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30 septembre 2005

PBS gets hip with a reflection on pop protests

By Ned Martel

The New York Times
September 30, 2005

The PBS documentary Get Up, Stand Up replays the history of protest songs as delicately as it can, without favoring the protesters or those whom they opposed. But slowly and methodically, the show, ably narrated by Public Enemy's Chuck D, explains how these voices shaped American attitudes about race, sex and the rights of individuals.

It might not be obvious what Oscar Brand's Which Side Are You On? has in common with Talib Kweli's Just to Get By, but the documentary makes a persuasive comparison between the two anthems, with many diverse experts united by the sense that music can move opinions en masse.

In interviews, artists from many different genres -- Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel and Steve Earle -- assert the repetitive, contagious power of songs. Each echoes a quotation attributed to Joe Hill, the laboring hero made famous in story and song. "A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once," Hill said. Songs, on the other hand, can last in the mind for a lifetime.

A powerful part of the American audience has expressed disdain, or worse, for political messages mixed in with its entertainment. Billie Holiday caused an uproar for her rendition of Strange Fruit, a dirge about lynching, just as Earle drew ire for his John Walker's Blues, a song based on the imagined thoughts of the American Taliban member.

But the show is most convincing when presenting examples of subtler, but no less innovative messages.

Cumulatively, the voices of dissent seem one step ahead of censors and chiders, speaking to specialized audiences all acutely attuned to their favorite styles. Stevie Wonder sang about the urban plight in Living for the City, just as Sly and the Family Stone struck black-power chords within some funky lyrics.

The documentary also notes that years later, Ted Nugent and ZZ Top have used their musical celebrity for conservative causes.

In the show's two-hour sweep of a century in music, the eras jam into one another with only a few minutes to consider their dramatic differences. The 1960s protesters are chiming in We Shall Overcome; a short while later we are hearing about Live Aid and the problems Bob Geldof had in ensuring that the funds he raised were feeding the mouths he had intended.

But the documentary makers can't be blamed for this hurried narrative: The history and the music keep reflecting both the rapid changeover of regimes and the speedy evolution of tastes.

Bono of U2
is particularly eloquent in questioning whether all the showmanship leads to actual results, and the documentary spends some time explaining his campaign to have third-world debts forgiven.

The show is most riveting when bringing lesser-known or quickly forgotten performances to the foreground. And for the few minutes that the documentary samples the hit from Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, a song that chides television as a "cathode nipple," Get Up, Stand Up establishes itself as one of the most daring, and perhaps the hippest, program in the recent history of PBS.

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