Keep Your Political Views Out of My Music! The Demise of Protest Songs

Like most industrial operations, the business of creating and selling music is consumer-driven. That is to say, if music buyers want to have their cake and eat it too, music sellers must be able to whip up one mean Red Velvet in order to compete effectively. Faced with a diverse clientele, individuals tasked with marketing and selling music have to meet an array of demands that encompass all sorts of musical preferences. So, for instance, if demographic trends suggest that teenage girls respond more favorably to feel-good dance music (for lack of a more stereotypical example), it is up to marketing gurus to introduce them to what would surely be the next Katy Perry or One Direction radio hit.

Music consumers, depending on factors such as age, socioeconomic standing and gender, crave countless varieties of songs; however, if there is a certain musical species that has, over the years, become endangered due to waning consumer interest, it is that of protest music-the genre-less musical domain that, more or less, pushes for social change through political advocacy. Protest music has left an indelible mark in the annals of music history courtesy of rebellious songs such as Bob Dylan’s “The Times are Changing, Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” and Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Unfortunately, over the past decade, such music has increasingly been passed over in favor of more lighthearted tunes-a phenomenon that has sparked the curiosity of many music critics, myself included. There are many theories in circulation as to why music consumers are demanding less political inspiration from their favorite artists, most of which posit an overall decrease in political awareness on the part of younger generations. But, before getting to the meat of such theories, it would be best to revisit the past as a way of getting a better understanding of the extent to which protest music-a melodic medium that once captured the essence of living in an imperfect world-has been reduced to nothing more than an antiquated form of expression.

WWII, Vietnam, Apartheid and Other Reasons to Condemn the Establishment

The WWII era would mark the emergence of protest music in America. As growing pro-communist sentiments began to transform the political landscape of the mid 40s, musicians such as Woody Guthrie would further such transformation by composing politically-driven folk songs such as “This Land is Your Land”- a popular oldie whose vague lyrics often mask the anti-private ownership message that underlies it. As Guthrie and fellow folklorists, including renowned artists Alan Lomax and Lead Belly, popularized protest folk music in the 40s, artists such as Bob Dylan would take the sub-genre to new heights in the 60s. In 1964, Dylan released what many critics consider to be the quintessential protest song: “The Times They Are-a Changing.” The song, as the title suggests, serves as an admonition against rejecting the social change that transpired during the Civil Rights Movement. And if Dylan redefined protest music in the 60s, Marvin Gaye would rejuvenate the very essence of the genre in the early 70s. Released in 1971 and widely regarded as Gaye’s magnum opus, “What’s Going On” can be aptly described as a mellifluous commentary on not just the Vietnam War era, but much of the political and social turmoil that plagued an early 70s America.

By the 80s, the domain of protest music had transformed into a vast musical empire whose boundaries encompassed a variety of musical genres, from heartland rock, as Bruce Springsteen’s “War” would suggest, to reggae, as evidenced by Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” As the late 80s/early 90s arrived, the protest music empire would expand to even greater proportions with the emergence of politically-driven rap. As legendary icons such as Public Enemy reproached police brutality and institutionalized racism with heated rhythmic rhetoric, most notably “Fight the Power,” protest music would begin to exude a certain grittiness the likes of which had previously been a rarity in music. Such grittiness would become all the more common in protest music when Tupac Shakur would steal the hip-hop limelight in the late 90s with the release of unforgettable hits such as “Changes.” As the 90s culminated in mainstream radio subsuming protest music, the 20th century would forever stand as a testament to the latent popularity of exercising free speech through songs.

As previously mentioned, politics has had an everlasting impact on the art of music; however, if there is one major difference between the protest music of today and that of the 20th century, it is that the latter gained the admiration, approval and acceptance of an increasing number of music consumers. The former, however, since the arrival of the 21st century, has played a diminishing role in the mainstream media. Such phenomenon has struck the curiosity of many critics, including renowned songwriter Billy Bragg who condemned contemporary music for its political naivety. “Look at what’s happening in the world: the credit crunch; our young people getting maimed in a war that nobody knows how to resolve,” opined Bragg in an interview with The Guardian. “When I was first plying my trade, people were willing to talk about these issues. Now they’d rather write about getting blasted than changing the world,” he added. Bragg’s sentiments are shared by many fans of protest music: The truth is protest music no longer appeals to music consumers as it once did.

But why? For one, it would not be implausible for one to argue that there is a positive correlation between political awareness and liking for protest music. And considering the fact that the younger generation, which makes up a considerable portion of music consumers, is not as well-informed as previous generations, it also would not be implausible for one to theorize that an overall decline in political awareness among music buyers has contributed to the fall of protest music. In the book Young People and Social Change, author Andy Furlong argues, “The trend towards less engagement in politics among the young appears to signal a generational change,” adding, “Any decline in political participation among the current generation of young people has to be set against what was perhaps a relatively high level of involvement among the ‘baby-boomers’ generation who were particularly active in youth counter-cultures.” To the theorist, it is the younger generation’s lack of political interest that has contributed to the fall of protest music. But to the politically-attuned music listener, there is one truth and one truth only: Protest music is slowly sinking into oblivion… and unless we, music consumers, demand it, music may never again serve as medium through which one can push for a righteous cause while bringing out your inner dancer