Many fans criticise reviving the old songs in the wake of new political complications and argue that the ol’ good music with political undertones isn’t really being created anymore. But aren’t we too quick to decry the decline of the political anthems when the protest song is not dead?
As thousands hit the streets of London to protest on the arrival of the President of the US in the UK, a Facebook campaign aimed to make a mark on the charts too with the revival of the pop-punk anthem American Idiot by Green Day. On Friday evening, the song ultimately hit the 25th spot on the Official Singles Chart and became the second most downloaded song of the week.
Some music fans have questioned the lack of protest songs in the recent years. The article from The Guardian points to the folk music in hopes of their revival and The Telegraph questions the Green Day campaign and the meaning behind reviving the old songs for the purpose of the current situation. But are politics truly gone from music?
Political songs have long been the trademark of the resistance, springing from the underground culture and entering the mainstream collective memory. From the counterculture of the Sixties emerged hits by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Doors or Jefferson Airplane. In the Seventies, the likes of Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones and other punk bands defined the sound of the decade with plenty a political anthem, while the likes of Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Kate Bush, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye recorded songs that varied greatly in their sound but didn’t shy away from the political undertones. Later, the stalled conventions provoked backlash from the musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman or Patti Smith; the following decade was also marked as the time when rap was born. The Nineties gave us the feminist riot grrrl movement and the well-known songs by the Cranberries, U2, or Rage Against the Machine. A decade later, American Idiot signalled the criticism of George Bush’s America, but the Noughties brought us also Radiohead or M.I.A. And although many might look back at the extensive catalogue of the politically charged music and complain about the lack of it nowadays, the protest song is indeed alive and well, asking us to pay closer attention to the music and how it’s performed, too.
Since its birth, grime has been a strongly political genre of music: it originated in the working-class community of young black people who felt marginalised, soaring to mainstream popularity in the recent years. Take Skepta, who has chosen to call himself an activist rather than a rapper. Next comes Stormzy, who is well-known for being outspoken when it comes to his political views, freestyling about Theresa May and demanding the justice for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire. Using his platform to question the government, he’s bringing important issues to the attention of his broad fanbase.
Sometimes, you need to dig deeper to uncover a brilliant political song, too. A British indie band She Drew The Gun recorded Poem, a hard-hitting number that describes society at large, controlled by corporations and insensitive to the suffering of those who are deemed to be the “scroungers” and “living room loungers”, outcasts of the society.
The activism in music is equally strong across the pond. Donald Glover made waves with his song This Is America, accompanied by an evocative, symbolic video addressing the police violence against the minorities and race inequalities in the US. Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-winning, boundary-breaking album DAMN. gained sheer praise as another highlight in the mainstream conversation “that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life“. His song XXX., recorded with U2, calls out Donald Trump and criticises the constructs of the society he observes carefully. The artist didn’t pull punches when he criticised the Russian intervention in the 2016 American elections in The Heart Part 4 either.
Similarly, Janelle Monae’s music has long been filled with declarations of her political stance. Her latest album Dirty Computer, which makes a series of statements about gender, race and sexuality using a blend of musical styles, was labelled as “protest music done right” by multiple music critics. Although all the tracks from the record are statements in their own right, two songs stand out as straightforwardly political: Django Jane, an anthem honouring the black female power, and an incredibly catchy number Americans that addresses a handful of burning problems that the US faces today: sexism, gun violence, racism and wealth gap that stands in the way of succeeding for working classes.
On the other note, a Canadian band Arcade Fire is also known for their charity work and statements on society. Think Neon Bible, for example, that questions the deception of modern culture and politics, with memorable Intervention as a post-9/11 commentary. Their entire marketing campaign for Everything Now, complete with the social media feeds for the corporation named after the album, aimed to criticise the consumptionist society we live in. But their political statement came a little earlier than their new record: in the wake of Trump’s election, they’ve released I Give You Power, a song that reminds us that the power we give to politicians can be taken away from them in a democratic society. They’ve also donated the proceeds from the song to the American Civil Liberties Union. At the same time, as many artists turned down Donald Trump’s invitation to perform at his inauguration, the return of two bands: Gorillaz and Franz Ferdinand was marked by Hallelujah Money and Demagogue respectively.
What about something that’s quite literally a song written for a demonstration? Fiona Apple’s Tiny Hands released just before 2017 Women’s March, is a short, simple and upbeat song that was named an unofficial anthem of the protesters. “We don’t want your tiny hands anywhere near our underpants,” she chants the one-liner over and over in the track that’s no longer than a minute.
But the protest music can also take much softer forms. If you listen to Hozier’s Take Me To Church, you might not instantly realise that one of his most famous singles to date carries the elements of a protest song. Talking to the Rolling Stone, the Irish artist explained that he was raised in the largely Catholic society and disillusioned by the hypocrisy of the church, which made him pour his frustrations into the lyrics. A love song on the surface, with a message that might not be so obvious, works wonderfully on two levels. “I think that all music has political gravity,” he stated in the BBC documentary on protest songs, admitting that the audiences didn’t immediately get the meaning behind his words.
The gloomy era plagued by new challenges that range from the rise of populism to growing impact of technology on our lives serves as an inspiration for statements that question the modern values just like the counterculture of the previous decades. In the turbulent times, art is as political as it’s always been, finding new engaged audiences and different forms of expressing the ideas to discuss the modern problems with them, while the classics can still take on a brand-new meaning for the youngest generations.
Listen to some of the songs mentioned in the article on our Spotify playlist: