Pop Musicians Revisit Themes of Social Consciousness Sacramento Bee music writer Chris Macias and political artist Serj Tankian, of the rock group System of a Down explain how many of today's pop artists are finding interesting methods to get politically-minded and socially-conscious lyrics into their songs.
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Pop Musicians Revisit Themes of Social Consciousness

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Pop Musicians Revisit Themes of Social Consciousness

Pop Musicians Revisit Themes of Social Consciousness

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It's a genre within genres: the protest song. It came of age in the 1960s.

(Soundbite of song, "War")

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) War, huh…

Mr. EDWIN STARR (Singer): (Singing) Yeah.

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) What is it good for.

Mr. STARR: (Singing) Absolutely…

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) Nothing.

Mr. STARR: (Singing) Uh-huh, huh-huh.

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) War.

MARTIN: But in 2007, it seems that mainstream, politically-charged songs are a lot more rare. So we wanted to know, is there a shortage of things to sing about? Are artists more afraid of commercial retribution, or are artists taking their politics underground?

Here to talk about political music are Chris Macias, a music writer for the Sacramento Bee. He wrote an article titled, "The Subtle Songs of Protest." Also here with us is Serj Tankian, lead vocalist of the alternative rock band System of a Down. Serj also has a new solo album out called "Elect the Dead."

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SERJ TANKIAN (Lead Vocalist, System of a Down): Thanks, Michel.

Mr. CHRIS MACIAS (Music Writer, Sacramento Bee): Thank you.

MARTIN: Chris, I'd like to start with you. Do you think that there has been a change in the willingness of artists to write about their politics? Are people afraid?

Mr. MACIAS: Well, I think that there's definitely plenty of message music out there, but I think the difference that you're seeing these days is that a lot of the sentiments are toned down just a little bit, that, you know, you might be humming a song like Norah Jones' "My Dear Country" and not realize that this is, you know, message music involved.

(Soundbite of song, "My Dear Country")

Ms. NORAH JONES (Singer): (Singing) As we believed in our candidate, but even more it's the one we hate. I need someone I could shake on Election Day.

Mr. MACIAS: You know, artists don't really want to divide their audience into red and blue states. You know, their goal is to really go out there and find the largest possible audience, and to get a very message-oriented song out there, you know, it can be a little tricky. I talked to a member of the group Linkin Park, is this, you know, hugely successful rock band. And they had a message-oriented song on their last album called "Hands Held High." And he was saying that they really discussed this within the band, you know, how far on a limb do we want to go out there? You know, we don't think of ourselves as a political band, but it's also something that they wanted to share with their audience.

(Soundbite of song, "Hands Held High")

Mr. MIKE SHINODA (Co-Vocalist, Linkin Park): (Rapping) In my living room watching, I am not laughing. When it gets tense, I know what might happen. The world is cold, the bold men take action, have to react or get blown into fractions…

Mr. MACIAS: This isn't a song that's going to get serviced to radio. It's not something that you're going to see in a video form. They tend to be songs that are maybe buried a little bit more in the album. So, you know, it's a little bit of a bouncing act that I think is going on, at least as far as mainstream music goes.

(Soundbite of song, "Hands Held High")

Mr. SHINODA: (Rapping) At times like this you pray, but a bomb blew the mosque up yesterday. There's bombs…

MARTIN: Serj, let's get to you. Subtlety is not a word that we generally associate with your music. I'm thinking of your hit "B.Y.O.B." that you recorded with System of a Down. If you don't mind, I'd love to play a little bit of that.

Mr. TANKIAN: Sure.

(Soundbite of song, "B.Y.O.B.")

Mr. TANKIAN: (Singing) Why don't presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor? Why don't presidents fight the war? Why do they always send the poor? Why do they always send the poor? Why do they always send the poor? Why do they always send the poor?

MARTIN: For people who don't - who aren't familiar with the lyric it's, you know, why do we always send the poor to fight our wars? Do you consider yourself a political artist?

Mr. TANKIAN: I consider myself an artist. An artist should have the capability to present things on a personal level, on a political level, on arts for the sake of art, humor. You know, to me, poetry and art are things that should be reflected through artists. They should be the speech of our times, you know, they should talk of our times. I always say that if Dylan wasn't living in the '60s, I doubt he'd be writing the type of lyrics that he was writing. You know, the poetry should reflect the times.

