Have we seen the end of mainstream protest music?
In an age where we seem ever closer to the brink of World War, why don’t we get the mainstream protest music of the 60s and 70s?
The 60s, 70s and 80s were notoriously turbulent times on both sides of the Atlantic. Huge artists threw their weight behind issues both small scale and global to make a difference to the world. There is an exhaustive list of the protest music from these decades, Bob Dylan epitomised the civil rights movement with “The Times They are A-Changin’”, while bands like the Sex Pistols went for working class mistreatment and the British Monarchy with “God Save the Queen” in the 70s. But these are just a couple of hundreds of examples from only a few years. The real question is why don’t these songs exist in the same way in the 21st Century?
To say that there aren’t any modern protest songs wouldn’t be fair, but what I am talking about is the difference in the output from then to now. Historically, if you look at any of these decades, anyone can name a load of protest songs in some form or other. That just simply isn’t the case in the present day. So, why? Are we simply a passive generation that has become unconcerned with protest in this context? Is it that change.org petitions and twitter meltdowns have taken the place of large-scale musical movements? (“Movements” is a broad term here though, literally meaning a body of music that has an intention or comment on a situation. This can range from a song to a full blown album.) What can’t be overemphasised is the force that these “movements” have, and have had.
An obvious example of recent modern protest music is Stormzy’s freestyle at the Brit Awards in February. Attacking the British Prime Minister for the events of the Grenfell Tower Fire last year:
“What, you thought we just forgot about Grenfell / you criminals / and you got the cheek to call us savages/ you should do some jail time / you should pay some damages / we should burn your house down and see if you can manage this.”
Stormzy isn’t one to shy away from controversial opinion, but there is a slight difference between what is essentially an outspoken comment and a song devoted to a cause.
There is evidence that there was just a change of tack as to how causes are pushed; take Nina Simone’s powerful “Mississippi Goddam” from 1964, and compare it to the KLF attempting to make a statement in 1992 by firing upon the audience with blank-loaded machine guns. Maybe it is that the power of social media and demonstrations do work. If you look at the highly politicised later work of Pink Floyd, and the current touring version by Roger Waters the message is still as strong as ever, even if it is Donald Trump’s lipsticked head on a pig, but is a world away from Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys dropping a microphone on purpose. Perhaps we should be looking to our artists to embrace movements like #MeToo in their artistic output and actively associate with issues that affect us all.
Sam Marshall is a freelance musician, writer and reviewer based in SW UK.