“Protest songs in response to military aggression,
Protest songs to try and stop the soldier's gun,
But the battle raged on.”
Against Me! - “White People for Peace”
From the onset of human endeavor, people have been at war. We as a race have done terrible things to each other for nonsensical reasons (our race, our sexuality, our gender, our religion), as well as to the environment, to animals. We’re basically awful.
Conversely, humans are responsible for a lot of great art. Not all of it is great, but a lot of it is, and while that doesn’t even begin to make amends for the horrors that humans are guilty of, it does at least offer comfort during those times when we need it most. Self-serving, maybe, but true. Music, as well as the other arts, have offered us a release during times of turmoil. From drum marches and brass refrains to Scottish bagpipes tunes, war usually has a soundtrack. Those who don’t agree with it have an outlet, too. And not only war: Music gives us a chance to voice our displeasure regarding any and all policies our politicians make on our behalf. That’s where protest songs come in.
Most nations and cultures have their own protest songs, and when new musical styles and genres are developed, some of the musicians involved inevitably find a way to use that medium to say something that they deem important. For a long time in these parts, it came from the blues and from rootsy/folk music. In America, as the turn-of-the-century moved forward through the 1940s and ‘50s, protest music meant the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, before people such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez picked up that baton.
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Nowadays in the Western world, protest music is more closely associated with punk rock and hip-hop — music rooted in urban settings created by angry young people and fueled by social injustice. In England in the 1970s, immediately prior to the Thatcher years, jobs were scarce and so, obviously, was money. The garbagemen were on strike, and trash was piling up in the streets of London. The smell was bad. When Thatcher took power, things didn’t get any better, with Maggie choosing to close down mines and ignore the pleas of towns and cities. Meanwhile, the Clash and the Buzzcocks were making some of the finest music to bear the punk tag. Later, second-wave bands like the Business and Chelsea (“Right to Work”) were less subtle but made a strong point.
In the States, punk took hold on both coasts and everywhere in between. In New York and L.A., too, rap music was offering a voice to African-American men and women keen to express their frustrations about the inequalities they faced on a daily basis.
To this day, if a great protest song is released, it’s most likely going to be from the rap or punk genres (or an offshoot of one of them, or a crossover). It might be a nostalgic throwback to the folk days. But it’s really been a good thirty years since things have changed. And that’s okay, because it works.
The question asked at the top of this piece whether quality music and protest music are mutually exclusive, and of course they aren't. As mentioned, great music has resulted from anger time and time again. Historically, when a region suffers, timeless art comes out of it. Look at Detroit, Berlin, Liverpool — the list goes on.
That’s why people are so wrong, particularly during this last election cycle, when they say that the job of an entertainer is to entertain, and that they should keep their political opinions to themselves. Bruce Springsteen, for example, was told this more than once. The Boss canceled a show in North Carolina because of the HB2 “bathroom law,” and he also made his support of Clinton known. “Shut up,” said his detractors. “We don’t care what you think.” Ditto Cher, Madonna, etc, etc. But those people are wrong. So very wrong. Where would Dylan be if he’d shut up about what he cares about? Public Enemy? Rage Against the Machine? The Clash? It’s important that they speak up.
It raises an interesting follow-up question, though. Can someone enjoy the music of an artist that they don’t agree with politically? It can be tough, particularly if we feel that a musician’s views are harmful. Personally, this writer can listen to the music of a musician who openly votes Republican. No biggie. But, to take an extreme example, white supremacist punks Skrewdriver? No, thanks.
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Delving deeper, can you enjoy an actual protest song if you don’t agree with the message? Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine has pointed out in the past that he doesn’t think all of the people slam-dancing to “Killing in the Name of…” know what the song, or the band, is about. So maybe that’s it: If listeners remain ignorant to the overall message, they can enjoy the music on a superficial level. But surely, if a Trump supporter is listening to one of the inevitable forthcoming anti-Trump anthems and paying attention to the lyrics, then it will sour the experience.
The same is true, of course, if a liberal is listening to a right-wing opus, even if it isn’t necessarily racist, homophobic or sexist. It would just be too hard.
But what’s more invigorating than listening to music about a cause we agree with? Good music and quality music aren’t mutually exclusive, because musicians are at their best when they genuinely mean and feel what they are singing and playing. Whether that’s a love affair or a political cause — the integrity is what’s important.
We may be about to enter a new golden age for protest music. It could be that only half of the country will be able to enjoy it, but those of us who will, really will.