MARTIN: Have you, either as an individual artist or working with the band, have you ever felt a need to think about the commercial ramifications of a song that you may want to write or to perform?

Mr. TANKIAN: Not really. You know, I don't really hold anything back. I understand why a lot of artists do. I've had a lot of the backlash. Post-9/11, I wrote an article called, "Understanding Oil," and a lot of people took it the wrong way because it was critical of the government, you know, I…

MARTIN: I'm sorry, when you say backlash, tell me what you mean.

Mr. TANKIAN: Well, a lot of program directors were dropping our song. At the time, it was "Chop Suey."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TANKIAN: Funny enough, but that was a political song as well, so we were -they were dropping our single, and I was being harassed by a lot of program directors on air, death threats on our Web site. It was a huge backlash commercially, as well as personally.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TANKIAN: And, I mean, I see a lot of artists speaking out more so today than they have before. And, of course, that's encouraging, but let's also realize that public opinion has shifted. It's always easy to speak against something when the people agree with you.

MARTIN: If I could play a little bit of "Chop Suey," I'd like to so that people know what we're talking about. Here we go.

Mr. TANKIAN: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of song, "Chop Suey")

Mr. TANKIAN: (Rapping) Wake up.

Unidentified Man: Wake up.

Mr. TANKIAN: (Rapping) Grab a brush and put a little makeup. Hide the scars to fade away the shakeup.

Unidentified Man: Hide the scars to fade away the…

Mr. TANKIAN: (Rapping) Why'd you leave the keys upon the table? Here you go creating another fable.

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing) You wanted to.

Mr. TANKIAN: (Rapping) Grab a brush and put a little makeup.

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing) You wanted to.

Mr. TANKIAN: (Rapping) Hide the scars to fade away the shakeup. You wanted to. Why'd you leave the keys upon the table?

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing) You wanted to.

Mr. TANKIAN: (Singing) I don't think you trust in my self-righteous suicide. I cry when angels deserve to die.

MARTIN: Chris, I'm curious of what role the market plays in this. I understand, because Serj made the point that some of it has to do with where is public opinion, and are people receptive to what it is you're saying. I'm also curious about what role the market plays. On the one hand, during the '60s, there were more independent radio stations. On the other hand, you could say that today, people - artists have other ways to get their music out.

Mr. MACIAS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You know, through the Internet and through…

Mr. MACIAS: Yeah, I think that's…

MARTIN: …iTunes and through YouTube.

Mr. MACIAS: I totally agree with that. I also think that, you know, commercial radio is a huge factor, and, you know, the playlists are very, very small. So, you know, a lot of times, you are seeing some of these safer songs get out there. I mean, if you look at the top 10 right now, you going to see songs like, you know, "Party Like a Rock Star" or, you know, "Summer Love" by Justin Timberlake. You know, if you look at the pop charts, you'd think that everything is fine and dandy. But dig below the surface and whatnot, and, you know, you are seeing a lot of messages still getting out there.

MARTIN: Serj, I wanted to ask you that you are politically active in a number of ways, some of it's - you express yourself through your music. As you've mentioned, you write things. You post them on your site. I wondered if anybody ever says to you - forgive me, I don't mean this to be offensive - but you're just a musician. You're just a musician. Who the heck are you to tell me what to think?

Mr. TANKIAN: Oh, definitely. I've gotten that a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TANKIAN: And I always say I am just another citizen. You know, I think artists shouldn't be the only one speaking. I think plumbers should be speaking. Electricians should be speaking, and schoolteachers should be speaking. And I think everyone should be speaking their minds, and our privilege as artists is we might have a larger reception. And, you know, it's something - foreign policy for me is something that's turned into a hobby ever since music became my work.

MARTIN: You are Armenian-American. You have - I think your parents were born in Lebanon, correct?


MARTIN: Do you feel a responsibility, or are you called to - moved to write about issues on the international scene as well?

Mr. TANKIAN: I don't consider it a responsibility. I've been asked that question a lot, and it's more of like what - I think every artist should do or every person should do whatever is in their heart and whatever is their vision. And for me, I don't, I've never considered talking about, you know, foreign policy or injustice a responsibility. It's just something that I do. It's in my heart, so I say it.

MARTIN: And I do want to point out that in your individual work, you are maintaining the same course, being very clear about where you're coming from on some of these issues. I do want to play something from your latest work, "Elect the Dead" - "The Unthinking Majority."

(Soundbite of song, "The Unthinking Majority")

Mr. TANKIAN: (Singing) We don't need your hypocrisy, execute real democracy. Post-industrial society. The unthinking majority. Anti-depressants controlling tools of your system. Making life more tolerable, Making life more tolerable.

MARTIN: Serj, you're kind of dogging your audience here, man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You're like, I mean, I'm sitting here and I'm, like, riding - I'm in my car, playing this. You know, I'm like…

(Singing) …da, da…

…you know, I got my head going, and I'm thinking, wait a minute. He's dogging me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Do you ever feel like…

Mr. TANKIAN: Well, I'm part of the majority as well.


Mr. TANKIAN: You know, I'm dogging myself as well. You know, I mean, that song is absolutely non-subtle in every way. You know, it's very direct.

MARTIN: Uh, yeah.

Mr. TANKIAN: It talks about a failed democracy. It talks about democracy being hijacked by elitists and a sleeping majority that has not seen the consequences until it's too late, and it's kind of reminiscent of our society.

MARTIN: Do you ever worry that you're coming across as preachy? I mean, the whole point of your music is to say, you know, think for yourself. Stand up to authority. Be your own citizen, right? Take responsibility, and yet, you're kind of in the very in your face, finger-pointy. I mean, some of this just - it's a metal, you know, it's metal. It's hard, it's hard. And but do you know what I mean? Do you ever wonder…


MARTIN: …if you're a fiery mad, not fiery glad?

Mr. TANKIAN: Well, I'm actually a really happy person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TANKIAN: I'm fiery glad. And, you know, that song is pretty straightforward. There's a lot of songs that are about personal experience and art and humor, so it's a balance of all things. That one's the most blatant one, politically. And even there, it's got humor in the verses, if you listen to it. It's kind of making fun of ourselves along the process, as human beings.

(Soundbite of song, "The Unthinking Majority")

Mr. TANKIAN: (Singing) I believe that you're wrong, insinuating that they hold the bomb. Clearing the way for the oil brigade. Clearing the way for the oil brigade .

MARTIN: Chris, you argue that many artists these days - it's not that they're shying away from political messages, it's just that they're expressing them perhaps little bit more subtlety than Serj is willing to do…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: …or as he finds it necessary to do. And one, I think, song you point to is John Legend's "Coming Home." And I'd love to play a little bit of that.

(Soundbite of song, "Coming Home")

Mr. JOHN LEGEND (Singer): (Singing) We fight to stay alive, but somebody's got to die. It's so strange to me, a new year, a new enemy. Another soldier gone to war, another story told before. Now it's told again. It seems the wars will never end.

MARTIN: It's lovely. It's a lovely song, very easy to listen to. Do you think that an artist like John Legend would see himself as being brave putting a song like this out? Tell me a little bit about it.

Mr. MACIAS: Yeah, perhaps. But I would probably expect that you'll be hearing more things like this from him coming…

MARTIN: Because? Because?

Mr. MACIAS: Because they have already generated such a buzz with these songs already. You know, he's shown he can write other songs besides, you know, relationships and love and what not that, that, you know, he is able to sort of stretch his subject matter. And I would think that most artists wouldn't want to be pigeonholed as any one thing, that, you know, to try and write about the most diverse amount of subjects possible. So I would suspect that that would continue.

MARTIN: Chris Macias is a music writer for the Sacramento Bee. He joined us from Capitol Public Radio. Serj Tankian is the front man for the alternative rock group System of a Down. His new solo album is titled "Elect the Dead." He joined us from our New York bureau.

Thank you to you both.

Mr. MACIAS: Thank you.

Mr. TANKIAN: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "Coming Home")

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) Coming home

Unidentified Group #3: (Singing) I'm coming. I'm coming.

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) Coming home

Unidentified Group #3: (Singing) I'm coming. I'm coming.

Mr. LEGEND: (Singing) Oh…

Unidentified Group #3: (Singing) I'm coming…

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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