Is protest music still significant?

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In June 1970, merely a month after the infamous Kent State shootings, in which four students were killed protesting continued US presence in Vietnam, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released their newly recorded single, Ohio. Young’s lyrics directly blamed US President Richard Nixon for the students’ deaths, with lyrics that came to be described by Crosby as “the bravest thing I ever heard.” [1] The song soared to number 14 in the US Billboard charts and has been seen to have played a significant role in the ending of the Vietnam War.

Nearly 40 years later, however, in 2008, Young himself told reporters that “I think that the time when music could change the world is past. I think it would be very naive to think that in this day and age.” [2]

Some may dismiss such a statement as the words of an artist past his time, but he is hardly alone in this belief. After all, the idea of a major contemporary music act even matching the political sentiment of U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday or Billy Joel’s Allentown seems somewhat unlikely, let alone the concept of such an act directly holding government to account in the manner of Young in 1970.

This is not to say that there are no politically minded acts in the modern musical mainstream. One may still pay to see Bono ritually praise the work of Amnesty International or Muse sing songs of “uprising”, but none of this seems to compare to the enormity that political music once had for huge acts including John Lennon, Pink Floyd, The Smiths, Bruce Springsteen and The Jam.

Nonetheless, with any rule, and the death of protest music in the musical mainstream appears to be one, there is at least one exception. Love it or hate it, such an exception clearly exists in Green Day’s 2004 hit album American Idiot. Having previously lived a somewhat apolitical existence, the album came as a surprise to fans, but its vicious criticisms of US foreign policy (“Sieg heil to the President gasman”) and American life under the Bush administration, the album radicalised the youth of the post-9/11 era in a manner that Rage Against the Machine had 10 years prior, perhaps becoming the most important cultural force in politicising its generation.

But despite its merits, Green Day’s attempt at a modern protest album still fell into many of the dilemmas faced by modern political music. Renowned critic Robert Christgau labelled the album a “dud”, stating that it contained “no economics, no race, hardly any compassion.” [3] In doing so, he essentially listed the issues faced by political music in an era notorious for low engagement in the subject. At a time when talk of politics is so low, protest music faces the decision of whether to play down a message to such an extent that it becomes impotent or form lyrics too politicised to effectively engage with their target market.

It is for this reason perhaps that the era of the protest song seems far from dead in the world of student politics. Beloved by student protestors across the UK, Grace Petrie’s Farewell to Welfare became a rallying cry for those angered by attacks on welfare and education by the Coalition government, but perhaps only those with a substantial understanding of current affairs. This is no criticism of the song itself, but moreover demonstrates the difficulties faced in making political music accessible and effective in the modern day.

Furthermore, it is not only low political engagement that makes it increasingly difficult for protest music to succeed in the modern day, but also an industry unwilling to have radical ideas expressed on its behalf. Not only has the music industry become increasingly corporatised over recent decades, the nature of protest music itself has, perhaps as a result, become more and more anti-corporate. This has led to protest music being limited to genres and ‘scenes’ in which both high political engagement and independent record labels are common practice.

The first of these is in the genres of rap and hip-hop. Despite an apparent desire amongst the mainstream media to disregard artists in these scenes as only concerned by misogyny, drugs, violence and money, a tradition of music challenging authority and corporatism maintains in the tradition established by acts such as Public Enemy and rap pioneer Gil Scott-Heron. The lack of awareness of this was made clear by the decision to hire rapper Lupé Fiasco to play at an inauguration event for Barack Obama. The rapper was removed from the stage at the ceremony after stating that he “did not vote for Obama” and including lyrics about the President’s lack of action in Gaza. [4]

The potential for the political influence of rap has not gone unnoticed in the UK, where trade union funds were used for the production of NxtGen’s satirical Andrew Lansley Rap [5] that has since been sung at conferences of health professionals. However, it is the recent hit Ill Manors by East London rapper Plan B that has demonstrated most clearly that protest music can break through to the mainstream. With lyrics such as “he’s got a hoodie on give him a hug on second thoughts don’t you don’t wanna get mugged”, the complete death of protest music would appear to be a premature claim.

Another genre with a politicised and independent history is the now somewhat subdued punk-rock movement. With significant political acts including The Clash, The Jam, Dead Kennedys, Billy Bragg and Minor Threat coming out of the ‘punk scene’ it is not difficult to see how it became seen to be inextricably linked with protest. It is therefore no coincidence that the recently defunct King Blues, perhaps modern Britain’s most widespread political act, came from this tradition. However, despite the huge levels of praise that followed the announcement of their break-up, the band still failed to cause political shockwaves in the manner of their ancestors of the 1970s and 80s. Following their split, many will look to the perhaps better informed rhetoric of popular electro-hardcore band Enter Shikari. Nonetheless, it is evident that the scope of political influence in the scene has declined with its popularity.

However, the influence of punk music in the USA must not be underestimated. After all, it is questionable whether any song criticised the actions of the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan more eloquently than Rise Against’s Hero of War, with the act more recently highlighting the high rate of suicide amongst young members of the LGBT community with Make it Stop (September’s Children). Furthermore, backed by their independent status, Anti-Flag have been significant in raising an anti-corporate message with their involvement in the Occupy movement, recently attacking Wall Street and Washington in their single The Economy is Suffering (Let it Die).

Nevertheless, despite any examples of modern success in protest music, it is clear that there has been a substantial reduction in its influence, partially due to lower political participation, partially due to increased corporatism in the music industry. It is unclear whether, in the foreseeable future, a major artist could be seen to present a message as bold and powerful as that of Ohio, but from the perspective of an individual named after a folk singer who blamed Salvador Allende’s death on “the bullets of the USA”, this writer certainly hopes so.

Article by Christy McMorrow. Edited by George Richards.

References and Further reading:

[1] http://neilyoungnews.thrasherswheat.org/2010/05/40-years-since-4-dead-in-ohio-kent.html

[2]Associated Press; http://www.nbcnews.com/id/23070383/site/todayshow/ns/today-entertainment/t/neil-young-music-no-longer-can-change-world/#.URU0p6W6eS8

[3] Christgau, R. http://www.villagevoice.com/2005-01-25/music/harmonies-and-abysses/2/

[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/lostinshowbiz/2013/jan/24/beyonce-lupe-fiasco-inauguration-scandal-roundup

[5] http://labourlist.org/2012/04/is-political-protest-music-dying-or-already-dead/