Music Speaks Louder Than Words: Where Are Our Protest Songs?
“Could this be the last we’ve seen of protest songs in mainstream music culture and if so why is this?”
Protest songs are a massive part of our musical history. They are a creative way of expressing dissatisfaction with a cultural, political or social situation. The origins of protest songs can be traced all the way back to the days of land reform and the slave trade. Wherever there has been injustice, someone has inevitably been singing about it.
The peak of the musical protest movement was the 1960s. People wrote about racial discrimination, the Vietnam war, women’s rights and much more. One artist really encapsulates the political frustration of the 60s; Bob Dylan. Iconic lyrics such as “When your death takes its toll, all the money you made will never buy back your soul” (Masters of War, 1963) raged against those who made a profit from the conflicts that took the lives of so many others. He along with artists like Joan Baez, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen encapsulated, through their music, their generation’s anger towards the status quo of the post-world war west. Springsteen’s most famous song, ‘Born in the USA’, is often mistaken as a patriotic pro-America anthem. However, if you actually listen to the lyrics, it is actually a powerful anti-war ballad about US soldiers in Vietnam. In fact, so many of our favourite songs from this decade carry an important political or social message within them, mirroring the spirit of rebellion and change that characterised the decade.
Music continued to play an important, if less prominent, part in political protest throughout the 70s and 80s. Take for example Billy Bragg’s odes to worker’s rights and the power of the unions during the miners strikes. The late 80s and early 90s saw new genres of music address the political issues of the time with Rap Metal’s Rage Against the Machine and Hip Hop’s NWA protesting against police brutality through their hit songs and bringing political awareness to a new generation of music fans. The early 00s even saw a small surge in protest songs against the conflict in the middle east; Greenday’s ‘Holiday’, for example. However, could this be the last we’ve seen of protest songs in mainstream music culture and if so why is this?
It’s not like we’re lacking in things to protest against. In fact, we seem to have tons to be angry about. Just look at the vast amount of political activism that followed Trump’s election. So why is no one writing music about it? To be fair a few artists have given it ago but very few attempts have proved to be popular, or indeed, any good. Perhaps one of the exceptions to this could be MIA, who has had a fair amount of success with songs that tackle issues like immigration and racial discrimination. In fact she’s even been banned from entry to the US due to some of her views. Or the Gorillaz, whose new album features a strong anti-Trump sentiment.
But we are yet to get a really impressive, unifying anthem to vocalise the fears and angers of the general population since Trump’s presidency. As Joan Baez was recently quoted, “People are waiting for a ‘We Shall Overcome,’ they’re waiting for another ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘Imagine.’ [It] hasn’t been written yet.” But it seems that the general message of music nowadays is pretty frivolous. Just look at this summer’s top ten. The lyrics describe wild nights out, sexual exploits or whatever Katy Perry and Taylor Swift are arguing about now. They’re not exactly rallying the troops.
It could be argued that this is due to the general commercialisation of music. The emphasis is on how many records you can sell rather than the message behind those records, leading to the mass production of pointless and mediocre club anthems. The artists can’t be totally to blame though. Even in the sixties, its not like Bob Dylan was that subversive. He was signed to Capitol records and his music was a major commercial success. People back then wanted to hear protest songs and were willing to go out and buy them.
Maybe its our fault then, as consumers. Maybe we’re the ones who have become mindless. The sort of messages we seem to enjoy are those that reflect what we read in the tabloids or on social media about celebrity feuds and outrageous lifestyles. The way we listen to music is changing too. No one wants to hear a deep political message while they’re drunk in a club or a house party.
So does this mean that the time of revolutionary music is over? Or is there something we can do to change this? The youth support for Corbyn and his collaboration with Grime artists in his campaign for the youth vote is hopefully a sign of things to come. Clearly, our generation is starting to find its political voice and maybe its musical voice will follow.