Whatever happened to the protest song? Paul Morley takes a look.
The idea of the protest song that meant something, that presented inarguable truth, had a seductive, provocative glamour that lasted from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger’s 50s all the way through the 60s, just about through the 70s, right up until the time punk took on the idea of message and resistance, and then sort of petered out in the 80s when ‘me’ took over from ‘we.’
By the 90s, pop was essentially about raising the bank balance rather than raising awareness. The 00s, really just a downloaded, iTuned/auto tuned, celebrity-saturated spill-over from those decades, may have referred to the clothing of the 60s, the punk and revolt of the 70s, the indignant balladeering of the 80s, but rejected the idea that the attitude and revolt was an integral reason the music sounded the way it did.
But it is perhaps not the protest song that has disappeared, rather the audience for the protest song – a community of like-minded spirits that eagerly respond to brilliantly written songs that reflect potential change and new social circumstances.
No one wants to hear songs in support of the underdogs, the dispossessed, the alienated – they want songs about sex, success, excess, good times. Listeners don’t want to be lectured about matters that might make their lives a little darker and require a certain sort of individual responsibility.
Hip hop generated the last gasp of the kind of protest music that seemed it might make a difference. In the late 80s Public Enemy invented political hip hop, as something that emerged out of the battling, outsider background of Mohammed Ali, Gil Scott Heron and the Black Panthers. The music bounced off this turmoil in a way that was both disconcerting and accessible.
But the way that the political nature of hip hop has been transformed inside a decade into an escapist materialist frenzy is a metaphor for how rock and pop in general has travelled from having a social conscience. Hip hop in the hands of Public Enemy threatened to overhaul American culture; within a few years their brand of fierce resistance seemed old fashioned. The subversive energy of the likes of Public Enemy has been replaced by the clown antics of the gangsta rappers whose rebellion is ultimately as dangerous as Adam Sandler’s.
It might be the sense of naivety that inspired the protest song, and the romantic belief that music can change the world, has gone. We’re far too knowing now, too ironic, too complicit with the world of reality TV and instant celebrity, to believe that a song, a feeling, can change the world. Perhaps the Live Aid experience was about as far as we wanted politics in rock to go – a big fun entertainment show that makes a load of money, and then we can forget all about the problem. Everyone’s quite comfortable, why should they complain, and oddly enough it’s now pop music that is creating the comfort.