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Scarlett Nation » Music, Protest » Where are all the protest songs?

Where are all the protest songs?

guest post: Simon Alvey

One of the most startling things about the febrile political culture in which we live has been its lack of impact on popular culture. I don’t claim that this is an original idea both John Harris and Laurie Penny have written bemoaning this subject in the last couple of years, but I think I have an answer.1 2

If one was to pay attention to the musical culture of the UK since the crash of 2007/8, there would be no hint that we had been cursed to live in interesting times. The songs the topped the chart of 2010 are all concerned with the intensely personal, the zenith of this being Owl City’s Fireflies which was the fifth best-selling single in the UK in 2010 and took place entirely inside the songwriter’s mind. Now there is an important caveat here, the best-selling album of the 1960s – on both sides of the Atlantic – was the soundtrack to the Sound of Music – that is to say that the broadest extent of popular culture often fails to reflect social changes. However if one is to look at the logical location for this melding of music and politics, Glastonbury’s Leftfield, we see that the artists that headlined it were Billy Bragg and Bellowhead – both really throwbacks to an older generation. There are new faces in protest music, such as another Leftfield performer Grace Petrie, but the leading lights appear to almost be playing out a pastiche of a previous era.

On the face of it it seems deeply strange that at a time when we are seeing deep cuts to our public services, when we have seen some of the most dramatic protests of my lifetime, and every day comes yet another issue to annoy those of us who would describe ourselves as broadly on the left of British politics, that the popular cultural reaction thus far appears to have been silence. However the sheer diversity of causes that are protested about are indicative of the problem.

The protest song is an attempt to present an idea in a brief window, they are not able to set out an entire manifesto in less than five minutes – furthermore I have never read a political manifesto that rhymes. This requires a discovery of something that can be opposed. This was possible in the 1980s where fights such as the Miners’ Strike almost required people to pick sides. Although this opposition can be represented by a much broader set of social concerns – as was shown by Bob Dylan’s The Times They are a Changin’ which took as it opposition the entire culture of 1950s America.

However this is not occurring in the Britain of 2011 because the issues are too diverse for a single resonant concern to have locked into the popular consciousness. Although the 1980s had many facets to its protesting and those who took part in one, as now, often took part in many. There was at its heart the totemic figure of Mrs Thatcher who formed a central point in the Zeitgeist that was understood by the wider public and it was therefore easy to produce anthems that could be widely understood. By contrast there seems to be a profound confusion in popular culture as to who the enemy is. Should it be the Conservatives with their plans to cut public services, the perceived duplicity of Nick Clegg, or the avaricious failure of those in the financial services industry. This leads to rather a scatter-gun approach – either that you songs focusing on a single element, such as Show of Hands’s ‘Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed’ targeting the financial sector or, as in Grace Petrie’s ‘Maggie Thatcher’s Dream’, there is an attempt to knit all of these things together with references to “when greed and ambition went and formed a coalition” and having “the city boy’s bonuses to thank”. These two approaches have both failed to find the link between the protest culture and popular consciousness, this leaves them both talking to a small audience that understand the reference points.

In addition to variety of causes there is the very way that much political dialogue is written, in a world of personal blogs much of the discussion of subjects comes from extrapolation of personal experiences to a broader truth. A classic example of this is Laurie Penny’s discussion of housing issues coming from her own personal experiences.3 This produces a genuinely exciting form of political writing, although one that can give you a false impression of knowing the author, that is far more exiting than the old man of the hills act that can be produced by journalists such as Michael White. However with much political analysis, particularly from the radical left, coming from a worm’s eye view of the issues this makes it harder to produce the broad sweeps that is necessary for broadly successful protest music.

The protest song also comes from a deeper folk tradition, which like many radical traditions is being packaged in such a way that it is exceptionally marketable. This is true of the 1960s, where all of the images and ideas are now pastiche commodities of themselves. However it now also appears to have spread to the medium of folk music, which has been the link to the historical voices of dissent and if it is being introduced to a new generation of listeners through the comfortable and easy listening of Mumford and Sons or Noah and the Whale. This is selling folk music short, it is an angry and passionate form where protest music has found its roots, this is why you find Bragg singing the Diggers’ Anthem and Dylan was influenced by British and Irish folk musicians.

The curious lack of engagement in our political culture by our popular culture is indicative of broader issues within the modern music industry as well as the fragmentation of causes caused by the complexity of our political system. So is there a solution? Possibly not but I suppose if this article is anything it is a call, go and find those who are producing the genuine article of modern protest music.4 Also for those who are interested in finding folk music that rather better reflects the anger that has always been at its core may I recommend the exceptionally talented Karine Polwart or the Irish musician Damien Dempsey.

1 John Harris, Someone out there, please pick up a guitar and howl,

3 Laurie Penny, Back Hone and Unimpressed,


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