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Why today's protest songs will never matter as much as old ones

In times of trouble, we turn to the classic protest songs - like those featured in Ken Burns' "The Vietnam War" - again and again.

An early, undated publicity photo of Bob Dylan in New York City.
An early, undated publicity photo of Bob Dylan in New York City.Read moreSimon & Schuster

Back then, it was Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye's job.

Now, it seems to be Jimmy Kimmel's.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War is full up with music, as you would expect from an 18-hour opus that chronicles a tumultuous period in history in which the fissures that still divide America first broke wide open.

The score of the PBS series features electronic compositions by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and classical ones by Yo-Yo Ma & the Silk Road Ensemble. But the real soundtrack work is done by the pop music of the era, which frequently raised its voice in dissent and gave us the protest anthems that have stubbornly stuck around for half a century.

The series begins with the apocalyptic folk of Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and ends with the hopeful pseudo-profundity of the Beatles' "Let It Be." And among the more than 100 songs in between are baby boomer consciousness-raising staples like Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising," Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio," and, of course, Gaye's commentary on a world in disarray, "What's Going On."

Now as then, we find ourselves in times of trouble. Tiki-torch-carrying white supremacists are unafraid to show their faces. Automatic-weapons fire mows down innocent festivalgoers. Nuclear war once again seems thinkable. Athletes who dare to protest racism as the national anthem plays are accused of being disrespectful ingrates, echoing a refrain from the Vietnam era: "Love it or leave it! "

So why isn't this a new golden age of protest music? Shouldn't our fraught-with-anxiety era be producing a fresh arsenal of anthems as a new generation is moved to lift every voice and sing as a means of spiritual sustenance and self-reliance?

You might think so. This would make for a perfect time for musicians to stand up and be counted, with songs that ring out righteously and speak to the moment on the hot-button topics and attention-grabbing crises that come at us with frightening round-the-clock-news-cycle speed.

But can you hear those new songs of protest resonating through the culture, articulating people's anxieties and concerns, and demanding unity rather than division, that love triumphs over hate?

Nope, me neither.

Music — or at least new music — does not play the same uniting, galvanizing role in the culture that it once did, for all kinds of reasons.

A lot of it has to do with fragmentation and proliferation of content.

These days, it seems the only musical event that can truly bring people together to agree on anything is the death of a much-beloved hitmaker, like David Bowie or Prince or, last week, Tom Petty.

Or a headline-grabbing tragedy, as when Stephen Paddock killed 58 people, then himself, last Sunday in Las Vegas. Mainstream-country-music fans were well aware of who Jason Aldean was when news broke that he was on stage entertaining 20,000-plus at the Route 91 Harvest festival, but were you?

In the 1960s — when Aretha Franklin was demanding "Respect" and the Youngbloods were suggesting everybody "Get Together" and try to love one another right now — pop-music-makers with a political point of view were speaking to one generation of listeners engaged in collective self-discovery while sharing the experience of rebelling against their parents, authority in general, and the fear of being drafted to fight in an unpopular war, whether they supported it or not. There may not have been a lot of overlap between Youngbloods and Aretha fans, but those two acts were united in that they were a part of youth culture just embedding itself in the public consciousness.

There has been plenty of great protest music made since then, from the Clash to Public Enemy to two of my favorites from last year, the avant-R&B of Solange's A Seat at the Table and the roots-rock of Drive-By Truckers' American Band. But you're not going to find a big cross section of people who like both  those acts, despite their similarly incisive insights on race in America.

The other issue is speed. Social media and cable news means everyone has a perspective to share every second of every day. In a world inundated with politics and opinion that moves from one crisis to the next in the blink of an eye, what's the point of writing a topical song that will be overtaken by events before you get to the final verse? As formerly hyperpoliticized songwriter Little Steven argued in this space last week, maybe it makes more sense to create a politics-free refuge for music fans, rather than rub it in their faces when they're simply seeking to be entertained.

In that environment, late-night hosts like Kimmel and Stephen Colbert are well-suited to fill the social-commentary void that music has left behind. They may not draw audiences like network TV once did, but they do command plenty of attention via the social media echo chamber.

And though it was Colbert who made a steep ratings climb after turning his attention to Trump seemingly full time, Kimmel is the one who has emerged in recent months as the socially impactful late-night host.

That's partly because he never seemed the type before, so he comes across as completely authentic and genuine in his monologues about health-care legislation and his infant son's multiple heart operations, or this week when the Las Vegas native joined the gun-control debate. Funny headline from this week, based on comments by a former Breitbart editor who has had it up to here with Kimmel: "Ben Shapiro: Who died and made Jimmy Kimmel Jesus?"

I don't want to give the impression that pop musicians are not using their celebrity to make statements or are not writing protest songs. Last weekend, Jay-Z wore a Colin Kaepernick jersey on Saturday Night Live. Last week, songwriter Rosanne Cash authored an op-ed column in the New York Times imploring country artists to speak up in favor of gun control after the Las Vegas massacre, and Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson tweeted out the names of members of Congress who had received money from the National Rifle Association.

Charitable efforts abound, with pop stars' banding together in recent months in efforts to hasten healing and raise money in Manchester, England; Charlottesville, Va.; and Houston. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have been the beneficiary of many indie-rock fund-raisers.

And there is plenty of protest music being released, from the righteous rage of provocative Providence, R.I., rock band Downtown Boys' entire album The Cost of Living to supermellow surfer and guitar strummer Jack Johnson's new anti-Trump song "My Mind is for Sale." The veteran indie-rock band Deerhoof, fronted by singer Satomi Matsuzaki, have a catchy, extremely Trump-agitated new album called Mountain Moves. They are to play Monday at Underground Arts.

But the issue isn't so much the absence of songs, as it is the new music's inability to compete with the shadow cast by protest songs of yore, or the nonexistent attention span of our current audience.

Along with a double-album soundtrack to The Vietnam War and individual Spotify playlists for each episode's music, there's also a playlist called Echoes of Vietnam, in which contemporary artists have a crack at covering tunes of the era. Some are laudable, like a take on "Ohio" by Leon Bridges, Jon Batiste, and Gary Clark Jr. Others are ill-conceived, like the Lumineers' "Subterranean Homesick Blues."

But rather than bemoan contemporary artists' inability to write songs that can command a huge unifying audience, let's give some credit to the oldies but goodies that people do turn to, whether it be the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn" or Gaye's "What's Going On." Those songs have stuck around not just because the baby boomers have foisted their music on us against our will, but because of the tunes' timeless expressions of frustration and sorrow. And there's another plus to turning to old protest songs every time the world seems be overcome with conflict and suffering: It's a reminder that no matter how much time has passed, nothing ever seems to change.