From the TUC

Protest Pop

15 Jan 2009, By

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.  


It took a nation of millions to hold them back...

It took a nation of millions to hold them back...

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.

9 Responses to Protest Pop

  1. Ben Alderson
    Jan 15th 2009, 2:24 pm

    Hey Paul,

    You’re getting old mate! There’s loads of protest and political music out there. From heavy angry stuff like Serj Tankian (System of a Down), Rage Against the Machine and Anti Flag, to the more ‘folky’* stuff like Ani Difranco.

    Check out the Axis of Justice (, but website seems to be down at the moment) for loads of bands that are politically active. There’s also a fairly regular podcast on iTunes from the Axis of Justice, featuring Serj Tankian and Tom Morello and loads of decent angry music.


    *it’s not folk, though. Can’t think of the right word,

  2. Lawrence Chapple-Gill
    Jan 15th 2009, 3:17 pm

    NEW MODEL ARMY have consistently turned out albums over the last 30 years with songs based around themes like war, poverty, drugs, facism, the Miners’ Striike, the environment and so on. Find out more about them on and in particular, listen to songs like The Charge, Young Gifted and Skint, Vengeance, Bloodsports to get a feeling….probably the best live band ever too!

  3. Matt
    Jan 15th 2009, 10:10 pm

    1 minute 59 seconds of pure briiliance. The Clash – Career Opportunities….

  4. Lynn Collins
    Jan 15th 2009, 10:13 pm

    wasn’t ‘single’ by Natasha Bedingfield an anthem about local governemnt pay equality for women – “This is my current single status a declaration of independance” or does my flippancy expose the gap!

  5. Paul Nowak

    Jan 16th 2009, 6:22 pm

    Cheers for the comments, keep them coming.

    Any joy on the ‘union’ song of note in the last decade…sorry Lynne I have trouble imagining that Natasha Bedingfield really was penning a paen to local government grading reforms!

    However, as Ben points out I’m getting old (no, actually I AM old and have been for a very long time – since I was 14 or so at least), so I have no real idea who Natasha Bedingfield is..which is to my credit I think!

  6. Sam harrison
    Jan 16th 2009, 7:36 pm

    I’d agree with ben there axis of justice is most definitely one of the best politically active music podcasts going on our there.

    i think that one of the best protests songs around is a cover, Rage against rthe machines cover of Ghost of tom joad by The Boss, have a listen to this version (Bruce springsteen with Tom Morello from RATM,)
    . Another good protest band to listen to, linked in with RATM is the Minuteman, which is tom morellos solo acoustic stuff

    a lot of the mlore politically active music thats being released at the moment is in the more “minority” genres like your modern day punk n all that, as ben also suggest Antiflag are good for that, as are NOFX (with there album War on Errorism) if you hunt around you will find it.

    I’ll leave you with my 3 personal favourite political songs, written by the masters of political punks, the Dead Kennedies
    This one, the title says it all Nazi Punks fuck off Holiday in cambodia (this version by the Foo Fighters and Serj Tankian from system of a down)

    and my personal favourite, about a certain states current attorney general and former governor (possibly even future governor as well)

  7. Paul Nowak

    Jan 16th 2009, 11:11 pm

    Fair enough Sam, that version of Tom Joad is incredible – had a brief encounter with RATM in my youth, may have to revisit them now.

    Comments in this thread seem to have proved Twainish-like that my predictions of the death of the protest song have been greatly exaggerated!

  8. Linda Hughes
    Jan 19th 2009, 11:10 am

    Just a quote to ponder on from the late great Joe Strummer.
    “We can talk of riots and petrol bombs and revolutions all day long, But if we fail to organize we’ll waste our lives on protest songs”

    Joe Strummer 1952-2002 R.I.P.

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