MUST READ: Why Neil Young Is Wrong (re Protest Music & Young Artists)

Why Neil Young Is Wrong

By Stephan Smith-Said
July 2006

On Sunday, May 14, the San Francisco Chronicle
published my open letter to Neil Young, “Hey, Neil
Young, We Young Singers Are Hog-tied, Too.” I tried to
explain how the corporatized music industry has
censored protest music in the past several years. The
letter went viral on the Internet, and I was flooded
with enthusiastic responses from all kinds of people.
Even Neil and his team posted it front and center on
his blog for the entire week.

What prompted my letter and the outpouring was Young’s
comment about why he felt compelled to write his new
anti-Bush album, Living with War. “I was waiting for
someone to come along, some young singer eighteen-to-
twenty-two years old, to write these songs and stand
up,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I waited a long
time. Then I decided that maybe the generation that has
to do this is still the ’60s generation. We’re still

As the first protest singer to rise from the streets of
anti-war and WTO protests and get a major worldwide
distribution deal, I felt compelled to explain that
today’s Dylans, Ochses, and Neil Youngs are here, but
they’re being silenced by an industry that has for
years derived its profits from kiddy porn and dreamy

Just two days after my article came out, MTV, which has
refused to play anti-war videos even by the biggest
stars, published an article addressing the need for
political consciousness in mainstream music. In a
flourish of Bush-like hubris, one of the country’s
chief purveyors of military recruitment ads to youth
posted the article, “Where Is the Voice of Protest in
Today’s Music?” The webpage boasted an Army video game
in the bottom right corner. (MTV, by the way, refuses
to air anti-war ads produced by organizations like Not
In Our Name and Win Without War.)

Where’s the voice of protest? It’s in MTV’s trash can.

Where are today’s protest singers? They’re on the
“don’t add” list at corporate radio stations, where
they’ve increasingly been placed since FCC deregulation
paved the way for the monopolization of the industry.

Just ask Scott Goodstein. He heads the great
music/political advocacy group PunkVoter, which, with
Fat Wreck Chords, released the Rock Against Bush
compilation CDs. Those CDs, which included songs from
Anti-Flag and Green Day, sold 650,000 copies combined.
When Goodstein approached MTV about getting airtime for
Rock Against Bush, they rebuffed him. “They told us,
‘Your project’s not relevant. Or, it’s not mainstreamy
enough,’ ” he says. “And Rolling Stone’s no better.”
Meanwhile, Green Day’s current anti-Bush album,
American Idiot, has sold five million copies.

Finally waking up, MTV has the nerve to extol Green Day
and include Anti-Flag in its story on political bands!
PunkVoter immediately posted a retort titled, “MTV,
Still Completely Worthless,” stating that political
bands “will be there, waiting, when MTV is ready to
start covering some protest music. Not that they’re

Pete Seeger told me that the floodgates to freedom of
_expression were opened in the 1960s when the Broadway
and Hollywood monopoly over the music industry was
broken by Rock and Roll, Motown, and Nashville.

Now, the subsequent monopoly that Rock and Roll,
Motown, and Nashville constructed is being broken by
the Internet, where artists and organizations are
creating networks that transcend corporate genres.

“Most corporate industry professionals just don’t
understand it,” says Molly Neitzel, executive director
of Music for America, a nonprofit organization that
engages music audiences in political issues. “We’re a
generation who doesn’t fit into boxes,” she says. “We
listen to all kinds of music, and that just doesn’t fit
into the old corporate model of selling records to kids
this age, that color, this demographic.”

Considering how damaging target marketing has been for
our democracy, it’s great that today’s protest singers
span all genres: from the anti-cool subtlety of indie-
rockers like Death Cab for Cutie and Bright Eyes, to
in-your-face hip-hop artists like the Coup, Mr. Lif,
and Immortal Technique; from punk bands like Anti-Flag
and NOFX, to country and folk artists like Liza
Gilkyson and Merle Haggard; from rally regulars like
David Rovics, Pat Humphries, and Chris Chandler, to
genre-bending artists like Thievery Corporation and
Manu Chao.

Some labels are already picking up on the pulse. Andy
Kaulkin, who runs a label called “Anti-” for Epitaph,
tells me he’s become fascinated by the civil rights
movement and contemplates what we could do with music
to create such a movement today. Accordingly, he has
signed artists across corporate music genres that
converge instead in political consciousness and
spirituality. The label’s roster now includes Billy
Bragg, the Coup, Tom Waits, and Spearhead.

Speaking with Billy Bragg after my article came out, we
agreed that the modern “broadside”-the protest song
that actually has political effect because of its
timely ability to affect public opinion-is the free
mp3. “In the corporate model, it’s all based on sales,
not on social consciousness, and even the Internet
releases are exploited as promo for upcoming releases,
so singles are still held up in this four-month lag
time the record industry requires for printing,
publicity, distribution,” he says. In today’s sound-
bite world, no one wants to write a song about a war
that might be over by the time the album comes out.

My conversations with Goodstein and Neitzel inevitably
veered toward the idea of a nationwide tour of a
diverse selection of artists to bring together a
raucous, mixed, and attentive audience. But we also
spoke of how to expand the kind of touring I and a few
other artists have been doing. We use our shows to
support local peace and global justice groups. Kind of
like what SNCC and SDS did in their day, except for the
global, Internet generation.

Where’s protest music today? It’s here, it’s on the
Internet, and it may soon be coming to your town to
build an international movement for peace, civil
rights, and equality. _____

Stephan Smith-Said is an Iraqi American songwriter
whose father’s family lives under the daily threat of
bombing in Baghdad and Mosul. His newest single,
“Another World Is Possible,” has been released for free
at his website


portside (the left side in nautical parlance) is a news,
discussion and debate service of the Committees of
Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. It aims to
provide varied material of interest to people on the



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One Response to “MUST READ: Why Neil Young Is Wrong (re Protest Music & Young Artists)”

  1. Cindy said:

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