Aren’t some of the most common criticisms in modern pop music that ‘they have no purpose’, ‘all they do is idolise a lifestyle that doesn’t exist’ or ‘it is just a genre of sell outs’? As much as we all shamelessly love a bit of Mr Worldwide (Pitbull), sometimes we want something a little deeper than ‘Hotel Room Service’.
Ranging from the anti-war protests of Billy Bragg to the anti-establishment lyrical tirades of Rage Against the Machine’s Zak de la Rocha, there is a long history of the music industry playing a key part in a range of political movements.
The question is: has the online age, when all one has to do to protest is click a button online and not gather at a rally and listen to Bob Dylans ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, killed the true protest song?
Looking at the classical era of war protest songs, surely their jobs were completed with the end of each war they fought against. Surely the nature of each protest song depends on the nature of the conflict.
Maybe this makes the true protest song just ‘a means to an end’. But what if the ‘war’ does not have an end? Take Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’; an album continuing the struggle for Black equality in a long chain of artists featuring Sam Cooke and the NWA, showing there is hope for the protest song yet.
Generally speaking, in a generation separated from their leaders more than ever, the protest song has had to develop into something much more general; anthems of the despondent and the disenfranchised. Take the work of groups like The Streets or Sleaford Mods which ask the question: ‘why protest just one event?’ when, as Run the Jewels so aptly put it, “the man behind the man behind the man behind the throne”, does not represent the music listening generation’s interests.