you've got to expect it. We did a video on our website before we gave the song ['Fight The Good Fight'] away to [Occupy This Album to] show our involvement and spread the word. I would say 70 percent of the feedback was positive, but the 30 percent that was negative was vile. I'm sure those fans are probably gone for good now because of the stand we took."
Pless recalls a meeting with an A&R executive a couple of years back and being told that his political songs would need to be discarded because people would not be interested in such topics. Pless disagrees, and thinks there are more socially conscious songs on the horizon.
"I do think people want to hear it," says Pless. "I think they want to hear it more now than they probably did then. I think you'll see more protest songs coming up in the next year or two, and I think it's a direct correlation with the Occupy movement bringing it to people's attention."
(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)