Muting Protest Songs on the Airwaves

Random Lengths News | November 14, 2005
Forty years ago in the United States -- midway through a decade that began with widespread social inertia -- something unprecedented happened. A pervasive medium for mass culture among baby boomers, AM radio, featured a protest song that became a smash hit, reaching the top of the charts.

It was the autumn of 1965, and Barry McGuire’s haunting voice gave special resonance to “Eve of Destruction.” The lyrics were disturbing. And the song owed much of its special power to momentous events -- in particular, the civil rights movement that was well underway and the war in Vietnam that had not yet provoked a high-impact peace movement.

I can remember that one of my friends in ninth grade was especially peeved at the words “Hate your next-door neighbor / But don’t forget to say grace.” His family was both religious and hostile to black people. The couplet wasn’t precisely on target -- housing was so segregated that hatred usually focused on other neighborhoods – but the gist of the song’s discontent was clear. It moved some people and angered others.

Likewise, the way that “Eve of Destruction” addressed war was general enough not to seem too topical but clear enough to rankle many people who felt comfortable with the status quo. Just a few words -- “You don’t believe in war / But what’s that gun you’re toting” -- poignantly raised a profound question just a few months after President Johnson had ordered massive escalation of the Vietnam War.

There were to be many more of such orders, and quite a few more Top 40 protest songs, in the years that followed. Some of those songs were banned by various stations, and furors erupted over tunes that were concerned about injustice and bloodshed instead of sex, surfing or school. The hardest-hitting creative music was usually relegated to some stations on the FM dial, which back then was second-tier in terms of audience size. This was a time when many cars still only had AM radio.

Now, the era when “Eve of Destruction” burst upon the baby-boom generation is a kind of distant mirror. Since then, quite a few songs against war and injustice have made a big sound on the airwaves. But today, the dominant musical atmosphere on the radio is hardly more adventurous than the kind of auditory environment that Barry McGuire so effectively disrupted.

These days, there are notable exceptions of course -- mostly because of listener-supported community stations that are not affiliated with corporate outfits or National Public Radio. But for the broadcasters with the most powerful signals, caution rules the day.

Program directors typically work for Clear Channel or other media conglomerates that own a chain of radio stations and strive to avoid controversy. At times, the ordained play-lists explicitly rule out songs that the company’s hierarchy views as inappropriate because of antiwar lyrics or other boat-rocking messages.

The easiest way to harm a song is to keep it off the air. Another way is to eviscerate a well-known song by turning a carefully selected portion of it into an ad jingle.

Four autumns ago, a TV commercial for Wranglers jeans featured the opening of the rock classic “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. The spot included the opening words -- “Some folks are born, made to wave the flag / Ooh, they're red, white and blue” – but suddenly the soundtrack disappeared. The abrupt fade-out meant that listeners didn’t hear the next lines: “And when the band plays ‘Hail to the Chief’ / They point the cannon right at you.”

Whether you call it tasteful programming, blatant censorship or something in between, the commercial radio industry has largely reverted to the kind of conformity that “Eve of Destruction” shook up during the autumn of 1965. And that’s not because protest songs are any less needed today.

For a song that gained so much air play, one of the most notable things about “Eve of Destruction” was its relentlessly downbeat tone -- not about lost romance but about prospects for global survival.

McGuire later described the song as “a diagnosis of the way things were, the hypocrisy of our human condition.” Such a grim assessment is not what corporate radio programmers have in mind to fill the spaces between upbeat commercials.

Norman Solomon is the author of the new book War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.

Random Lengths News

Founded in 1979 as a counterbalance to the conservative, corporate- owned daily paper, Random Lengths News draws on the rich history of the Los Angeles Harbor Area. The name harkens back to a description of the lumber that used to...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1300 S. Pacific Ave., San Pedro, CA 90731
  • Phone: (310) 519-1442