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Music Blog

Where have all the protest pop songs gone?

by Jesse Fruhwirth
- Posted // 2011-03-16 -

This week's John Rasmuson column dwells in baby-boomer nostalgia of popular protest music of a generation past. Which got me thinking: amidst war without end and the disappearing middle class, why aren't more contemporary pop musicians helping the people protest?

See updates below.

I've actually thought about that a lot in this past decade, especially since the start of the so-called Global War on Terror--which would be more appropriately named "The Blank Check to Invade and Kill Whoever The President Wants War--Without End." But I digress.

There are a few examples of overtly political pop songs of the last decade, but none of them occurred to me quickly enough for today's Staff Box column (wherein I listed Phil Ochs' classic "I Ain't Marching Anymore" as my favorite protest song). With a day to think about it, Eminem's "Mosh" and--though you have to know the context to catch the political subtext--the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice" come to mind (see below for videos of both). But it's hard to imagine either of those getting a crowd of people to sing together the way Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" or Peter, Paul and Mary's "If I Had a Hammer" can. Peaceful Uprising, a group of young activists popping up with guitars in hand at many of Utah's recently-frequent protest rallies have been performing those older songs with huge crowds singing along (see the bottom for a huge crowd boogeying to "This Little Light of Mine" written in 1920!), but nothing in Peace Up's song repertoire seems to come from the last two decades.

Think of the Viet Nam era and how the American music charts were dominated by political music and produced by some of the industry's biggest stars. What happened? I've got a lot of thoughts on that--ranging from corporate control of media to "draft in Viet Nam" vs. "no draft in GWOT"--but no solid conclusions.

I'd be interested to hear what you think happened to political pop music or hear your suggestions of contemporary political pop songs that I just missed. I know that a lot of small-time singer songwriters are doing political music--I'd like to hear about them also--but it's still curious to me that the heavy hitters in the industry have mostly ignored anything political.

Related: Rasmuson's column that got me thinking about this


Update: I got a lot of suggestions on my Facebook page. I'm adding "Hero of War" by Rise Against on the suggestion from Gregory Lucero from the Revolution Student Union from Utah Valley University. It's not exactly a protest rally cry, but it's got a very moving video (see the fourth down) and a big crowd could sing a long to it. Hypocritically, I rejected other songs for not "charting" (even though "Hero of War" didn't chart) because I'm trying to imagine a massive crowd of strangers actually already knowing the song or, at least, being able to learn the song or the chorus on the spot well enough to sing along. By that standard, I think "Hero of War" qualifies.

Update 2: I'm breaking my own rules regarding "pop" to include Dead Prez's "Propoganda" on the suggestion of Deb Henry. It's just too awesome. I can't imagine a rally scrum singing this song, but Dead Prez will be at Urban Lounge in Salt Lake City April 27 (I'll see you there), so I'll include it. Hey! My blog, my rules. William Carlson also suggested "Minority" by Green Day and though it's not smash-you-over-the-head political, it's very singable and the video looks like a Gay Pride Parade.

Update 3: After getting feedback from readers, I've refined my thesis and I feel pretty comfortable with it: there may not be a single song from the last 20 years that A, was "popular" or had widespread exposure; B, can be easily learned and sung by a huge crowd; and C, is overtly political. Perhaps some of the best of those that come close are on here, but send me more suggestions if you have them.

Update 4: More input from friends made me feel like an idiot for forgetting: Rage Against the Machine's "Killing In the Name Of" is the best fist-pumping, get-ya'-going screed against white supremacy ever. Check out these rally-ready dudes jamming the song.

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REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // March 23,2011 at 10:18

Add to the list....

John LeGEND & The Roots; Black Eyed Peas 'Where Is The Love'

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // March 22,2011 at 15:18

I won't slam you for that opinion. I think you're on to something. Maybe the better question is Why did pop music lend itself to protest during the 60s-70s more so than at other times (maybe at ALL other times?). My original question sorta presupposes that pop protest music is normal and expected--perhaps you are right that it is anything but.

 

REPLY TO THIS COMMENT
Posted // March 22,2011 at 11:30

I'm sorry. I realize I'm gonna be slammed for saying this; but looking toward pop music for real protest songs would be like looking toward tMrs. Veronica's Special Ed class to explain String Theory.

Even the pop songs that "seem" like protest songs are so vague and overly manufactured, they become nothing more than filler to add to one's iPod.

You want real protest songs? You're gonna have to look somewhere other than pop music.