August 23, 2022

Music As Protest

Music As Protest

It’s said that one can glean what a society was afraid of in any given decade just by combing through their science-fiction movies. Aliens? Oh no, immigration! Killer robots? Oh, no technology has run amok! The fears and desires of dominant culture emerge in a society’s art, and we can track major elements of United States history by looking at that art – including its music.

With music, the meaning is often a little easier to interpret than all the many possible alien metaphors. Sometimes that meaning is made explicit, sometimes the singer and/or songwriter will have publicly aligned with a movement, and sometimes it’s the listener who assigns that meaning. Just as we can scan the history of the United States and tie its fears and struggles to themes in cinema, we can do the same thing with the category of music we call “protest songs.”

There are a million. America is the home of so many movements – civil rights, gender equality, labor; the list goes on and on – and many of these movements are ongoing. 2020 was a year of uprisings, leading to so much protest music about state violence and racism, you probably haven’t even heard a fraction of it. Now in 2022, the United States is seeing more union activity than we have in decades – unions are essentially going mainstream, Amazon is seeing big changes, and the Great Resignation has seen millions of Americans leave their jobs in search of higher pay. (Which worked, apparently.) And guess what…there’s a soundtrack for that too!

Have you heard Beyoncé’s brand new album, Renaissance? The first track she released of the album, Break My Soul, has led to many fans calling it the theme song of 2022’s labor struggles. And it’s easy to see why. The lyrics literally instruct the listener to quit their job and find a new foundation! “Damn, they work me so damn hard / Work by nine, then off past five.” Workers are sick and tired, and with minimum wage stagnant and inflation continuing to climb and climb…well, people are taking Beyoncé’s advice. America has a long history of struggle that started well before 2020, however, and we can map it through music.

We could go all the way back to the abolitionist song John Brown’s Body in the 1850’s, which relied on hymn tradition for the tune to spread. Then there’s Strange Fruit, first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939 – one of the most widely recognized indictments of lynching, and a song which was banned from most radios at the time. Marvin Gaye’s anti-war track What’s Going On? is still used today at protests against state violence. Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come was recorded during the Civil Rights Movement and continues to function as a plea for change. The band Bikini Kill has been delivering feminist rage on and off stage since 1990. And speaking of rage, there’s Rage Against the Machine, whose music isn’t their only form of protest: if you’re too young to remember, they stood naked onstage at Lollapalooza in 1993 to protest censorship.

So what makes a song a protest song? The purpose of a protest song, it’s been argued, is, at its core, a call for solidarity. Protest isn’t just complaint, after all, but an essential part of political action. So the “protest song” is meant to create momentum for that movement, whether by attracting more people to the cause, or spreading its message far and wide for the same eventual purpose. Oral tradition is human tradition, and we’ve used songs to send messages and tell stories for millennia. (Some politicians have attempted to co-opt the energy of protest songs to use as a storytelling device in their campaigns, and have been shot down by the artist. How embarrassing.)

But the purpose of the protest song may not actually be able to be defined so narrowly as merely a call to join a movement. After all, a similar question is asked about artists: what is an artist’s role? Do they have a duty? Sometimes the role the artist takes is to look around at what’s happening in the world and reflect it back for the audience to see. In fact, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On? wasn’t originally imagined as a protest song, but merely a song asking questions, expressing concern, and asking for the audience to listen. Renaldo Benson, the original writer of the song, said of it: “[It's] a love song, about love and understanding. I'm not protesting. I want to know what's going on.”

Sometimes the meaning is injected into the song itself, and sometimes whether the writer intended it or not, the audience interprets meaning and carries the art toward a greater purpose. Some artists may resist it. Bob Dylan, for example, recorded Blowin’ in the Wind in 1962, but when he performed it in public for the first time, he introduced it with these words: “This here ain’t no protest song or anything like that, ’cause I don’t write no protest songs.” Yet Dylan was known and continues to be known as a writer of protest songs, asking questions of the world and commenting on the state of it. To be fair, he was also around 22 when he performed Blowin’ in the Wind for the first time, and he may not have wanted to be considered solely as a protest songwriter. That said, he has been notably hot-and-cold with his engagement with politics throughout his career.

Other artists, like The Killers, wouldn’t have been considered political at all for many years – in fact, they were determinedly apolitical. But the state of the world – in the case of The Killers, Donald Trump’s presidency – suddenly make the choice to speak out, as they did with Land of the Free in 2019, which protested gun violence, mass incarceration, and the border wall.

Some protest songs aren’t even traditionally recorded until later. One singer, known as Milck, used the Internet to organize a choir of women singers to join her at the 2017 Women’s March. They learned the lyrics together online, and then joined together at the protest where they performed the song Quiet on the streets. Years passed, and the song continued to hold significance for the ongoing movement for women’s rights. Organizing a choir online is a far cry from John Brown’s Body, with people relying on knowledge of folk hymn traditions to even know the tune!

The Internet has changed everything, even the way protest can function. Then there are protest songs that many people don’t even know are protest songs! For example, in the years following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the war in Iraq was already leading to the creation of anti-war art. Green Day, a popular band at the time, released a song called American Idiot, which decried the media’s complicity in creating hysteria for war. Many of their fans went years misunderstanding the meaning of the song, but the members of the band have been very clear about their anti-war stance, as recently as last year.

In the vein of both anti-war anthems and protest songs that weren’t always recognized as protest songs is Born in the USA, by Bruce Springsteen. As it turns out, putting stars and stripes on the album and repeating “born in the USA” in the chorus is all it takes to convince a not-quite-listening audience that a song is die-hard patriotic. In fact, a single closer look at the lyrics will tell you that the song was a criticism of war, as well as the treatment of veterans of Vietnam.

A closer look at a lot of famous rock bands’ songs reveal messages of protest: the Red Hot Chili Peppers and their pushback against organized religion; Nirvana against gender inequality; Linkin Park also against President Bush, except in relation to his handling of Hurricane Katrina. Is it a protest song if it’s not directly tied to a movement? Does one song that merely notices what’s happening in the world make that band “political”? (There’s a trend on the rise of people “realizing” their favorite bands have political opinions – Fans getting mad about Rage Against the Machine, for example. One wonders just who these fans thought “the machine” referred to all these years.)

The United States has a long history of protest – and a long history of art. It can only be expected that the two would combine to create some of the most important music ever made. From the likes of Nina Simone to Kendrick Lamar, from Public Enemy to Tracy Chapman, from Dolly Parton to Joan Jett…there’s an anthem for every movement. And as this country still battles with inequality, poverty, state violence, and all the other social failures that have inspired centuries of music speaking truth to power, these songs will never go out of style. American history is synonymous with struggle. But in the brand new (and yet immortal) words of Beyoncé…it won’t break our soul.

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