The Times, They Are A-Changing: Love is in the Air, and Music Returns to Protest Lyrics
The Vietnam war, Reagan policy, the Iraq invasion: The US has given its musicians plenty to protest about. Now, as artists give voice to the #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and #Resist protests movements, the art of the protest song is once again strong in America.
June 14, 2019
(tca/dpa) - Is there a formula that explains artistic expression in hard times? Fear and anxiety equal urgent music?
"Music comes and goes in cycles," Mike Watt, bassist of the groundbreaking postpunk band the Minutemen, once told the Tribune. "And it gets good only when the people making it can feel the wall against their shoulder."
Protest music is once again in the air. And why not? Everything feels unstable, pressure points magnified: immigration policies, racial violence, sexual assault, LBGQT rights, the direction of the country itself. The last couple years have brought an avalanche of music steeped in the language of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and #Resist, with landmark songs and albums created by everyone from stars such as Kendrick Lamar and Beyonce to indie artists such as Dessa and Superchunk.
"I would be making music and songs regardless," says Superchunk singer-guitarist Mac McCaughan, "but at this moment, what else would I be writing about? It's unavoidable."
Superchunk, has been making music for 30 years. But rarely has the North Carolina quartet sounded as politically pointed as it does on its blazing 2018 album, "What a Time to be Alive" (Merge).
The album was written in a burst after the 2016 presidential election, with shattering songs such as "Cloud of Hate," directed at a handful of aging politicians dictating policy on everything from women's rights to judicial nominations: "You broke the world that you're not long for / You broke the world we're living in."
"It can be psychologically damaging to walk around with all this hate" over what certain politicians are doing to America, McCaughan says. "Channeling that feeling into art is more healthy."
Traditionally, artists have thrown up yellow flags when discussing the notion of writing topical songs, much less singing them night after night on tour when the emotions and events that guided the lyrics may have faded. There's a tricky art to protest music because it can come off as shrill, preachy, or simple-minded. Artists frequently perform to audiences that already share their belief, so what's the point in "preaching to the choir?"
"I don't want to be the guy on the soap box," Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers told the Tribune in the wake of the band's most political album yet, the 2016 release "American Band" (ATO). "I'm more concerned about, 'Is this entertaining?' It was a turnoff of political folk music - even (Bob) Dylan got bored by that aspect of it."
But in writing anguished songs such as "What it Means" for "American Band," Hood found himself inspired by artists as diverse as the Clash and Tom T. Hall. The Clash's "Rock the Casbah" was a hit when Hood was in high school, with lyrics about Iran's ban on Western music in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Hall's "Watergate Blues" surfaced in 1973 as the Nixon White House was being consumed by political scandal. "I heard 'Rock the Casbah' on the radio even though it was extremely political, and it's still timely," Hood says.
McCaughan overcame his resistance to writing political songs when he realized through the music and words of artists he admired such as Ted Leo and Billy Bragg that "there is value to making people feel less alone."
"People who write great political songs make community a big part of what they do," he says. "Music is where communities and scenes can form, which can be so valuable when it seems that forces at the top are massing against you."
In performing the "What a Time to be Alive" songs on the road, McCaughan has mixed feelings. "One of the concerns with making a record of the moment is that a year or two or five years later it'll seem dated," he says. "But unfortunately, it's all still very applicable. Things seem to be getting worse not better. There's a cathartic aspect to playing these songs live, with people singing along instead of just waiting for the old favourites."
It's a hard price for relevance, but through the decades great songs have shot out like flares from every era of social and political turmoil. Here's a brief look at some of the most potent eras of protest music over the last half-century:
THE VIETNAM ERA, 1960S AND EARLY '70S
The war in Vietnam and the civil-rights movements inspired countless artists and led to a flood of indelible songs by Gil Scott Heron ("The Revolution Will Not be Televised"), Bob Dylan ("Blowin' in the Wind"), the Impressions ("People Get Ready"), Nina Simone ("Mississippi Goddamn"), Aretha Franklin (her cover of Otis Redding's "Respect"), James Brown ("Say it Loud [I'm Black and I'm Proud]"), the Staple Singers ("Freedom Highway"), Crosby Stills Nash & Young ("Ohio") and countless others.
HARD TIMES IN ENGLAND, 1970S
The stumbling English economy energized the rise of the working-class music derisively described as "punk." With the Sex Pistols sneering "God Save the Queen" and the Clash declaring that "anger can be power" in "Clampdown," U.K. youth soon had a soundtrack to channel their discontent.
HIP-HOP'S MESSAGE FROM THE STREETS, 1980S AND EARLY '90S
Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel's "The Message," Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and N.W.A.'s explosive debut album, "Straight Outta Compton" were among the recordings that voiced the discontent of young, disenfranchised African-Americans from coast to coast and presaged the Los Angeles riots that broke out after four police officers were acquitted in 1992 in the beating of Rodney King.
THE REAGAN '80S
Amid the growing nuclear chill of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and the failed promises of "trickle-down economics," protest music took on new iterations in the punk of Minor Threat, Black Flag, the Minutemen and dozens more. Even mainstream artists such as Bruce Springsteen (the "Nebraska" album) and Prince ("1999") reflected the atmosphere of dread.
INVASION OF IRAQ, 2003
With commercial radio dominated by corporate conglomerates with no interest in stirring up political controversy, the Internet became the outlet for countless songs protesting the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The songs poured out from mainstream and underground artists across the world, including the Beastie Boys ("In a World Gone Mad"), Chuck D's Fine Arts Militia ("A Twisted Sense of God" Pts. 1 & 2), Nanci Griffith ("Big Blue Ball of War"), John Mellencamp ("To Washington") and Spearhead ("Bomb the World"), as well as Mexico's Molotov ("Ferocious"), London's Billy Bragg ("The Price of Oil"), Ireland's Luka Bloom ("I Am Not at War With Anyone") and Pakistan's Junoon ("No More").
TRUMP'S AMERICA, 2016-19
Childish Gambino's "This is America" debuted at No. 1 in 2018 and later won Grammy awards even as it explicitly detailed the way black lives have been commodified and rendered disposable throughout the nation's history. It arrived among a torrent of songs in the wake of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and #Resist: Janelle Monae's "Americans," Dessa's "Fire Drills," Idles' "Danny Nedelko," Vic Mensa's "16 Shots," Jamila Woods' "Betty," Gary Clark Jr.'s "This Land" and dozens more.