Question of the Week: Why has there been a dearth of protest songs


October 8, 2008 by A.C. Rhodes

… now as compared to the ’60s and ’70s? Does this reflect that young music consumers care less about sociopolitical themes?

32 thoughts on “Question of the Week: Why has there been a dearth of protest songs

  1. Chuck Eddy says:

    Because there aren’t? (Seems to be a common myth, though, among people who’ve never listened to much hip-hop. Or metal. Or indie rock. Or boring singer-songwriter folkies. Or jam bands. Or Gogol Bordello. Or Manu Chao. Or Antibalas. Or, heck, country — Toby Keith writes protest songs sometimes too, you know.)

  2. Chuck Eddy says:

    (“Because there hasn’t been” would have been the more accurate syntaxt, I guess. And I left out Ani Difranco. And Rage Against The Machine, who I have no use for, but so what. And hardcore bands and noise bands, unless I included them among indie rock. None of which to say any of these artists have come up with anything as cool as REO’s “Golden Country” or Grand Funk’s “People Let’s Stop The War” or Bob Seger’s “2+2+?”, but hey, you can’t have everything. Maybe things will heat up once the next Depression gets going. Or if the draft ever comes back. And Sarah Palin deserves at least *one* great song about her, right?)

  3. Chuck Eddy says:

    Might also help if I spell “syntax” right.

    Seriously, though, I’ve heard this claim all the time for the past decade or two, and I really don’t get it. To take another hardly obscure example, who is the ’60s or ’70s equivalent of, say, System of a Down supposed to be? I don’t like them much myself, but they’re hardly a minor band — it’s not like the MC5 had #1 albums on the charts. And do people really think there were more “political” songs in, say, ’70s soul than ’90s or ’00s hip-hop? Even popular ones? Maybe the songs were *better* then, but maybe I only think that because I’m a middle aged white guy. (And though it’s not like you have to get this “alternative” to find protest rapping in either era, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Coup outsell the Last Poets, too.)

  4. Patrick says:

    People wildly overstate how many protest songs there were in the 60s. A few folk songs in the first half of the decade, “Eve of Destruction”, a few Creedence and Sly Stone and Impressions tunes. Nowadays you have entire sub-genres that are all-protest all-the-time.

    (Chuck, I think the Last Poets once had an album in the top 40, which The Coup probably never will, sadly. Also where are all those current mainstream hip hop protest songs of which you speak? I’m not saying they don’t exist – I haven’t been paying much attention to recent hip hop, so stuff may very well be flying under my radar).

  5. A.C. Rhodes says:

    While I don’t have any definite numbers the overall tone was more sociopolitical back in the mid to late ’60s & early to mid ’70s. There was a lot of bubble gum pop, too, of course on radio *and* TV. Perhaps it was the assassinations & the public not really being able to ignore it that made it look like more young people were interested if not involved back in the Vietnam era. And the draft did have much to do that, as well.
    However, in retrospect, it seems that (again, aside from the Archies, etc.) every other song on the radio was about social or political issues, whether it be Peter, Paul & Mary or Paul Revere and the Raiders (Yeah, I know, I’m counting the Indian Reservation song).

    Ex. Love
    Barry McGuire
    Edwin Starr
    The Youngbloods
    Marvin Gaye
    Beatles & Stones
    The Byrds & Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

  6. Neil Young is still working. He was better during the first Bush administration, but I’ll be he is working on a Sarah Palin song.

  7. natepatrin says:

    “Also where are all those current mainstream hip hop protest songs of which you speak?”

    Depends on how mainstream you consider David Banner (“Cadillac on 22’s Part 2”), Bun-B (“If It Was Up II Me”), the Roots (the majority of Rising Down), Nas (ibid. Untitled) or Wale (“The Kramer”). Hell, even the title track to Young Jeezy’s The Recession is as appropriate a statement on late-’08 American consciousness as anything.

  8. Steven says:

    A list I’m fond of … Top 10 Albums of 1967 (Billboard):

    1. More of the Monkees
    2. The Monkees
    3. Doctor Zhivago soundtrack
    4. The Sound of Music soundtrack
    5. The Temptations Greatest Hits
    6. A Man and a Woman soundtrack
    7. Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass, S.R.O.
    8. H. Alpert, Whipped Cream & Other Delights
    9. H. Alpert, Going Places
    10. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

  9. s woods says:

    I think the context is just too different to draw an apt comparison. In the ’60s, “protest songs” appearing on the radio was a new thing (at least to any large degree; there were probably earlier, more coded examples of protest that broke through the airwaves, but those would have been anomalies.) The idea of using pop music to protest something has been around ever since, but maybe it’s just a lot more subtly infused now? Hip-hop is a perfect example: there’s a lot of complaining going on within hip-hop but it isn’t always the entire point of the song, there’s also lots of humour and silliness going on as well. Songs that announce themselves as “protest songs” almost always suck. Songs that just complain about shit as part of the natural course of life don’t always suck and usually have a much better chance of being great.

    Also, I wouldn’t argue that there’s a “dearth” of protest songs so much as I’d argue that pop music itself just does not have anything like the same cultural sway it did forty years ago, regardless of what’s being sung about. It still obviously means an awful lot to an awful lot of people, and more money is exchanged than ever, but there are dozens of other things for people to do as well, some of which probably didn’t even exist in 1968.

  10. s woods says:

    Actually, saying “more money is being exchanged than ever” is surely some kind of madness! You know what I mean…

  11. Chuck Eddy says:

    Re current hip-hop: David Banner has plenty — most explicity “Bush,” I guess, but as Nate starts to hint, also a bunch about the economic and social conditions in Mississippi, and other stuff too. And there’s Panjabi MC and Jay-Z “Beware,” and Katrina songs from Juvenile and Lil Wayne, and, um, who did that song “Why?” a few years ago – -Mike Jones? Jim Jones? One of those guys. I mean, I don’t really keep up with current hip-hop very much myself, to be honest, but I know it’s *there*. And like Scott suggests, it’s not even so much individual *songs* that matter; there are guys like Non-Phixion and Immortal Technique (undergrounders, I guess) who seem to make careers out of being conspiracy theorists, but really, protest is just plain running through the entire *fabric* of hiphop — If Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City” was considered a protest song in the ’70s, well, hip-hop is a whole *genre* of songs about living for the city, right? Or (Last Poets or at least Lightnin’ Rod wise) a whole genre about Hustlers Conventions. It would almost be harder to ask for hip-hop acts who *don’t* have songs where they protest anything. (And what about Kanye? OutKast? Wu Tang? I’m no huge fan of any of those very important acts, but do none of them have explicit protest songs as such? Can’t name them off the top of my head, but I’d be surprised if they don’t.)

    (For that matter, to consider comparably important rock acts I pay equally minimal attention to, where do Pearl Jam and Radiohead and U2 stand, protest-wise? I know U2 did a lot when they were younger. And oh yeah, there’s Green Day, whose protest album bored the daylights out of me, but it does EXIST.)

    As Steven’s list suggests, thinking every other song on the radio at the turn of the ’70s was a protest song is for the most part a sad hippie delusion, if you ask me (or a look at #1 singles from 1968 / 1969 / 1970 for that matter — “Love Is Blue”? “Tighten Up”? “Wedding Bell Blues”? “Venus”? “Dizzy”? “Grazing In the Grass”? “Love Theme From Romeo and Juliet”? “Make It With You”? “Everything Is Beautiful”? “(They Long To Be) Close To You”? “I Think I Love You”? Okay, I’ll give you “Love Child” and “War” and “Everyday People” and “In the Year 2525” and “People Got To Be Free”, and uh, maybe “American Woman” if you can handle its sexist bullshit quotient. Maybe “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” too, if something Dave Marsh wrote once is to be believed (assuming I can remember what he wrote). But if “Honky Tonk Woman” or “Let It Be” or “Leaving On A Jet Plane” or “Hey Jude” count as protest songs, I really don’t know what the heck they were protesting. (Then again, I never really know what Ted Leo or System of a Down or Rage Against the Machine are protesting either, so maybe that’s part of the point.) And I *guess* Peter Paul and Mary did some protest songs (“The Cruel War”, # 52, 1966!), but shouldn’t the fact that their music generally had the consistency of mush count against them somehow? (Also, what specific songs by Love qualify? Not being sarcastic; I really don’t know. I have no idea what they were singing about, usually!) (Re Paul Revere: “Kicks” = anti-drugs!)

    Equivalent of System of A Down in the early ’70s *might* have been Grand Funk (*E Pluribus Funk* with aforementioned anti-war song, #5 in 1971) or even Black Sabbath (*Paranoid* with “War Pigs,” #12 in the same year), but those songs were band anomalies I believe (despite being a million times better than anything SOAD or RATM have ever done.)

