The Protest Song Is Dead: Why Aren't Israeli Rockers More Political?

No less than trenchant lyrics, noise in music is a lethal instrument of protest. Why is so precious little of it heard on the airwaves?

Ilan Assayag

I didn’t hear the unusual radio moment myself, but the friend who told me about it is a reliable source. It was about 15 years ago. The mother of a soldier who had been killed not long before was speaking on an Army Radio morning show. At the end of the interview the presenter, or maybe the mother, suggested the station play a song that the young man had liked especially. It turned out that he was a heavy metal fan, and not of the Metallica or Pantera mainstream type: He was into the darker, more aggressive side of the genre.

So it happened that in the middle of the morning, at the height of a current-events program, at the end of an interview with a bereaved mother, Army Radio played extreme metal with a roaring, panting soloist. After one unbelievable minute, my friend recalled, the song was abruptly terminated. That was as much as the army station could take, even under such special circumstances.

That story came to mind on two recent occasions. The first was after the death of 21-year-old Guy Boyland, from the Israel Defense Forces Combat Engineering Corps, who was killed in the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge on July 25. Boyland, a New Zealand-born heavy-metal musician, was a member of a band called Silent Sin, and local lovers of that genre mourned his death along with his family and friends.

About a month ago, another rare connection was made on the radio between the war in Gaza and loud music – albeit less loud than the above-mentioned metal. Presenter Ben Rad devoted his program on 88 FM to requests from soldiers who like rock of music, or from rock-lovers with friends or relatives serving in Gaza, to whom they wanted to dedicate a favorite song. One reserve soldier asked to hear “Midlife Crisis” by Faith No More; another listener dedicated “Toxicity,” by System of a Down, to a friend serving in Gaza.

The result was a loud and aggressive program, as compared with the show’s usual atmosphere, and it goes without saying that the barrage of sound was an exception in the serene landscape of local radio in general and the melancholy soundtrack during the fighting in particular. But despite the anomaly of that moment, it was also a very natural outburst.

War provokes two conflicting yet complementary reactions: a desire to withdraw inside oneself and a desire to cry out. The quiet of withdrawal is constantly heard on the radio, whereas hardly anyone plays the noise of the outcry. It’s not surprising that on both the rock show and the morning program mentioned here, the musical outcry emanated from the soldiers themselves and from people close to them.

There were, however, no echoes of protest in that outcry. The request-a-song program was out to boost combat soldiers’ morale. Still, when the guitars of System of a Down thundered out of the speakers, it was impossible not to consider the connection between loud music and protest. No less than trenchant lyrics, noise is a lethal protest instrument. Noise conflicts by its nature with the existing order. It doesn’t allow the status quo to continue in tranquility – especially in time of war. Making noise is the only way to oppose the “Quiet, we’re shooting” syndrome.

Piston-pounding rhythm

The first association one may have with subversive noise is white funk, but in fact black music created the ultimate protest noise. Consider the liberating piston-pounding rhythm of James Brown; Jimi Hendrix in a song like “Machine Gun,” when his guitar fired off deadlier bursts than the real weapon itself; or the insane racket of the initial albums of Public Enemy. In all these cases, the music was accompanied by potent lyrics, but the defiant, oppositional effect was achieved primarily by pure noise.

Noise as an expression of protest never trickled into Israeli music, other than in fringe pockets. Nor is this surprising, as there is hardly any noise in Israeli music, or protest, for that matter. So, the chance of noise as a form of protest is even more far-fetched.

Local musicians who emerged in the 1960s and ‘70s were impressed by the subversive sentiment of the Sixties revolution and by the liberating potential of the electric guitar, but they were unable to adopt it.

Singer-songwriter Ehud Banai addressed this issue in his semi-fictional 2012 memoir “This Is the Place,” when he described his feelings on the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973: “A hard, sad night descended on the Land of Israel. The Syrians were rumored to be close to Tiberias. This isn’t the Vietnam War, I said to myself painfully, and you, like an idiot, have been over-influenced by American cinema. Those kids in San Francisco and New York can allow themselves to burn draft cards, grow their hair long and rebel, but here it’s a war of survival.”

Even the famous manifestations of protest in Israeli rock, such as Shalom Hanoch’s “Lo Otzer Be’adom” (“He Stops for Nothing”), didn’t use noise as an instrument of goading or defiance. Though the drums pound and Hanoch rasps, it’s not noise. No glass is broken. No crack is created in the wall. In fact, the protest songs of Israeli rock generally sound like continuations of the acoustic folk-music protest in America, before Bob Dylan hooked into electric.

Izhar Ashdot’s “A Matter of Habit,” which generated a furor a year and a half ago, is the latest example. It sounds like a folk song in every respect, and asks the listener to focus on what the singer is saying, not necessarily to the way he says it.

Text-based protest songs are, of course, a very important genre. But they have their limits. The tendency of local rockers to express protest in words rather than sounds reflects not only the supreme (and exaggerated) importance that Israeli music attaches to lyrics: It’s also an expression of the traditional viewpoint of left-wing musicians that justice and history, as distinct from God, are on their side. After all, the occupation will not last forever, Israeli militarism is a nasty business that will eventually fade away, and in the end a proper secular culture will emerge here.

That is the narrative that has informed the work of most local rock musicians since the Yom Kippur War, and because it seems to them to be the only possible, inevitable outcome – they don’t have to go out of their way to inculcate it. All you have to do is talk, explain, compose fine and “correct” songs, and in the end everyone will be persuaded. And even if they are not, the narrative itself will still play out.

The reality of Israel’s situation in recent years has, of course, rebuffed that narrative time and again, and Operation Protective Edge and other events of the past months are likely to bury it once and for all. Protest, and protest songs, also appear to be in a terminal state.

Is it possible that precisely from this void, from the death of the protest song that is pleasing to the ear, other protest songs will be born in the future, with fewer words and more dirty noise? It’s hard to believe that will happen. Such songs will be deemed irresponsible. And what if an air-raid siren goes off in the middle? How will we hear it with all the noise?