When john Fogerty appeared during David Letterman’s final run as America’s longest-running late-night TV talk show host, the gravel-voiced songster pulled out a triad of his classics. He began the medley with ‘Travelin’ Band’, a song that in my childhood wore down my 45rpm record from rampant overplay, moved on to ‘Proud Mary’, then, most significantly, topped it all with a fusillade from his political protestation ‘Fortunate Son’.
Musicians as political objectors and social commentators are no novelty in the modern world. Listeners aren’t just used to them protesting through songs, they’ve long celebrated it. When, in 1945, Woody Guthrie sang ‘This Land Is Your Land’, his rejoinder to Irving Berlin’s saccharine anthem ‘God Bless America’, it was par for the contrarian course. Bob Dylan’s anti-war ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’, whose release coincided with the American debacle known as the Cuban missile crisis, was but one offering from a vast repertoire of socio-political disagreement and fulmination. John Lennon’s appeals to make love, not war, resonated with folks across the globe, who took solace in the pipedream, imagining a world that could “live as one”. The Woodstock music festival played kickstarter to a whole era of socially conscious rock ’n’ roll, with bands wailing about injustices over the scorch of distorted guitars.
Dissent is acceptable when set in song (who doesn’t love a good rant over a slamming groove?) as is celebrity musicians allying with pet causes. The fans see their idols as morally engaged, the lustre rubbing off via the backwash of devotion. But what happens when musicians leap from the mosh pit to the pulpit? Does a rockstar have greater cogency than the average Joglekar? Is Bono blessed with a bigger conscience than his fans? Does Vishal Dadlani have deeper insight into national politics than a B-wood devotee? What gives Brit band Coldplay’s English frontman Chris Martin the credibility to shill for US presidential candidates, as he did twice—in 2004 for Democratic candidate John Kerry, then in 2008 for imminent POTUS Barack Obama?
American country superstars Dixie Chicks learnt the hard way that disagreement from the dais can rebound with disastrous consequence. When their singer Natalie Maines expressed her disenchantment with George W Bush at a London concert in 2003, stating she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas”, a vast network of radio stations owned by the right-wing-supporting corporation Clear Channel blacklisted the Dixies from all airplay across the US—they decided that the singer’s ‘blasphemous’ opinion warranted a blanket embargo on the band’s music.
Sound and fury: (Clockwise from top) Vishal Dadlani; Sting with Chilean mothers; Russian punk rockers Pussy Riot; Dixie Chicks; Brazilian singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil; protests during the Cuban missile crisis, a cause taken up by the likes of Bob Dylan
(This story appears in the July-Aug 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)