    And, okay, I hereby eat my words — Patrick is right about the Last Poets! First album went to #29 in 1970; how the hell did that happen?? They didn’t get radio airplay, or tour with anybody famous, did they? Suddenly I’m really curious. Were the Black Panthers a major record-buying market, and I just never knew it? (Gil Scott-Heron, hit # 30 with his first charting album, *The First Minute of a New Day,* which may or may not have had protest songs on it, in 1975; he put two other albums toward the lower reaches of the Billboard 100 in 1978 and 1982. Apparently never put a single in the Hot 100.)

    And *Kick Out The Jams* peaked at #30 in 1969, fwiw.

  12. Chuck Eddy says:

    (Oops – Actually, Gil Scott-Heron’s last Billboard 100 album, *1980*, went to # 82 in 1980, not 1982. Which kind of makes sense, given its title and all.)

  13. Chuck Eddy says:

    >earlier, more coded examples of protest that broke through the airwaves<

    “Get A Job,” The Silhouettes, #1 for two weeks, 1958.

  14. s woods says:

    >>>thinking every other song on the radio at the turn of the ’70s was a protest song is for the most part a sad hippie delusion, if you ask me<<<

    Yeah, but the truth isn’t always just in the details. I’m sure there were plenty of r&b/black pop songs in the early 70s that had nothing to do with protest or activism, but the protest/activism stuff kind of dominated the conversation, so it’s natural to think of that era as being particularly (to quote my favourite Dylan coinage) “protesty.”

  15. Chuck Eddy says:

    >>>OutKast…explicit protest songs as such<<<

    “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)”

  16. Chuck Eddy says:

    Also, not to be a crank (yeah right), but as for protest/activism “dominating the conversation” in the early ’70s, I’m not convinced of that either. It certainly didn’t dominate *my* conversations then, but of course I was still in grade school in those days. (It actually dominates way more of my conversation now than it did then. If anything, I’d say that music from that time period has often been cynically *marketed in retrospect* as “protesty,” as a means of conjuring nostalgia and selling product, which might explain the common delusion.)

    I’m trying to think of which Byrds hits could be considered protest songs too, and I’m coming up as blank with them as I did with Love. (I like the Byrds a lot, by the way. Just seems, though, that if we’re going to be lax and open-ended about what constitutes a protest song in 1968, it’s only fair to be just as lax and open-ended about songs that come out 40 years later. Given the lists on this thread, I’d say, if anything, protest songs these days are often way *more* specific and less vague, if anything. Which no, doesn’t always equal better.)

  17. Patrick says:

    “It would almost be harder to ask for hip-hop acts who *don’t* have songs where they protest anything.”

    This reminds me of Christgau writing about how some song by Hootie & The Blowfish was their 2nd anti-racism hit and Xgau adding “making two more than Dr Dre or Tupac has ever bothered with”.

  18. A.C. Rhodes says:

    Okay, I’m just saying that many songs (& artists) were if not straight out protest material, then more politically and socially conscious. The Monkees went on to record songs that mirrored the sentiments if not always penning them. Even Donovan score an anti-hit with Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier.” Buffalo Springfield, of course, wrote what became a signature antiwar song (weren’t the Byrds supposed to do “Eve of Destruction”?), while the Byrds had one before that with “Draft Mourning.”

    Admittedly, the Byrds’ songs that resonate in that regard were written by Seeger or Dylan. Each, along with C,S&N, wrote songs of protest one could say against prejudice & rigid establishment. I guess I’m just not hearing as much of it today overall with the assembled & stylized bands. Or if so, it’s not in as unifying a way as it was back then. And, yes, commerce & advertising played a role in that by reflecting youth culture.

    Late night talk shows are host to a wider array of musical acts, yet even despite any music tv shows on Fuse, M2 or VH-1 Classic, I still find more memorable exposure in retrospect between Steve Allen & the Smothers Brothers. Even a couple of Monkees episodes featured epilogues with Jeff Buckley & Frank Zappa. As for the Love ref, I was including “Signed D.C.” which always puts me in a mood, as does the entire record, thinking of forgotten people, whether they be GIs or suicide or drug casualties. Wow, that ended on a down.

  19. s woods says:

    Yeah, I’m kind of full of it when I say protest “dominated the conversation” back then. Although I was alive through the years being discussed, my ideas about it are almost entirely second-hand (learned everything I know from John Sebastian selling Time-Life box sets on late night TV).

  20. JD Considine says:

    As others have pointed out, pop wasn’t as fragmented then as it is now. It’s easy to posit a monoculture when the primary conveyance for singles was AM radio; essentially impossible when you have to parse the oft-conflicting currents of commercial FM, MTV, satellite, internet radio, “mix tapes,” personal MP3 players, and whatever else is out there.

    Scott is wrong to imagine protest music didn’t exist except in coded singles before the ’60s. The Weavers made quite explicit protest music, and got blacklisted for their trouble. (I read recently an obit of the Kingston Trio’s Nick Reynolds where it mentioned that he and his bandmates specifically avoided political material because they didn’t want what happened to the Weavers to happen to them.) But Scott is right in noting that, in the ’60s, protest music became an accepted mode of pop expression. And has been ever since, to the extent that it’s noticed only if it violates a taboo (e.g., Body Count’s “Cop Killer,” or RATM’s flag burning).

    But the whole issue of whether there’s a “dearth” or not is silly. Numerically, I’d guess there are more protest songs recorded today than there were then — just as there are more recordings made now than then. Determining whether there’s a proportional equivalence would, however, take more data than I think any of us have, particularly given that Soundscan or similar hard statistics didn’t exist in the ’60s or ’70s.

    Then again, why should we imagine there’d be an equivalence? Is there as much to protest now as there was then? Sure, the US is in an unpopular war, but the casualty rate is lower and (more significantly) there’s no draft. Civil rights is hardly the issue now it was in the ’60s (unless you’re a right-winger trying to roll things back), and while Roe Vs. Wade is still a rallying point for the left, I must confess I can’t think of any abortion rights hits, ever. Nor does the economy strike me as being fodder for popular protest tunes. It wasn’t during the Great Depression, an era that gave us sympathy (“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) and denial (“Happy Days Are Here Again”), but precious little protest; why should it be now?

    Basically, the whole thing strikes me as apples and oranges.

  21. Chuck Eddy says:

    Pretty sure these both count as pro-choice hits:

    Tim McGraw, “Red Ragtop,” #5 country, # 40 pop, 2002
    Ben Folds Five, “Brick”, #11 AC, #6 Modern Rock, 1998

    Both got more airplay than “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols!

    Also “Cotton Eye Joe” by Rednex (#25 in 1994 in the US, but #1 across most of Europe, previously done by many square-dance combos) is said to concern an abortionist (which I never would have guessed by listening to it), and seems nostalgic for him.

  22. Chuck Eddy says:

    >Nor does the economy strike me as being fodder for popular protest tunes<

    Seems to me that Mellencamp and Springsteen (and undoubtedly other people I’m not thinking of right now, some of them country singers I suspect) had a few in the wake of the early ’80s recession. (Early rap guys too, maybe — Run DMC did a “Hard Times’ song, etc.) Not sure why that couldn’t happen again. (Also, on the comps of ’20s and ’30s country and blues songs I’ve been listening to in recent weeks, *lots* of the songs would count as protest, seems to me. Not sure how many of those would’ve been “hits” back then, though.)

  23. JD Considine says:

    >Both got more airplay than “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols!

    Well, given the prominent use of “fuck” in “Bodies,” that doesn’t come as a surprise. But I’d totally forgotten about “Brick.”

    But while I’ll grant you that songs such as “Hard Times” and Springsteen’s “The River” pr Chuck Brown’s “We Need Some Money” are clearly recession-inspired, I’m not sure they count as protest songs. I mean, it’s not like anyone is actually in favor of economic downturns, so of course songs addressing a recession would come out against it. A real protest song, by contrast, would attack the capitalists responsible, or the inequity of the system, or something specific and pointed like that. I don’t hear anything on that level in the songs you mention.

  24. Chuck Eddy says:

    I dunno…

    Come back home to the refinery
    Hiring man said son if it was up to me
    Went down to see my v.a. man
    He said son, dont you understand

    Comes pretty close, I’d say.

    Not to mention

    The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loans
    Couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the Farmers Bank foreclosed
    Called my old friend Schepman up to auction off the land
    He said John it’s just my job and I hope you understand
    Hey calling it your job ol’ hoss sure don’t make it right
    But if you want me to I’ll say a prayer for your soul tonight
    And grandma’s on the front porch swing with a Bible in her hand
    Sometimes I hear her singing “Take me to the Promised Land”
    When you take away a man’s dignity he can’t work his fields and cows

    And maybe

    Bill collectors they ring my phone
    And scare my wife when Im not home
    Got a bum education, double-digit inflation
    Cant take the train to the job, theres a strike
    At the station

    For starters. (I doubt those are the best examples, either.)

  25. JD Considine says:

    Sorry Chuck. Maybe I’m just dense, but I don’t see how “I can’t get work” or “I lost the farm” amounts to “let’s overturn the capitalist system” or even “no more tax breaks for the rich.” Those are laments, not protest songs.

    Compare those to this from Woody Guthrie:

    I’m a-going down this old dusty road
    I’m a-going down this old dusty road
    O Lord God
    And I ain’t gonna be treated this way

    I’m a-going where the dust storms never blow
    I’m a-going where the dust storms never blow
    O Lord God
    And I ain’t gonna be treated this way

    My children need three square meals a day
    My children need three square meals a day
    O Lord God
    And I ain’t gonna be treated this way

    I’m a-looking for a job and honest pay
    I’m a-looking for a job and honest pay
    O Lord God
    And I ain’t gonna be treated this way

    or this:

    You oil field workers, come and listen to me
    I’m goin’ to tell you a story about old John D.
    That company union made a fool out of me.
    That company union don’t charge no dues
    It leaves you a-singing them Rockefeller blues.
    That company union made a fool out of me.

  26. Chuck Eddy says:

    Blaming the banks and education system and big industry and goverment (which all three of the songs I quoted explicitly do) is hardly just “I can’t get work.” Guess it depends on how limited you require your definition of “protest” to be. But if only “overturning the capitalist system” counts (which nobody on this thread had suggested until now), then almost NO rock or pop hits qualify — and that includes late ’60s and early ’70s ones.

    Anyway, here’s some early ’80s Marxism for you, regardless (take this, Gang of Four):

    Nine to five, yeah
    They got you where they want you
    There’s a better life
    And you think about it, don’t you?
    It’s a rich man’s game
    No matter what they call it
    And you spend your life
    Puttin’ money in his wallet

  27. A.C. Rhodes says:

    A related point to this subject is listener action & response; art imitating life or vice-versa. A more broad historical perspective brings further scope to this discussion. One might say instances of quiet protest can be found with someone like Hank Williams or Johnny Cash who addressed the alienated, infirmed or forgotten, and as said before, The Kingston Trio, didn’t completely avoid the subject with their recording of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Who knows how this may have influenced listeners who allowed themselves time to reflect?

    Perhaps because people aren’t united by a charismatic president as they were in the depression and WWII, an admittedly different time with a pre-sexual revolution population, there is the indifference seen today. And the subsequent ‘me’ decades, held over from the late ’70s only take this further. True, there is no draft, which no doubt is part of it, but despite any lower casualty rate, the subject is still relevant and far from silly.

    Despite all of the modes of communication & travel, people remain disconnected and insular as shown by public attention to ‘reality’ TV & nighttime game shows and self-absorbed as indifference to the underclass & returning veterans shows. And in the real world, with an apathetic public & administration that has and still could install a neocon ‘activist’ supreme court judge, issues like reproductive rights are always short of a sure thing. The fact that harassment has arisen so much that there are now restrictions and doctors have given up practice is further proof, even if some aren’t interested to notice.

    As for numbers, one could argue the point of overrepresentation. Since there was a draft, more years of war and outright prejudice, a smaller number of releases in rock’s younger years could be made up for by airplay combined with live and televised appearances aside from print media exposure. But this needn’t be such a quantitative based argument as our conversational purposes that include facts on hand and reader/writer recollections can be equally fruitful for discussion. Which would lead us to note that, given the reader & writer response, it’s far from just apples & oranges.

  28. I’ll be the one to say it: postmodernism leads to apathy. See: Hipster, 2000s.

    But probably the more important factor in political sloth is economic stability. Expect that to change soon.

  29. JD Considine says:

    Well, Chuck, I guess we’ll just agree to disagree. One thing that seems crucial to me in a protest song is a call to action, even if that action is just resistance. But it’s not like the protest song is a well defined form, like a sonata or a fugue.

  30. Chuck Eddy says:

    Somewhat off topic, admittedly — I would actually totally agree with JD that this one doesn’t count as a protest song per se’ — I just wanted to add that I noticed this morning that Kurtis Blow also included a “Hard Times” song on his mid-recession (1980) debut album (first rap album on a major label, I believe,) In fact, Run DMC seem to have swiped some of its words — -“hard times, coming, to your town” — for *their* song of the same name, a couple years later. Interesting. (Subject for future research: How much of real early rap music was explicitly *about* the recession?) (For what it’s worth, Kurtis also covers BTO’s “Taking Care of Business” on the album — a song about, among other things, being self-employed and working overtime!)

  31. Moe Shinola says:

    Here’s the link to a page with almost 3,000 protest songs. I was even on there for a while.

  32. That “on vacation with McCain” story really makes it for me. Just wish I could find some further verification of it online.

    Memo to Mr. Eddy: What’d you think of the new Donna Summer?

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