Warren Haynes, founding member of Gov’t Mule asked a question in an interview I saw about a year ago: ‘Where are the protest songs?’ And what a great question. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.
Protest songs have a rich history, from mid 20th century (the Blues predates this) up until the early 2000’s. Reacting to major social issues: race relations, war, law and government, no topic was impervious to the changing social winds that blew. Write the lyrics, lay down the music and people listened; songs of changing times and fortunate sons and what happened in Ohio in 1970. Peter Gabriel sang of South Africa’s Biko in 1980, and Rage Against the Machine ‘Killing in the Name’ in 1992 was a protest against state brutality.
Lost in its own wake
The protest song might not be the vanguard of social ructions, but at the very least stands to the side shouting in its ear. To keep the message sung, to keep rage burning. A reflection of societal tensions and changing attitudes where government lags behind, and in many cases resist. Mainstream music was more counterculture, and its power lay in its popularity. Now times have changed. The protest song has faded.
It hasn’t been a total withdrawal: ‘Wake Me up When September Ends’ was a big hit for Green Day in 2004 and P!nk’s ‘Dear Mr. President’ touched a nerve in 2006. But the protest song isn’t ubiquitous as it once was.
…is society so different it assigns the protest song irrelevant?
If the mood of the people is gauged correctly, society has regressed. News incessantly talk of an increase in violence, where over a twenty year period the trend is down. But we don’t feel it. Hope all but seems lost. Fear grips politics. Riots and shootings happen almost on a daily basis. Commentators and politicians alike talk of some benevolent master ‘the economy’ as if it’s the one beacon of hope where only a few ever see the benefits.
So why aren’t we seeing a resurgence?
Do we need a protest song about where have all the protest songs gone? Did all this focused energy and passion simply give up, pack its bag and move to a hippy commune to grow organic food and smoke weed?
Hashtag activism Where are the protest songs?
MySpace 2003 | Facebook 2004 | Twitter 2006. The timings are too coincidental to ignore.
Social media killed the protest song
(just like video killed the radio star – sorry, couldn’t resist).
Hashtag activism in the comfort of your own armchair/couch/bed/car/toilet. We share our ills with the world and wait for a sympathetic response to validate ourselves. A few keystrokes then locate the nearest five-star reviewed restaurant, cheapest deal on a new pair of sneakers, or like that post of a cat chasing a beam of light.
Fast food activism, full of artificial sweeteners and preservatives.
We feel good when we like or share a post about some injustice in the world. But people marched in the street for change (and still do). They got arrested and went to jail, choked on tear gas, lost teeth and yes, died. This is diluted popular activism where you don’t lose anything. Sounds cynical? I guess. This is self-criticism. I haven’t held a banner or picket line, and I’ve never marched.
Now this photo says something. It tells of hurt, anger and suffering. It sings a powerful protest song.
The 1968 Olympics protest by Tommie Smith (centre) who won the 200 meter final, John Carlos (right) who won bronze, along with an Australian, Peter Norman (silver). All wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge as a protest against racial segregation. Smith and Carlos wore socks to highlight poverty and a glove as a symbol of power. Norman also suffered at home for wearing the badge. They were kicked out of the village, their families received death threats and they were booed by the crowd. The best in the world at their chosen event. They had everything to lose by protesting.
Fast forward to the Rio Olympics. What would the hashtags read?
Also published on Medium.