Interview With Brad Schreiber On ‘Music Is Power’: Part 1—Dixie Chicks, Marvin Gaye
Covering around a century, Music Is Power is a book by Brad Schreiber that takes readers on a tour of music that challenged social injustice and spoke to the masses during uncertain times.
Schreiber is an award-winning author, journalist, and screenwriter, whose past books include Death In Paradise, Becoming Jimi Hendrix, and Revolution’s End.
Music Is Power was released in 2019, and it is a finalist for a 2020 Foreword Indies Book Award. The book explores the impact of a number of musicians, including Joe Hill, Lesley Gore, Janis Ian, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, and Pete Seeger.
Over the next weeks, Shadowproof will release a series from a discussion that was recorded back in January between Schreiber and Shadowproof managing editor Kevin Gosztola, who curates Shadowproof’s Protest Music Project.
The first part of the discussion explores the censorship that the Dixie Chicks faced after they criticized President George W. Bush, as well as the restrictions Marvin Gaye had to defy in order to produce his landmark album, “What’s Going On.”
You can listen to the discussion by clicking on the player at the top of the post. The book can be purchased from Rutgers University Press here.
Below is a transcript, with a few minor edits for clarity.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: You have some specific cases that you go into, particular musicians. It hits on several musicians who people know very well as musicians who recorded music that had messages or spoke to the political or social moments that they were going through. We’re going to get into each of those cases.
But before we get into any individual artist I wanted to give you the opportunity to describe how you arrived at doing this project. Your chronicling a history that for the most part covers late 1940s, early 1950s music on through to the modern era up through the 2010s and looking at the evolution at the way music has been used to inspire and speak to political moments.
BRAD SCHREIBER: It’s true that this book has a huge wingspan, if you will. It actually starts with the union songs in the 1900s and 1910s. The first chapter includes Joe Hill and then we go on to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. The last chapter is Green Day and the Dixie Chicks, but there’s an epilogue where I talk about some of the musical artists today who are pushing back against Trump and issues about global warming and so forth.
It all came about probably because of the last two books I wrote. I wrote a book called Becoming Jimi Hendrix. That was an early history of Jimi written from the research of Hendrix historian Steve Roby. And in 2016 I wrote a book that had always been close to my heart, and it was called Revolution’s End.
It was the hidden history of the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the 1970s in which I explain to the reader that Patty Hearst was a sideshow and that the creation of this supposed left-wing group was engendered by Ronald Reagan, the prisons, and the CIA. It goes into Donald DeFreeze’s background as an informer at the LAPD, having drugs used upon him at Vacaville, and then being given a get-out-of-jail-free card in order to create the SLA, which behaved irrationally and undercut the Black Panthers and the New Left in the Bay Area in the 1970s.
So you put all that together, and you get music and you get politics. And you get music is power.
GOSZTOLA: You’re right. You have this wonderful chapter, where you dig into what happened with Joe Hill. One more question before we get to specific artists.
I don’t think there’s really a wrong answer. Any way you do it, as long as you justify it, is good. In the work I do covering music, I do outright call it protest music just as a really easy way to tangibly get people to understand what we’re talking about. But I understand that baggage that comes along with it, and a lot of artists don’t want to be seen as protest musicians or protest singers because they feel like they’re marginalizing their music. Do you have any thoughts you want to express on that?
SCHREIBER: I appreciate that very much. And I appreciate your work, which I’ve listened to and read, and a lot of people who interview me about Music Is Power come from the music background and not the strong political research background. So I’m kind of balanced in both of those areas obviously from what I’ve done.
I understand what you’re saying about the term protest music. The reason I shy away from it is the reason I shy away from terms like conspiracy theory. Because linguistics are very powerful, and you can use them to basically undercut someone’s rational argument. Well, that’s just a conspiracy theory. Well, no, here’s the proof. Here’s the documents. It’s not a theory.
Protest music sounds like it’s only the Sixties, and that was my concern. That as you say people would say, oh, a book about music that protests. That would be Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, I guess. And I’m trying to suggest that there’s a continuum even up to today, and that’s why I prefer to call it socially conscious or sociopolitical music or anything like that. But as long as we have this understanding that it isn’t confined to the Sixties, there’s nothing wrong with saying protest music either.
GOSZTOLA: For the first example, let’s get into what the dynamic was like for musicians after the September 11th attacks and then ahead of the Iraq War. As you document in the book, we have Clear Channel that is involved. They take particular songs and they say perhaps these songs should not air. Then you have the pressure that the Dixie Chicks come under to not sing about certain topics because of the march to invade Iraq.
SCHREIBER: I’m glad you start there because it’s fairly recent, and it goes to my previous point to a certain degree about linguistics controlling—There’s a guy named George Lakoff out of UC Berkeley, who talks about framing arguments with language. If you frame the nature of the discussion and you get there first, the people on the other side now have to respond to your manipulation linguistically. They don’t have an opportunity to make a rational plea because they’re being controlled by the ground rules so to speak that you’ve set.
Clear Channel Communications after 9/11 had about 110 million listeners nationally, and it was utterly Orwellian, as anybody who remembers that time will agree, in which Clear Channel starts saying these are the songs that we do not suggest our stations play. Their concerns were not only all-encompassing but at times absurd. I understand the raw wound in America after the attacks of 9/11, but to say that you can’t play Peter, Paul, & Mary’s “Leaving On a Jet Plane” because no one wants to think about planes. Because planes were used as weapons. It is crazy, and the deeper issue is something that Barbara Kopple, who by the way did the Dixie Chicks documentary, “Shut Up and Sing,” communicated with me.
