Lamenting the Lost Art of the Protest Song16 May 2016
I generally can’t stand previous generations telling me, “They don’t make music like they used to”. Of course they don’t, times have changed. Paul McCartney is old enough to be Rihanna’s dad. The music industry has always produced a lot of trash but there are still shining examples of musical innovation and integrity across the modern industry. However, I can’t help but agree with such nostalgic critics on one point – my generation has buried the protest song. The rise of Bernie Sanders, the upsurge in youthful progressive energy and the mammoth issues facing our planet are calling out for a soundtrack, yet most of today’s musicians are leaving an awkward silence.
The most prominent craftsman of the protest song, Bob Dylan, provided his generation’s soundtrack with ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. “Come Senators, Congressmen, please heed the call,” he sung. ‘The call’ was a groundswell of youthful, progressive energy for peace, fairness and progress, a call which won battles from civil rights to the Vietnam War. Through Dylan’s nasal twang, a revolution was born and taken up by millions of young people.
Giving Dylan’s classic an overdue re-listen, it pains me to realise that ‘the call’ not only remains unheeded by the establishment but is largely unsung in modern pop culture. The stale and gridlocked state of politics across the modern Western world suggests the winds of change must once again “shake the windows and rattle the walls” of the establishment. Yet most of the world’s influential musicians, who have a huge platform to advocate progressive change are shying away from the big issues facing our world.
Against a socio-political backdrop ripe for inspiration, musicians seem to have forgotten about politics. In fact, it seems rather unfashionable to champion political causes through music, with the recording industry suffering from a pervasive lethargy, even dismissiveness, toward the world’s most pressing issues. Where Dylan looked outward and directly challenged the Senators and Congressmen he saw to be reticent to progressive reform, today’s music idols seem unresisting, even comfortable, with the status quo.
Even the hippest fringes of pop culture, who pride themselves on being progressive and ahead of the pack, promote introspection over social commentary. Most indie music delineates itself from ‘mainstream’ music through adventurous stylistic, musical and production choices rather than the song’s lyrical message. In fact, the lyrics of songs played on Triple J and on Fox FM are often startlingly similar. The hipsters might be vegan, humanitarian social democrats in real life but the only thing you could deduce from their music is that they have a lot of feelings. It’s no longer cool to care.
Nothing exemplifies this disappointing trend like Triple J’s Hottest 100 in recent years. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Chet Faker or The Rubens (I’ve seen the latter in concert three times). They’re great at what they do and not all music needs to make social commentary. I just struggle to name songs in the Hottest 100 that make any disruptive or controversial statements about the world.
As musicologist Tim Byron recently wrote for Junkee, “The kids listening to Triple J these days generally prefer chill music to chill to, rather than angry music to rage against the machine to. Which is to say that there’s little in the average song by Chet Faker or The Rubens that demonstrates any particular frustration with the status quo of mainstream society”.
Recent Australian releases are starting to challenge this trend, however, providing hope for more musical responses to the trials of our torrid times. Firstly, let us look to Missy Higgins’ ‘Oh Canada’, a touching tribute to Alan Kurdi, the drowned boy whose photo drew the world’s attention to the plight of Syrian refugees.
Higgins’ lyrics are mostly a tender narrative of the Kurdi family’s perilous journey, with achingly painful simplicity reflecting the innocence and vulnerability of people fleeing their homeland.
While Higgins’ approach is not directly confrontational like Dylan’s, simply penning a song about asylum seekers in Australia is an inherently dissident act and Missy is not afraid to ridicule the double-speak and platitudes of the political class. “There’s a million ways to justify your fear. There’s a million ways to measure out your words,” she sings audaciously. “But the body of Alan being laid upon the sand, tell me how do you live with that?”
In a less reverent but even more incisive protest song, comedy singer Tim Minchin skewered embattled senior Catholic George Pell in ‘Come Home (Cardinal Pell)’. In typical Minchin style, darkly sarcastic lyrics are layered over a bright and bouncy piano pop tune. Minchin lashes the Cardinal, who has been accused of ignoring and covering up child abuse committed by paedophile priests in the Catholic Church, calling him a “pompous buffoon”, “a goddamn coward” and “scum.”
Needless to say, the song provoked a strong backlash from the defamed Cardinal, the Church and religious apologists everywhere. However, is that not the point? Ruffling the feathers of a conservative, secretive institution that has shown callous disregard for abused children is a feat which few non-comedic pop songs can even aspire to.
Another Australian artist going against the mainstream with a distinct political influence is Courtney Barnett. While her songs are rarely concerned solely with politics, she weaves political concerns throughout her honest depictions of suburban Melburnian life. Bemoaning the degradation of Australia’s environment in ‘Kim’s Caravan’, Barnett spitefully snarls, “The Great Barrier Reef, it ain’t so great anymore. It’s been raped beyond belief, the dredgers treat it like a whore”. Even the quirky ‘Depreston’, a tale of house hunting in lower socio-economic suburbs, sits jarringly against the currently overblown housing market, which is leaving young couples trapped in the rental cycle with little prospect of competing against speculators negatively gearing their seventh house.
Barnett adds another important layer to political discourse – contradiction. Much new-age ‘identity’ politics tends to focus not on governments or institutions but on individual actions, taking formal politics as a lost cause and seeking to effect micro-level change. The question is not often “Why is the exploitation of workers’ rights tolerated?” but “Why don’t you buy ethical coffee?” Yet, despite the supposedly puritanical virtue of some particularly self-assured hipsters, living ethically in a society plagued with manifold issues is hard work.
Barnett’s ‘Dead Fox’ skewers these contradictions, singing, “Never having too much money, I buy the cheap stuff at the supermarket but it’s all pumped up with shit.” The line, sung with Barnett’s signature laid-back lethargy, depicts the modern consumer’s disenfranchisement and apathy when choosing between the affordable and the healthy/ethical. For a cash-strapped young Melburnian like Barnett, being an ethical consumer and paying exorbitant prices for rent are two irreconcilable demands. Reflecting on the staggering scale of big business through an anecdote about a delivery truck, Barnett ponders the inability of individuals to affect meaningful change in a world so large and so fucked.
Perhaps things are finally starting to change. Beyoncé recently used a provocative video clip to push for greater awareness of racial divisions in the US. Kendrick Lamar did the same with his performance at the Grammy Awards. Kanye is running for President. Okay, I know that last one doesn’t really count but still… Even Nickelback is endorsing Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Presidential candidate, which may of course be more of a hindrance to his campaign than a helping hand.
Despite this, it just seems that such political statements from musicians are too few and far between. With such an influential megaphone and so many pertinent issues to champion, it is high time that more musicians stepped up. Yes, your girlfriend may have left you and taken your favourite sweater with her. You might have to do another Savers run. But there is a big wide world out there and a severe dearth of musicians critiquing it. A new generation of artists need to heed ‘the call’ and proclaim it loudly.