“I was the only Black kid in an all white town,” guitar legend Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine fame says on an Oregon State University-sponsored podcast. “And politics found me very early on the playground.”
Morello is talking with OSU’s Bob Santelli on the first-ever episode of the new PopTalks podcast. Santelli has years of experience in the music business, is the former executive director of the Grammy Museum and is now director of popular music and performing arts at OSU, the Pacific Northwest’s Grammy Museum-affiliated school, meaning it has access to musical historical artifacts and archives.
“I’m trying to reach a younger demographic with this,” Santelli says. “With my contacts and connections from being in the music business all these years and with the Grammy’s, I can bring to Oregon and particularly OSU the kind of people they might not normally get.”
For the podcast, he’s bringing in friends from the industry to talk about various contemporary aspects of the music business, including the impact of COVID-19 on young artists and the 2021 Grammys, as well as pop music hotspots.
Santelli’s résumé is steeped in the music industry. He’s written books on Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and co-produced musical anthologies on protest-oriented musicians such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. In fact, a mutual love for Guthrie’s work is what led to Morello and Santelli’s friendship.
Like Guthrie, Morello isn’t afraid to push for social justice in his songwriting (Morello co-wrote the popular protest song “Killing in the Name Of”). And Santelli is in the process of curating a new exhibit for the Grammy Museum called Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom, due to open in the spring (COVID-dependent), that explores protest songs.
In the first episode of the PopTalks, Morello talked about the start of the protest song band Rage Against the Machine. Morello said booking gigs was tough at first because, in addition to being a multi-ethnic band in an otherwise white-dominant music world, they were also playing “neo-Marxist rap-rock anthems.”
But the band resonated with listeners, he says. And there was record label interest after the band’s second show, but he said the band demanded that the label offer them 100 percent artistic freedom before negotiation could start.
That freedom has allowed the band to stay relevant. In 2020, as protesters took to the streets to take on police brutality and tear down statues of history’s mass murderers, Rage Against the Machine’s music played on speakers, getting the band’s debut album back to the Billboard charts this summer. Even Trump supporters played the band’s music at “Stop the Count” rallies (and one Twitter user was devastated to discover the music was “politics bs”).
Morello said he’s approached his music career with the strategy of “sonic guerilla warfare.”
“You don’t need to have a band meeting, you don’t need a tour manager. If there’s a need for bail money for anarchists in Berkeley, you can be at that bicycle shop tomorrow,” Morello said. “The influence of Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and people who’ve really been on the front lines and used every bit of creativity and soul they own to fight for the soul of everyone who’s in the room that night or the barricades that day, has been a crucial part of my career.”
The second episode is planned for a Thanksgiving-time upload, and Santelli will talk with Arlo Guthrie, who recorded “Alice’s Restaurant” and has recently announced his retirement.
Don’t judge the podcast on those two guests, Santelli says. He says he’s trying to reach a younger demographic and wants to explore contemporary issues in the music industry, but you can’t do that without looking at the past.
Santelli says in a future episode he plans to explore how young musicians are dealing with COVID-19’s impact on touring and live music. “There are so many artists, especially young artists, who are surviving on that.”
The 63rd Annual Grammys, scheduled for Jan. 31, will be the first industry ceremony to look back at 2020. Santelli says he wants to have a Grammy preview episode that will offer some predictions on potential winners but also discuss how the awards ceremony will actually happen.
At OSU, Santelli teaches courses on pop music, from the history of Dylan to the Beatles to the music industry. Pop music hotspots have moved over the years, from Liverpool to Los Angeles to Seattle back to Los Angeles.
Santelli says pop music is an innovative art form that is driven by artists in specific locations, so he says he plans to look at the current hotspot. “We’ll do something on Atlanta as one of the most creative cities musically speaking in America these days,” he says.
Just as Santelli kicked the podcast series off with the big name of Morello — covering his upbringing, influences and road to famed protest songwriter — he says he’ll keep educating listeners about the music industry. “I want to inform people, give them information, interpret that information and hopefully inspire them,” he says. “That’s my mantra for everything I do.”
OSU: PopTalks is available on Amazon Music, iTunes and Spotify.