Just Saying No to Activism

John Lennon's line, "Give peace a chance," is, of course, the perfect soundtrack for mass activism. Easy to learn and almost impossible to sing wrong, it even has a percussion hook: If you've got it, rattle it.

The song is so fixed, though, in its time and place that it has made recent protests sound like walking dusty singles from the '60s. The only contemporary alternative seems to be Wilco's perky pop chant, "It's a war on war," which flunks the gravity test entirely.

As the shadow of war darkened the generally festive days and nights of SXSW, I found myself in a quest for relevant protest music. Is anybody listening? Does anybody care?

I expected a mother lode off the bat from Ronny Elliott on Wednesday. Elliott's most often remembered on Elvis Presley's birthday with airings of his "Tell the King the Killer's Here," and "Tell the Killer the King is Dead." But he's ground more axes than Steve Earle and Billy Bragg combined. His insider hit, "South by So What," which he swears caused him to be banned from the conference for four years (it didn't), played well to the crowd, but his set was almost eerily silent on politics and social issues.

At midnight in a spectacular performance for a fire-code-bending crowd, emo innovators ...and you will know us by the trail of dead had only their name to offer as a political statement.

Thursday night in a bit of spontaneous street theater, satirist Neal Pollack (his 2002 spoken word "Anthology of American Literature" featured Mekon/Waco Brother Jon Langford) raged about reactions to his article "Just Shut Up." The screed (see Stephen Seigel's report), which has become a cause celebre among artists and musicians as well as writers, has been generally--if wrongly--interpreted to mean Pollack thinks artists shouldn't express political opinions.

Just a short cab ride away warm, charismatic Texas rebel troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard didn't care, if he even knew, what Neal Pollack thinks. As he sang "Name-Droppin" from his new release, Growl, he encouraged an audience sing-along with the chorus, "ain't gonna study war no more." The line has great potential, but, alas, the song itself is more about music politics than world politics.

At a Friday artists' panel, "Activism and Protest," Pollack defended his thesis (bad political art is everywhere; where's the good?); Jenny Toomey (singer, songwriter and president of the Coalition for the Future of Music) proved stunningly knowledgeable and articulate about activism in a wide range of interests, and John Doe (X), incredibly, whined about not having been invited personally to a protest. (Where's that punk DIY ethic? You can't pick up a phone?) Promisingly, Mike Mills (R.E.M.) hinted that the band's current project returns to message rock, noting "Desperate times call for desperate measures."

Then came the pocketbook question: What of the commercial consequences? Austin resident Natalie Maines just told Europe she's "embarrassed" being from the president's home state. Radio stations have pulled Dixie Chicks tracks in droves. The panelists answered, entirely hypothetically--sing your mind and take the consequences.

Later Friday, my friends and I sought out some vegetables in the land of Tex-Mex and Bar-B-Que. Girly gossip turned to a flirtation my friend Rachel dropped when she learned its object was a corporate drone for Wal-Mart. She's an indie record store girl all the way.

The waitress overheard and joined in a brief conversation about "selling out." She's the daughter of a small-business owner and hates Wal-Mart, but she works in a chain restaurant rather than a mom-n-pop so she can pay her bills. She thinks she's not selling out. It's the chains' fault; they're making it impossible for small businesses to complete.

I disagree, making a mental note to leave a nice tip anyway. Selling out is choosing a lifestyle you can't support without selling out. Selling out is choosing comfort over principle. Not that I'm one to throw stones.

By midnight, Maines had apologized in a statement worthy of the Sony PR department, and by Saturday noon, I'd sold out, too.

I skipped the peace march from the State Capitol and went for a Midwestern pop fix with singer-songwriter Chris Mills in his rock incarnation; the smart and amazing, '70s-referential Boas; and the Fruit Bats (newly signed to Sub-Pop), whose Palace Brothers-meets-Beatles sound stole my heart at Solar Culture last fall.

Afterward, as I waited 45 music-less minutes to interview Jayhawks bassist Marc Perlman, I contemplated my karma. He was held up in peace march traffic. But the Jayhawks' new record, Rainy Day Music, is easily leading my 2003 top 10 at present (think Smile songs with Tomorrow the Green Grass production), and their Friday night set (opening for Lucinda Williams and, eat your hearts out, Willie Nelson) was the highlight of the conference for me. So I tried not to mind missing Calexico, Jon Rauhaus, Neko Case and Sally Timms across town.

Of the 30 bands I'd seen by 11 p.m. Saturday, not one had a chant to mobilize the loyal opposition, or even a song for the heartache of feeling like an alien in your own country. Tired and a bit defeated, I went for the best available antidote: Polyphonic Spree, a 26-piece affirmation of life wrapped in choir robes and wreathed in smiles. With a nine-member chorus, trombone, two keyboards, flute, theramin, electronics, violin, upright bass, electric guitar and one inspired triangle, the Spree can turn on the lights in your darkest corners. "You've gotta be good/You've gotta be strong/You've gotta be 2,000 places at once!" they exulted, pretty much summing up the South by Southwest experience. And in their set closer, the Spree seemed to lift the weight of the week's events from all the thousand or so music fans who joyfully sang along with their quasi-Christian refrain, "Hope has come/you are saved."

Escapist? Maybe. But if no music can help bring peace or justice, surely hope is the next best thing.

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