In Praise of the Unhinged Protest Song

New albums from Neil Young and Desaparecidos show the difference between music that takes apathy for granted and music that doesn’t.

Denis Balibouse / Reuters

Neil Young has made an album taking aim at huge corporations and powerful politicians, but he knows that his mission of changing the world faces an even more formidable enemy: listeners. “People want to hear about love,” he sings over and over again on the third track of his new record The Monsanto Years. “Don't talk about the Chevron millions going to the pipeline politicians … don’t say Citizens United has killed democracy … don’t say pesticides are causing autistic children,” and so on.

What is Mr. “Let’s Impeach the President” doing declaring political music futile? Is he attention-policing, like those folks who lamented how #TheDress distracted people from caring about global warming, except instead of a meme he’s talking about love itself? Is he challenging the audience to prove him wrong? Is he just imitating the squares in record-label offices? Maybe it’s all of that. But he’s also probably sending out a signal to a certain kind of listener, the kind who already has plenty of firmly held opinions about Chevron, Citizens United, pesticides, and music’s role in fighting them. “People” just want silly love songs, but you, Neil Young diehard and possible signer of petitions against Starbucks, are better than “people.”

The arrival of The Monsanto Years, Young’s 36th album, resurrects the eternal question of whether music can successfully play politics. Contrary to some Dylan-worshippers’ complaints, protest songs haven’t died—hip-hop’s taking up the banner of Black Lives Matter, Muse just put out an album about drones, and Young has blasted at least three Republican presidents over the decades. But across genres and performer demographics, it’s hard to find examples of politicians who’ve changed their votes because of a song, or even citizens who have. What music can do is help solidify political identities and offer a rallying call for causes: As Michael Barthel wrote at Salon in 2012, “‘protest music’ doesn’t mean music that gets us to protest, but music that is frequently heard at protests.”

If preaching to the converted is its sole ambition, The Monsanto Years might just succeed, giving marchers against genetically modified foods and agribusiness something to play on the loudspeakers. Backed by his band, The Promise of the Real, the album’s packed with crisp, crunchy classic rock, and the 69-year-old makes smart use of the sorrowful twinge in his voice. It didn’t help me figure out whether Monsanto is actually sending humanity to extinction or if its bad rap from Greenpeace is overblown, but it did teach me just how fun its name is to say. Young sings the syllables a bit like the witch’s guards in Wizard of Oz might: Mahn sannn, tohhh

For the most part though, to anyone who’s not already in the market for an audio bumper sticker against GMOs, The Monsanto Years will inspire only groans. Young sounds like he’s playing liberal-pundit bingo, serving up phrases like “too big to fail” without attempting to make them sound anything other than hackneyed. See if you want to sing along to this:

When the people of Vermont wanted to label food with GMOs
So that they could find out what was in what the farmer grows
Monsanto and Starbucks through the Grocery Manufacturers Alliance
They sued the state of Vermont to overturn the people's will

Are those lyrics or a blog post? The laziness of the writing on verses like this is enough to make you hear the wounded idealism of “People Want to Hear About Love” as almost sinister. Young makes it sound like political subject matter alienates listeners from songs, but on The Monsanto Years the greater danger seems to be that political subject matter alienates songwriters from their talents.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The dreary pedantry of The Monsanto Years only becomes starker when compared to some other politically tinged works lately—Kendrick Lamar’s transportive headtrip of To Pimp a Butterfly, or Against Me!’s empathy bomb Transgender Dysphoria Blues. One especially relevant companion-by-contrast piece to Young’s album came out this month, from Desaparecidos, the long-dormant pop-punk band fronted by Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. The record, called Payola, is as brazenly political and unsubtle as The Monsanto Years is, blasting Wall Street, the NSA, health insurance providers, the record industry, and all sorts of other bogeymen for Occupy types. But it’s also sublime and funny and scathing, the kind of thing that might rope in the apathetic through sheer rock-and-roll energy—and then, just maybe, radicalize them.

Oberst is working in the punk tradition of rebellion as an aesthetic value rather than a purely political one, and it’s not clear how earnest he’s being when, for example, he opens the album calling for people to chain themselves to ATMs. But the weeping-sad singing style he’s built an audience with as an indie songwriter proves useful here—even if the words aren’t totally serious, the rage behind them is. The eminently replayable second song, “Underground Man,” builds momentum with each line that he spits, aimed at an undefined-because-it-doesn’t-need-to-be-defined they. “They made activism trite!” he screams, though the ferocious and catchy music makes activism sound anything but.

Elsewhere, the targets, the heroes, and the solutions are more defined. “Te Amo Camila Vallejo” should introduce a large swath of rock fans to the work of the Chilean student-politician of its title, and “Slacktivist” mockingly praises the first-world mentality that says you can fight injustice by donating a dollar with your coffee cup. And Oberst puts all of Young’s cut-and-paste anti-capitalism to shame with “Golden Parachutes,” a song-length ad hominem attack against Wall Street, with Oberst memorably labeling a banker “a bloated Dillinger / a spray-tanned Jesse James.”

Most chillingly, “MariKKKopa” offers a nightmarish vision of what might happen if anti-immigrant sentiments ratchet any higher in parts of the Southwest, closing with a clip of Sheriff Joe Arpaio saying it’s an honor to be compared to the KKK. Even Arpaio’s biggest haters might agree that the soundbite is taken a bit out of context, and others might hear the song and worry that Oberst is squeezing a little too much mosh material out of the horrifying idea of modern-day lynching. But sensitivity and proportion aren’t the point on a record like this. Inciting is.

By contrast, the most moving thing on The Monsanto Years is the mournful, ambiguous album-closing jam “If I Don’t Know.” Young’s back to questioning the value of political songs: “If the melodies stay pretty, and the songs are not too long, I'll try to find a way to get them back to you,” he sings, with them presumably being the various messages of the album. He’s on the right track—music has to work at music. But if music’s also going to work as politics, it’d better have some bite, too.