This article (and associated event) got me thinking. Remember the good old days when song lyrics actually meant something? Not ALL song lyrics obviously – lets not forget that ‘Fight the Power‘ was released in the same year as ‘I’d Rather Jack’ by the Reynolds Girls (Liverpool, hang your head in shame) – but overall I seemed to remember music being a little bit, well, angrier, when I was growing up. The 1980’s and 90’s weren’t classic decades for the protest song, but there was still a sense that music – as well as being something to enjoy – was also something that could have a real political resonance and impact.
Can we say the same today, in an era where the Christmas charts are dominated by the by-products of musical talent shows? Is the rise of Leona Lewis et al the cause or effect of the demise of the protest song?
Of course there are some notable exceptions which disprove every rule – Billy Bragg (whose music and politics I really respect but who I’ve never really got into), US union activist, academic, singer/songwriter and all round good guy Tom Juravich, and many others. But none of these are what you would call mainstream (if there is such a thing as mainstream, in music anymore). U2, Coldplay and others are ‘political’ but with an emphasis very much on the small rather than capital P, and their music is hardly the sort of stuff that rebellion was built on. Over the last 3 decades rap/hip-hop has travelled from ‘It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back’ to an almost universal preoccupation with the acquisition of material goods (coupled with a fair dose of misogyny). On the country scene for every Willie Nelson there’s 10 Toby Keiths.
So what’s happened to the protest song? Has its time come and gone? Or am I just musically ignorant and theres loads of stuff out there but my mediocre itunes back-catologue doesn’t cover it? Let me know what you think and post links to your all time favourite protest song in the comments section. Organising Academy polo-shirt to anyone who can identify a bona-fide foot tapping, melody whistling song about unions produced in the last decade that you’d actually want to play (rather than feel obliged to!). Here’s one of my all-time favourite protest songs to kick things off.