She’s utterly brilliant. I mean, she’s won two Oscars, but the conciseness of her language and her thought just stunned me when we did our interview because she explained how corporations, not just governments, but now corporations have social control over people if they have enough of a market share. And that’s exactly what happened with Clear Channel, and now at iHeart Media, they’ve got 45 million listeners. So not only did they do to the Dixie Chicks what they did to the nation after 9/11, but we still have to be cognizant of vertical integration in the corporate world and the fact that the more that goes on the less freedom of speech we’re going to have.
It’s heartbreaking in Barbara Kopple’s documentary, “Shut Up and Sing,” when you see Natalie Maines having a death threat against her in Dallas of all places. I don’t even need to refer to the assassination attempt that was successful in Dallas in 1963 for that connection to be made.
In some ways, the break-up of the Dixie Chicks, even though they had a successful follow-up album, was due to the country music establishment and the radio stations that play country music and their fans betraying them and saying you don’t have freedom of speech to say in London just before the incursion, the illegal incursion of Iraq, hey, y’all we just want you to know we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.
Of course, the people in the UK thought nothing of it because 90 percent of them were against the war in Iraq, and of course Tony Blair completely ignored the will of the people. Well, over here, consent had been manufactured so to speak, with apologies to Noam Chomsky, and people were rip-roaring ready to go and attack Saddam Hussein. So just not even in song but in an interview, the Dixie Chicks were condemned by the establishment and that is chilling to think about.
GOSZTOLA: It does however connect to another aspect from your book that I want to discuss with you. And you could talk more generally about the artist if you want. It’d be hard to say that most people don’t find something genuinely wonderful about the music of Marvin Gaye, but I want to ask you about the kinds of pressures he faced as an artist as someone who was working for Motown.
There’s not a lot of connection, but in pivoting from what we’re saying about Clear Channel, you have a Motown corporation that put together an assembly line for artists. I recommend for people who are listening to our interview that they catch the Showtime documentary, “Hitsville,” that was released last year. I just have a quote from Berry Gordy, as we get to this part of our conversation.
Berry talks about how he basically only gave his artists freedom but within a restriction. He knew he was doing this very consciously because he felt there was a Motown brand that had to be protected. He admits in this documentary that he was not always right and that in fact Marvin Gaye came to him and threw it in his face when he wanted to go make “What’s Going On.” Berry knew very well that he was in the wrong for telling Marvin Gaye no, initially.
He says in retrospect, “I now feel the idea of reflecting the world was not a bad idea at all.” It was something that Marvin Gaye, as well as Stevie Wonder, were trying to impress upon him during the late 1960s and the early 1970s and particularly with the Vietnam War.
SCHREIBER: First of all, that is a terrific documentary. I have seen it. Second of all, there’s an incredible irony in Berry Gordy and how he ran Motown because it was both positive and negative. Berry Gordy, formerly working in an automotive plant on an assembly line, applied the same business tactics to a record label.
What’s amusing to me is how he saw performers seen through a quality control department. They told them how to dress. They worked with them on make-up and dance moves and so forth and so on.
On one hand, this is what made his acts so sterling, but the flip side is what happened with Marvin Gaye, which is saying if you record for my label you do the music that my songwriters and my producers and my arrangers provide you. You do not have the choice on your own, and of course, Marvin Gaye became very conscious of what was going on in the Vietnam War because he knew people who came back, who had friends who were killed or injured. This happened with other Motown acts as well.
When he went to Berry Gordy and said I want to do “What’s Going On,” I feel compelled to talk about the changes in society, Gordy’s reaction was, oh, that’s political stuff, and that’s not going to work. Such was the commitment of Marvin Gaye that he threatened Gordy with leaving the label. He said I’m going to do this either for you or somebody else, but I’m committed to doing this.
And what’s really astounding, and what would certainly never happen in the corporate culture of 2020, is there was a sales guy and another executive, who behind Berry Gordy’s back said let’s record “What’s Going On” and press 100,000 of them and throw it out there with out Gordy’s okay and see how it does. Well, it did fantastically, and then they produced another 100,000. Then Gordy found out the song was being released without his okay and he confronted Marvin Gaye and said he didn’t have the right to do this. But since it did okay, I will grant you the right to do an album, but I’ll give you 30 days to record it.
Can you imagine? Thirty days to do an entire album. Write the songs, record it, mix it, and Marvin Gaye astonishingly created that suite of music in ten 12-hour days. So Berry Gordy, like Norman Whitfield, the producer, said let’s do socially conscious soul or socially conscious R&B, but let’s do it only because I now see it makes money. They had absolutely no commitment socially.
GOSZTOLA: It’s worth noting that last year for the first time it was officially released, Marvin Gaye’s follow-up, “You’re The Man,” from 1972, which sat on a shelf for decades. The quote in media coverage was that Gordy was afraid it would spark a backlash from Motown’s conservative fanbase.
SCHREIBER: This is also something I try and make note of occasionally when it’s appropriate in Music Is Power, which is it is not always a gamble financially to do political music. Sometimes the times require it, and I’m guessing we’re both politically in the same area, when you have the worst president of the United States who has lost an election by three million votes and there’s an incursion on all kinds of rights, you really do look to the artistic sector to push back as well as other sectors to protest.
It is almost expected that a response from artists during a dangerous and difficult time is required to some degree, and I think we’re seeing it now. Not only in music, but I see it in the plays I see here in Los Angeles. I see it in films. It’s absolutely appropriate for our times.
Part 2 will explore Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd.