Where have all the protests songs gone?

December 5, 2016

 

 

It seems as if the world is in a kind of turmoil. Donald Trump has just been voted President of the USA, Britain has decided to leave the European Union, thousands are still living in poverty in the UK, and the world is currently experiencing a migration crisis due to the ongoing wars in the Middle East.

 

So why is no one singing about these issues?

 

Or, if they are, why are these songs hidden in the obscure depths of the music world, largely untouched by mainstream charting radio?

 

From Woodie Guthrie in the 1940's to Green Day in the 1990's, political songs have always been around, and many of the old political songs still remain poignant and relevant today. Some political singers made it big and topped the charts, a notable example being Bob Dylan, whose songs often touched on social issues and charted highly, particularly in the UK and US.

 

The darker side...

 

 

 

Political songs are not always met with open arms. Some are met by controversy in the press, music industry and sometimes the public.

 

In the 1960's, some soul artists wanted to write songs that were more political, particularly making references to the civil rights movement and black oppression. Music producers didn't welcome lyrics of this nature and such artists were dropped from labels, for example Nina Simone.

 

And the same thing can also happen today. In 2015, Moscow based feminist-punk band Pussy Riot, were detained and bullied by the Russian police for performing inside a church. Their provocative lyrics referencing Putin were not well received. They have written a number of satirical protest songs, that include subjects such as women's rights, LGBT rights and opposition to government.

 

Why aren't protest songs making the charts?

 

The way we listen to and appreciate music has changed. Perhaps the instant availability of a vast range of music means that songs are less powerful than they used to be, particularly songs with politically charged messages. 

 

Moreover, the internet is a medium where thoughts and opinions can be written at the drop of a hat, and the audience is broad, receptive and captive. Social media has found itself at the forefront of campaigns, movements and revolutions; a key example being the Arab Spring of 2010.

 

Maybe the style of these songs don't generally appeal to the mainstream audience with their stripped-back rawness and often explicit lyrics. In today's risk-adverse society this kind of music attracts controversy, and in our age of political-correctness its no surprise that these lyrics don't always go down well.

 

 

Political songs in more recent years 

 

 

 

However, this does not mean that political songs are not being written today.

 

In the 90s we saw a lot of anti-government lyrics such as Green Day's American Idiot which poked fun at the government, media and the "redneck agenda". During their recent performance at the MTV EMAs, Green Day changed lyric "subliminal mind-fuck America" to "subliminal mind-Trump America" in protest of the recently elected US president. In addition, Bright Eyes and Pink have both attacked President Bush with When the president talks to God and Dear Mr President. Will recent events point to a new wave of protest songs aimed at Trump? Currently, there is a wave of activism in the USA with the Black Lives Matter movement and protests over police brutality towards young black men. Rappers like Kendrick Lamar, Immortal Technique and Lowkey all rap about racial issues.

 

 


What about this side of the pond? The UK has a long history of protest music, with its roots in English folk music. English folk songs from the late medieval and early modern period were concerned with the social upheavals of their day. In the 17th century musicians created music reflecting more overtly the social circumstances of that time; notable examples of this are the Levelers & Diggers. Songs about military life and war were major topics, lamenting the devastating loss of so many lives.

 

With the advent of industrialisation, more protest songs and movements appeared, such as the Luddite's who protested against mechanisation, fearing it would destroy their livelihoods.

 

In more recent times, specifically the late 1970's and 80's, punk rock was in full swing in the UK. Bands, such as Sex Pistols and the Clash tackled a wide variety of lyrical topics including royalism, consumerism, anarchy and anti-fascism. In the 1980's, Red Wedge was a collective of musicians (that included Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Kirsty MacColl and Jimmy Somerville) who attempted to politically inspire the youth of the day by protesting against Thatcherism.

 

Today

 

There are still a number of artists writing some interesting politically inspired lyrics though you may have to do some searching for songs of this nature. Kate Tempest's powerful song Europe is lost touches on many issues; stagnant wages, immigration, and mindless pop culture. The song has a really powerful message. Grace Petrie's Farewell to Welfare touches upon poverty and austerity, important issues in 2016.

 

 

 

Throughout much of modern history, protest music has existed in one way or another. In times of great uncertainty and frustration like today, people look to music. It is likely we will see more artists use their music as a medium to vent their anger and inspire change through protest.

 

 

 

Some of our favourite protest songs:

 

Bob Dylan - Hurricane (a story of a young man accused of a crime he didn't commit due to the colour of his skin)

 

Sam Cooke - a change is gonna come (a song about racism, which sadly was a modest hit for Sam but today is seen as an anthem for the civil rights movement).


Zombie - Cranberries (a protest song, written in response to 2 boys who were killed by a bomb by the IRA)


Invisible Sun - Sting (A song about the hunger strikes during the troubles in Ireland).

 

If you tolerate this - Manic Street Preachers (lyrics about the Spanish civil war)

 

 

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London, UK