I started off this post from a single thought which was quickly proven wrong, “Why aren’t protest songs as good as they used to be?”. Almost immediately after looking into this idea I was pushed to reconsider how I approach modern music almost entirely. During this process I got to correct my assumptions and learned to appreciate music in a whole new way.
Now, while I was wrong about my initial thought I still don’t think the premise I started investigating with is wrong: artists are more individualistic today than they were 50 years ago. As a group, their experience and expression is considerably more self-centered.
We are what we are
Now wait, don’t freak out. There is nothing inherent about the human beings who are musical artists now compared to those in the past that makes them more self-centered. It’s a human condition. We’ve all been conditioned to be more self centered. The focus on the individual is pervasive in society to the point where even the most selfless of us are still hyper individualistic compared to the past. This is not an inherently a good or bad thing, it just is what it is. And it’s not a generational thing. This isn’t a rant about “kids these days”, but about “all of us these days”. We’ve all been moved on the scale towards a more individual outlook, where we care less about our community and more about ourselves and our families. I’d even argue that those who grew up in a more “collective” time have moved along the spectrum to being more individualized, even if it isn’t as discernible as it would be in a younger person.
Left- Century of the Self dives into the creation of fierce individualism through the 20th century. (BBC) Right- Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is often cited as one of the most important non-fiction works of the 21st century (Simon & Schuster).
All of us are more self centered/concerned than we were 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) makes a compelling case for this as statistics show, among other things, we’re less involved in a feeling of community and in various organizations than generations before us. Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self (2002) makes a case which goes beyond compelling and into unsettling, discussing the role of advertising and its embrace and creation of the fiercely individual spirit that came to define Americans. Again, this is all of us, not just one generation. And our fierce individualism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just is. Some people help others because it makes them feel good- that’s self centeredness with a good outcome. And artistic focus in on the self can produce a deep, beautiful understanding of our own lives as listeners- a selfish expression that produces a good outcome.
And this individualistic expression is something that the greats don’t do as well or as honestly. Bob Dylan was able to speak to the masses, but Amanda Palmer knows herself and connects with people on a deeper level more than my main man Bobby D ever has. Whether it’s country, rock, indie or hip hop artists from the last 20 years putting out hits focused on their own past, exploits, struggles, dreams and desires, a new type of message is able to connect with other people on a completely different level. Many people are motivated by these self-centered anthems because they consider their own struggle*, their own path to where they are and where they’re going, even if their struggle pales in comparison to their favorite artist. If someone is willing to truly listen to the music of today and believe what the artist is saying, they can learn a lot about themselves. But that’s just not what we’re used to in a protest song.
*This was the entire drive behind Emo music, the genre we all pretend didn’t happen
Protest in the old country
Woody Guthrie basically birthed the modern protest song. He wasn’t the first but he’s probably as far back in time as you can go in American protest music and be both important and relatively well known. His most lasting song, This Land is Your Land was written on the back end of the depression, Guthrie apparently wrote this as what is essentially a massive eye roll to the popular “God Bless America” that was getting a lot of radio time.*
*I imagine Woody Guthrie doing this in his grave every time God Bless America is sung at a baseball game
The familiar first two verses:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the New York island
From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
And saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me
Simple, beautiful and rightfully well known. I never would have guessed that talking about the country in terms of the land, then hitting the places we’ve named followed by mentioning the nature that defines them would give one such clear, vivid imagery in three lines of what feels like the entire continent. The rhyming, words and familiar melody (which was taken from a popular country song) lull the listener into a nostalgic, wonderful feeling about the country. You’re proud of the natural beauty that we’re surrounded by, and it almost makes you feel like the USA can take credit for what nature did millennia before its existence. But that’s not the point of Guthrie’s song. Guthrie sets the beauty and plenty of our natural resource as the backdrop to what humans have done to each other in the class struggle. Socialist and Communistic movements were big in the US at the beginning of the 20th century, died off a little bit during the 20’s as the US economy boomed and the new Soviet state was in its bloody beginning, but came back with a vengeance during the great depression and really didn’t die away until Stalin’s postwar USSR scared the hell out of everyone. Guthrie was either a communist or communist-curious, and spoke often of the working people and the evils visited upon them as a result of a system he believed to be flawed. The song (in some versions) continues:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
So after bringing us in with childlike awe through simple imagery, Guthrie hits you with just a little bit of truth. It’s not particularly gruesome, but it is striking by contrast to the rest of the song. You remember it, it changes the meaning of the song*. Imagine you got up one morning to go for a jog and everything was just perfect. The air was crisp, you felt strong and alert, you made good pace. Hell, you’re running so well that you turn off the music in your headphones and just lose yourself in the rhythm of the best runs you’ve gone on in years. But along the way in your morning jog, you pass an abandoned car on fire. If someone asked you about your run later that day, it’d be hard to get the image of that car on fire out of your head. You were out there alone an a beautiful morning, feeling good inside and out, then you came across this surreal scene of a car on fire. The backdrop of the quaint perfection made the fire more striking. That’s what Guthrie does with this song, it’s a fairly simple device using stark contrast to drive home a point. He brings you in with what is basically a folk version of “God Bless America” and then jabs you in the ribs on your way out. “Is this land made for you and me?”
*That is, if you hear the full version. Shortened versions often cut out these verses, turning it into basically a patriotic ballad, the exact opposite of Guthrie’s intention
Made up rules for traditional Protest Songs
Protest songs before the 1980s seem to follow some rules that I made up for the sake of this post:
- If you’re protesting a specific event, be extremely specific
- This is best exemplified in songs like Bob Dylan’s the Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol*, or Which Side are you On, popularized by Pete Seeger and written by Florence Reece, the wife of a Union activist in Kentucky coal country. Dylan tells a specific story about a story of injustice regarding the death of a woman and the abhorrently weak conviction of her murderer. He tells the story with an arc that wrenches your gut throughout the song and swells to a climax in the end, when a random act of racist murder is met with a 6 months where the judges “deferred the start of the jail sentence until September 15, to give Zantzinger time to harvest his tobacco crop.” Because you wouldn’t want jail time to be inconvenient. Which Side are You On also makes specific calls to the Coal Wars in Harlan County, KY in the 1930’s. There’s no ambiguity here, you know exactly what is being discussed, and that amplifies the power of the message.
- If you’re protesting the general condition, be ambiguous
- Think Buffalo Springfield’s For What it’s Worth or Gil Scott Heron’s The Revolution Will not be Televised. Both of these aren’t calling to mind a specific incident, but a general feeling. The audience might connect this general feeling with imagery they’ve seen on the news or something they’ve witnessed firsthand or heard a story of from a friend. For What it’s Worth doesn’t call out a specific protest, but considers the reality and its effect on the young protesters deeply. The Revolution Will Not be Televised is almost a call to action, or a condemnation of inaction. He calls out specific things on television, but only hints at the general condition that the revolution should be against. The collective of each line pulls together a general feeling. That general feeling is meant to reach hopeful revolutionaries in the grips of the bystander effect, hoping dearly that the revolution to change their lives happens and they can get their cathartic fix by watching the events unfold from the comfort of their home. But “You will not be able to stay home, brother / You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out / You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip / Skip out for beer during commercials / Because the revolution will not be televised”.
The traditional formula is easy. Use simple language like Guthrie and use simple concepts to address either a specific event or general feeling. But there’s one more element we need to discuss for traditional protest songs. The above examples are all either about or specifically addressed to groups. The country, ignorant of the events of Hattie Carrol’s injustice, or the community coming to unionize and stand strong for Harlan County’s workers against management are calls for groups to take action, or at the very least take notice. It’s a man telling a story and a woman pleading for help after she and her children were terrorized by hired thugs in her own home. Protesting and revolutions require large groups of people. These songs are from a collective time. They likely wouldn’t fare as well if released in 2019, or maybe it’s just not likely that they would even be made at this time, in the age of the individual.
So in conclusion, old protest songs:
- Use simple language
- Use simple concepts/literary devices
- Are specific about specific issues, or ambiguous about societal issues
- Talk about or to groups
The New Protest
Kendrick Lamar is praised as the next king of hip hop and there’s little to argue about that claim. He’s dynamic, inventive, hard hitting and an absolute master of his craft. He’s pushing limits and doing it extremely well. But he is human just like the rest of us, and as a result of the times we are all in he is much more individualistic than artists before him. Again, I can’t stress enough how this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Lamar is a political rapper, he takes topics head on and addresses them through the lens of his own experience. And while that’s able to be political, it’s difficult to understand it as a protest song as we’re used to it. Lamar even said, in talking about his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly:
“It’s not me pointing at my community; it’s me pointing at myself,” Lamar says. “I don’t talk about these things if I haven’t lived them, and I’ve hurt people in my life. It’s something I still have to think about when I sleep at night.Kendrick Lamar. NPR Interview, 2015.
His songs are about him. They’re about his experience. And there is no problem with that! It’s an individualistic take on the protest genre, not a collective approach, which is what throws us off. A song about political issues directly discussing their relationship to oneself is difficult to make the turn to an older generations understanding of a traditional protest song.
Something else that confuses traditional audiences is that Lamar does it with so many layers, it’s hard to grasp at first. A protest song has to speak to the collective experience of a group and Lamar’s song is absolutely successful in doing that, but he accomplishes it indirectly. For generations growing up in the more “collective” times watching the transition into individualistic society is very hard to grasp. Lamar’s popularity and the way that all of us individualistically digest these songs allow us to internalize our feelings and out from that we develop songs into a sort of soundtrack to a movement.
Layers, Complexity and Video
A quick internet search of the best new protest songs will consistently have Alright by Lamar near the top of their lists. It was a song that was attached to the height of the Black Lives Matter Movement and is moving for a lot of people. But if all you do is listen to the song, or read the lyrics, it’s hard for a fan of traditional protest songs to understand why.
Uh, and when I wake up
I recognize you’re lookin’ at me for the pay cut
Behind my side we lookin’ at you from the face down
What MAC-11 even boom with the bass down
Schemin’! And let me tell you bout my life
Painkillers only put me in the twilight
What pretty pussy and Benjamin is the highlight
Now tell my mama I love her but this what I like
Lord knows, 20 of ’em in my Chevy
Tell ’em all to come and get me, reapin’ everything I sow
So my karma come and Heaven no preliminary hearing
So my record and my motherfucking gang can stand in silence for the record
Tell the world I know it’s too late
The hoes, the girls think I gone crazy
Try and fight my vices all day
Won’t you please believe when I say
Where is the protest? It’s hard to see if you look at this like a traditional protest song. It’s not until the bridge where police are even mentioned. Alright is a plea, a confession, an honest view of Lamar’s outer and inner struggle. Through that confession, the kinship that people feel from having someone unload such an honest interpretation of their feelings, people take on the song as their own. The indirect struggle displayed in most of this song of course speaks to the institutional issues that continued civil rights struggles Only one line in the song directly evokes the BLM movement.
There are also many layers to this song that aren’t as easy to interpret as a Woody Guthrie or early Dylan song. The struggle that black Americans face in terms of police brutality is just ONE of the struggles they face. Day in and day out there are stressors put on poor, minority communities that build up like steam in turn of the century factory whistle, just waiting for an interaction with combative police to pull the chain and let out a wailing whistle. The verse above isn’t merely a bunch of disconnected references, they’re the struggles of the everyday- layoffs, opioids, a feeling of disrespect, pervasive gun culture all get mentioned with the nonchalance of throwing out junk mail. Then this leaves a pressure to chase material for happiness because the luxury of slowing down and living a white-picket fence* like lifestyle isn’t available to a lot of people who are from these communities.
*Where you can spend time “finding yourself” or experimenting with different diets to normalize your gut bacteria or pick up meditating, yoga, rock climbing or whatever distraction you choose
Alright’s purpose was also solidified by the music video that accompanied it . The visuals of this video aren’t ambiguous at all. This song is about police brutality- it ends with Lamar being shot down from atop a streetlight by a police officer.
Let’s look at another popular protest song from the past few years, Childish Gambino’s This is America. This showcases less the individualism of modern music, but goes into the complexity of the message. This is a complex song on a base level as well- there are tempo, key, genre and tonal changes throughout. The verses seem to be talking about one thing and then it gets cut off with a level of intensity that seems to come out of nowhere. If this song is only heard though, it is again hard to capture the true meaning. But this video was released as a music video after a SNL performance. The music was meant to be digested with the video- that’s where the full message is. Again, the layers being produced here are more complex than a Woody Guthrie song. The expectations and distractions of life for black Americans are in the foreground with the struggles happening in the background- until they’re interrupted by absolute carnage.
Childish Gambino is dressed and dances like a minstrel character. He’s lampooning the soft racism of some people’s expectations of black Americans in the foreground, while the systematic problems play out, out of focus, behind his “show”. Lines like “we just want to party” and “get your money black man” pop out before the tonal change with “this is America, don’t catch you slipping’”. And he absolutely catches you the first time you listen, and the tonal change hits you like a ton of bricks. With the visuals, it’s like a mountain being dropped on you. References to executions, massacres and riots all behind a caricatured minstrel dancer and school children dancing to a fun beat.
The visuals in Alright and This is America help drive the feeling behind the music. Just like the rhythmic theme of Jaws would mean nothing to us on its own, when it is paired with the visuals and emotions of watching the movie it becomes effective. After seeing the movie, even hearing the song on its own we all get a bit of anxiety when hearing those two bass notes- duuuh-dum. Just like those two notes, hearing someone say “We gon’ be alright” and “This is America” is a call, not only to the song, but the video as well.
Protest & the Test of Time
Are there rules to new protest music? It seems there aren’t to me. There are a few rules for listeners, though. Believe the artist, pay attention to the layers and probably watch the music video. This is a new generation of artists, and they connect to individuals through their own individualism. They bare their souls and permit their audience to take the songs and feelings as their own. A collectivist speaking to an individualist would be like yelling at a wall, and the opposite is also true. In some ways, traditional protest songs survive in relevance today because they’ve been codified in the lexicon over time, being referenced with as much frequency as biblical stories or Greek myths.
Art is judged many times over. Something that seems relevant in its own day might not stand the test of time. It will be forgotten, and sound out of place or just be revealed as not very good. There are some other traditional protest songs that are classics beyond those discussed above- Masters of War* by Bob Dylan, Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, Fuck tha Police by NWA, Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine and dozens of others.
But one traditional protest song sticks out more than any other to me. And to be fair, it’s not just me, this song is atop many lists of the greatest and most powerful protest songs of all time. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, first recorded in 1939, brings attention to the lynching of black people to the crooning. A poem written two years before by Abel Meeropol, Holiday’s rendition uses a version of the same contrast device as Guthrie in This Land is Your Land, but in a different way. The beautiful, smooth crooning voice of Holiday puts you at peace. But the lyrics take you right out of that peace after the first line of the song has passed. Here’s the song, below is the image that inspired Meeropol’s poem and the full text. Some say that Holiday’s version of this song started the Civil Rights Movement. Even if that’s an exaggeration, I still think this is the most powerful use of protest in American popular music.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop