Around 1984, a British child could shout “War!” in the playground in the reasonable anticipation that their friends would oblige with a…“Huh…what is it good for?” That was thanks to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s cover of Edwin Starr’s War (What is it good for?) originally released back in 1970. The A side featured Two Tribes and its accompanying promotional video treated us to the spectacle of a wrestling match between then-President Ronald Reagan and then-Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko.
Despite the defrosting of the Cold War, it sometimes feels like we have not moved very far politically from that era – except perhaps in the role of music’s political voice.
We often need to be inspired to make our voices heard. Whilst the producers of the UK’s X Factor had hoped for a 2009 Christmas number one single from their contest winner Joe McElderry, the honour instead went to Rage Against the Machine’s unprintable Killing in the Name (definitely NSFW and not safe for young ears). That song’s original context was a protest against racism and authority abuse of power, but in 2009 the focus shifted to just the rejection of authority (as much as the producers of the X Factor could be said to have any). For the many that streamed or downloaded the single, the boldly offensive lyric added its own X factor and the repeated line of “**** you, I won’t do what you tell me” is about as pure a protest song lyric as can be.
However, more recent examples of the art seem harder to find. Have we lost interest in the genre, are we lacking inspiration, or do we simply do things differently now?
In common with other songwriters, I am most inclined to write when stirred up by some great emotion. As a teen, the subject was often unrequited love or a similar challenge with growing up. In the last ten years, I’ve never been more stirred up politically, but I have found few songs to lend me their unique strength.
Whilst it predates my birth, I remember listening for inspiration to great artists like Woodie Guthrie (with his guitar scrawled with the infamous words ‘this machine kills fascists’). Bob Dylan picked up the baton for the next generations and became the quintessential protest songwriter. The incredible work of Joan Baez We Shall Overcome (1963) and Joni Mitchell Big Yellow Taxi (1970) deserve special mentions for the unique insights they provide.
Whilst a review of the last fifty years reveals a rich vein of modern protest music, it appears to be a genre that is in decline.
Radio X’s rundown of their 50 best protest songs lists eleven from the 1970s and nineteen from the 1980s but only four each from the 2000s and 2010s. This might be less of a scientifically established finding and more about the tastes and age of the Radio X editorial team.
The ‘punk movement’ of the late 1970s rose up out of a UK experiencing general strikes and cutbacks. The banning of the Sex Pistols God Save The Queen (1977) by the BBC only served to increase the appeal of the song amongst its target audience. However, the problem with anarchy, in the UK or elsewhere, is that it always fails to get properly organised. Whilst punk still lives in multiple sub-genres around the world, its voice is now more marginal.
The 1980s showed us the wide variety of forms that popular protest songs could take including U2’s anthemic Sunday Bloody Sunday (1983) that, in lead singer Bono’s words, was “not a rebel song” but a humanitarian plea against the killing that continued during ‘the troubles’.
In stark musical contrast, 1985 saw the release of Panic by The Smiths about the Chernobyl power plant disaster in the Ukraine, expressing a disaffection that resonated strongly with their fans.
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An overview of 1980s protest songs wouldn’t be complete without mentioning possibly one of the most potent protest songs ever recorded, The Specials Nelson Mandela (1984). The popularity of the song arguably solidified support for the anti-apartheid movement that led to Mandela’s release after 27 years in prison.
However, the rise of electronic dance music in the 1990s led to somewhat of a downturn in protesting, though Green Day’s American Idiot (2004) was pressed into service to protest against President Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom in July 2018, presumably in the absence of a more contemporary song. As with Rage Against the Machine, its popularity seemed to be more about it being a convenient and easy fit for the mood of the nation, rather than the inspiration for a new movement.
The apparent reduced interest in the modern protest song, does not imply a lack of great contemporary songs, or even entire albums, dedicated to making their own political point. A personal favourite includes ‘The Hustle: A Brexit Disco Symphony’ by Article 54 (a nom de plume of Scritti Politti’s Rhodri Marsden) which casts an extremely accomplished shade over the whole Brexit debacle and especially its repeated meaningless mantras. The Undercover Hippy (Bristol’s Billy Rowan) also has plenty to say about the state of the modern world with his poignant and timely releases like Borders and Fool Britannia.
To me, the connecting factor appears to be how underrated this work is, how in want of an audience, and how powerful such music in progressive political life could be, if only people would listen to it, discuss it, share and use it to inspire them.
Perhaps we have become numb and now see music as a place to escape to rather than an anthem to rally around. Other than for the holdouts, are we becoming too cynical to think that we can achieve change at all? Do we just let those who hold the reins of power get on with it?
Andre Rieu’s fantastic performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy (the anthem of the EU) topped the UK’s download chart just as we left the union at the beginning of 2020.
Other Brexit themed releases, unusually and more often than not, have been received with a sense of embarrassment on both sides of the debate. But you will have to seek those out yourself to fill any historical knowledge gaps you have. My sense of tribal loyalty appears to run deeper with fellow musicians than it does with my politics.
Whilst artists like Stormzy manage to break through the apparent antipathy towards mixing politics with our cultural identities, maybe we are waiting for the next big inspiration to hit as if the politicians of our day are not already giving us enough material to work with.
I am reluctant to conclude we have in some way fallen out of love with protest music, only waiting until we are provoked or amused enough to propel a sweary, obscure release to the number one slot.
Individually we have never been better equipped to amplify our own views and the creative expression of them. Even so, we tend to flock together with our like and preference and our support, our fanhood, for established artists.
Perhaps there is the need to fan new flames of support and amplify the work of unsigned artists. Just as citizen journalists are in some ways filling the gaps left by established media outlets, maybe our future protest songs will come from the underground, the home studios, the great unsigned.
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