The Day the Music Died

Brent Staples article in today's New York Times strikes us as both correct and very sad: Protest music is unlikely to be heard on today's radio--because all the radio stations are corporate owned and don't want to take chances.
Pop music played a crucial role in the national debate over the Vietnam War. By the late 1960's, radio stations across the country were crackling with blatantly political songs that became mainstream hits. After the National Guard killed four antiwar demonstrators at Kent State University in Ohio in the spring of 1970, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recorded a song, simply titled "Ohio," about the horror of the event, criticizing President Richard Nixon by name. The song was rushed onto the air while sentiment was still high, and became both an antiwar anthem and a huge moneymaker. A comparable song about George W. Bush's rush to war in Iraq would have no chance at all today. There are plenty of angry people, many with prime music-buying demographics. But independent radio stations that once would have played edgy, political music have been gobbled up by corporations that control hundreds of stations and have no wish to rock the boat. Corporate ownership has changed what gets played — and who plays it.
Remember the Jefferson Airplane album Volunteers? Paul Kantner wrote the song "We Can Be Together", a song protesting the establishment that included the line, "Up against the wall, motherfu**er."

To Paul, the "Establishment" included everything from cops who unplugged the band during curfew to the band's own record company, RCA. In We Can Be Together, he included the line, "Up against the wall, motherfucker," which launched a bitter contest of wills between the band and RCA over its inclusion; the company finally backed down.
Fat chance of that happening today.

The " Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag" by Country Joe and the Fish also would never have made it on the air. Telling mothers to pack their boys off to Vietnam and to "be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box" would be far too controversial for Corporate America today.

For those of you too young to remember the details of the Kent State killings in 1970, it began with a campus protest following Nixon's announcement that U.S. and South Vietnamese troops were going to invade Cambodia.
On 4 May, the National Guard marched down a hill, to a field in the middle of angry demonstrators, then back up again. Seconds before they would have passed around the corner of a large building, and out of sight of the crowd, some of the Guardsmen wheeled and fired directly into the students, hitting 13 and killing four of them. The firing lasted for 13 seconds. Guardsmen later admitted to firing at specific unarmed targets; one man shot a demonstrator who was giving him the finger. The unarmed students who were shot raged from 60 feet to 700 feet away from the Guardsmen. The targets were not limited to protesting students. Two of the four who had been killed were simply on their way to class. Most of the Guardsmen later testified that they turned and fired because everyone else had. The question of who fired the first shot, or gave the order to fire, has never been answered.
Neil Young's song "Ohio" became an anthem for that year--
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Back to the New York Times article, Brent Staples tells us,
With a few exceptions, the disc jockeys who once existed to discover provocative new music have long since been put out to pasture. The new generation operates from play lists dictated by Corporate Central — lists that some D.J.'s describe as "wallpaper music."

Recording artists were seen as hysterics when they complained during the 1990's that radio was killing popular music by playing too little of it. But musicians have turned out to be the canaries in the coal mine — the first group to be affected by a 1996 federal law that allowed corporations to gobble up hundreds of stations, limiting expression over airwaves that are merely licensed to broadcasters but owned by the American public....

The perils of consolidation can be seen clearly in the music world. Different stations play formats labeled "adult contemporary," "active rock," "contemporary hit radio" and so on. But studies show that the formats are often different in name only — and that as many as 50 percent of the songs played in one format can be found in other formats as well. The point of these sterile play lists is to continually repeat songs that challenge nothing and no one, blending in large blocks of commercials....

Which brings us back to the hypothetical pop song attacking George Bush. The odds against such a song reaching the air are steep from the outset, given a conservative corporate structure that controls thousands of stations. Record executives who know the lay of land take the path of least resistance when deciding where to spend their promotional money. This flight to sameness and superficiality is narrowing the range of what Americans hear on the radio — and killing popular music."
Sure, we are waxing a little nostalgic here, but let's not forget that history has a tendency to repeat itself, and if it does this time around, there's going to be no one around to record it.
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