‘No More Heroes’: The death of musical protest

NB: For each artist I’ve mentioned I’ve linked to a YouTube video of one of their political songs (and included a Spotify playlist here: http://spoti.fi/GIc8M1), so you can have a listen while you read, should you be so inclined. All except for Bob Dylan, because apparently he, or Sony Media Entertainment, don’t believe in this whole YouTube thing. They’re right though, you know. YouTube will never catch on…

‘What ever happened to protest songs?’ The thought has stayed with me for a couple of days now, ever since my media player’s shuffle – my eternal nemesis and occasional best friend – threw up ‘Tomorrow is a Highway’ by Pete Seeger. In the UK, amid unemployment, record public spending cuts, NHS reforms and ‘granny taxes’, some people are rather miffed. There have been strikes and street protests, opposition groups such as UK Uncut have formed, and those opposing cuts use media – old and new – to fight their corner. Around the world, from the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring, people are fighting for rights and justice. But there’s something missing.

Every resistance period in the latter half of the 20th Century had a soundtrack. 1960s to early 70s America, the era of McCarthyism and civil rights and anti-war protest, produced an incredible number of powerful, enduring political songs. Their writers and singers crossed pretty much every genre boundary: Folk and Country (Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Richie Havens), Soul and R&B (Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Edwin Starr), Rock and Pop (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles, The Doors), and even Reggae (Jimmy Cliff, Delroy Wilson).

Later periods of protest similarly saw politicised music. The late 70s – early 80’s saw a wave of ska and punk bands who railed against the politics of the day (The Clash, The Specials, The Beat, and the Sex Pistols being the most obvious). As the decade progressed and Thatcherism hit full-swing in the UK, so did musical opposition, with Folk once again all playing its part in popular resistance against Thatcherism (Rory McLeod, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg). International political events were covered too, with songs about South African apartheid, the Iranian Revolution and the Cold War. Similarly the late 80s to early 90s saw the renaissance of Hip-Hop-as-activism, highlighting popular anger against police brutality and social injustices affecting black communities in the US (N.W.A., Public Enemy, 2Pac, KRS-One)

So, given the many problems and crises of the 21st century so far – two disastrous wars easily comparable with Vietnam, the global recession, climate change – where is the soundtrack? Why are there no popular songs dedicated to the Occupy movement? Or songs from Western musicians about the Arab Spring? The only political music since the millennium that comes easily to mind are the pro-American country singers in America such as Toby Keith, and the admittedly long list of songs about 9/11. Though there were some protest songs in the 00’s, and taking into account the powerful effects of nostalgia on memory, none can be said to have the achieved mass-popularity or enduring status of previous eras.

In fact, what political music the decade did produce tended instead tended to come from older artists, filling a gap left by the politically apathetic or uncertain current generation of artists (Billy Bragg again, UB40). Those songs made by our generation’s musicians that are ostensibly political (e.g. Muse) are self-consciously presented by artists without discussion of context or agenda, meaning that any political message comes through as confused and oblique.

A possible reason for the lack of political music is the increasing commercialisation of the industry. The argument goes that, as record companies want to increase their profits as much as possible, they aren’t going to risk allowing bands to make overtly political statements which could divide their audience. Commercialisation is not new to music, however. After all, the most successful song of the Woodstock summer of 1969 was ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by manufactured bubblegum-pop band ‘The Archies’. The availability of modern non-commercial outlets (including YouTube) and the ease of self-publicity and promulgation through social media mean that the opportunity is there for artists to break away from commercial interests and create political anthems for our age. But why is this not being used? There are notable exceptions, such as the ‘Andrew Lansley Rap’ which protested NHS reforms last year and the work of occasional Rap-Satirist Dan Bull, but these are few and far between.

There are also examples of bands which try to promote a political perspective, but their artists now tend to use their celebrity to carry the message more than their music. Those who try, such as Bono or Chris Martin, have been successful in many of their aims, but are often sneered at and attacked for perceived excesses of piety and holier-than-thou attitudes. Our society loves to hate celebrities, and so the inevitable outcome of trying to use fame to promote a political viewpoint is now that people will thrill to find a way to discredit and point out inconsistencies and hypocrisies.

Maybe this can help explain why protest music has died. Having seen cycles of protest and disaffection for so many years, maybe society has simply stopped believing that things will be different. Perhaps we are also more selfish than at any point in our history. In the UK, the most powerful civil disobedience of the last 10 years has not been a protest or a demonstration – it has been a riot. And though the UK riots of last year had manifold subtle political and social causes, the ultimate direction behind it was not to change the status quo, or even to vent anger and frustration. Instead, the protest centred on ownership: trainers, televisions and trolleys full of food from Lidl.

Music is important to protest. It carries messages, speaks our minds, and motivates us to action by activating our emotions. Perhaps in some ways political music has been usurped by technology, with social media now the main vector for popular political communication. But there is more to it than that, and I suspect that the same cultural and psychosocial processes that are dampening directed political mass-protest in the West also inhibit its musical representation. Local and global political struggles mean that the ground is furrowed, ready for a new musical movement. Will we see one? Only time will tell.

PS: Clearly this article only really focuses on protest in the West. There is a significant musical component to the message of the ‘Arab Spring’, with the MENA region rising to a mixture of traditional political and religious songs with Rap and Hip-Hop. Sadly my Arabic and knowledge of local music isn’t good enough to delve deeply into this, but I can at least attest that every protest I have seen in my time here (usually pro- or anti-Assad) has involved demonstrators hooking up huge amps and blaring out chants and songs. It appears that the soundtrack of resistance is not silent everywhere.

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