Late last week, while on a business trip, I was engaged in a lively discussion with several colleagues about music. At one point someone at the table declared, or may have been paraphrasing a famous quote, “All great music is at its core protest music.”
At first blush you want to call B.S. on that, but then you start to think about jazz and rock and hip hop and you start to think, “that’s actually not a bad theory.” Now start thinking about music in the last 25+ years or so. With the exception of early Grunge and maybe some Radiohead, you really haven’t seen much in the way of protest music breaking into the mainstream have you? And if you are 35+ years old you probably start connecting the dots: ‘Music in the last 25 years is pretty much crap; and protest music has disappeared at the same time.’ That initial thesis is starting to sound even better!
But why, and how, have we gotten here? What are the forces at work? It’s certainly not a shortage of things to protest against, and it’s not like new music isn’t being produced. So, what gives? Why do we have plenty of Britney Spears knock-offs, but no Joan Baez’s? Where are today’s Bob Dylans and Chuck Ds?
Like most things, it’s impossible to pinpoint one factor, rather it’s an accumulation of things. You probably can identify several milestones however:
The 1980s Music Marketing Machine
The 60s and 70s were the Golden Age of protest/rebel music. From folk to punk, young people used music as the voice of their generation. Now, that’s not to say there wasn’t commercially popular music being made. Disco, Debbie Boone and plenty of other easily consumable (and marketable) music was being produced. Early rap music was born in the late-70s and survived into the next decade, but for the most part the 80s is when the marketing machine really got cranked up. Hair bands, teen bands, Madonna, MTV, Michael Jackson becoming ‘The Voice of a New Generation’ for Pepsi. Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five gave way to MC Hammer and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. The cry of sell-out started to fall on deaf ears. In fact Hip Hop subverted the whole notion, co-opting the idea of conspicuous consumption. Protest music is hard work, it’s a lot easier to just cash in. The apotheosis of this notion manifested itself in 1999, when electronic music wizard Moby released Play, the first album ever to have all of its tracks licensed for use in films, television shows, or commercials. Ironically, Play is famous for sampling Gospel, Blues and Folk music field recordings.
Telecommunications Act of 1996
The early 90s may have been the last gasp of protest music. Public Enemy released Fear of a Black Planet in 1990. Nirvana released Nevermind in 1991. Rage Against the Machine‘s self-titled debut album came out in 1992, and the politically aware Radiohead put out their first mainstream album, Pablo Honey, in 1993. In 1994 Nirvana’s lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide, taking rebel music with him. Two years later the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed companies like Clear Channel Communications to gobble up radio stations (and other media outlets), which led to a homogenization of radio as a distribution channel. This changed what got played and as a result, what type of music got made.
Is the new sound of protest for African-Americans, “Tweet”?
So, clearly, as a white guy who’s led a pretty privileged life I’m treading on turf that’s out of my jurisdiction, but I’ve read some things recently that I think are culturally intriguing.
Now, I don’t necessarily agree that great music is by definition protest music. Vampire Weekend, Daft Punk, Adele and others have made great albums over the last dozen years. But music that has a political message and acts as a catalyst seems to be missing. What’s the sound of Occupy Wall Street? Are we still relying on Sting (age 61) to save the Rain Forest? The most political musical effort I can recall from the last several years? Will.i.am’s song in support of Barack Obama, Yes We Can. Not sure if we can count a massively commercially successful artist putting together a campaign song for the winning candidate as a politically charged protest song though.
Harmony Holiday, writing for Bold As Love magazine writes in her piece Post-Verdict: The Acoustics Of A Coup: “I think now is a great time to think about sound, poetry, music, and listening as modes of resistance in a very literal sense, since our clearest plaintiff cries are construed as wolf cries; while our tone poems and songs dominate the airwaves.”
But is it too late for this? Has the Cultural Singularity removed the option of another NWA, or is the sound of African-American protest something different? In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict the media have “discovered” Black Twitter. Here, BuzzFeed contributor Shani O. Hilton breaks down the Secret Power of Black Twitter. Whether it’s Trayvon Martin or Paula Deen, Twitter has become a place for the African-American community to talk, discuss, vent and direct their emotions. CNN recently ran a piece that features Hilton and discusses the emergence of Black Twitter.
I think you can make an argument for Twitter being the voice of protest for a new generation (see Arab, Spring). The problem is, it rests on someone else’s platform, and one that is increasingly transforming into a platform for making money. Will marketers want to be on Twitter if they are always living in fear of massive protest? Protest needs to live in the dark places, the edges, at least at first. I’m not sure Twitter is that place.
Whether it’s a song or a tweet, protest – effective protest – becomes a meme. Memes aren’t necessarily tied to a specific platform or format. Perhaps the protest meme of the future will be some hybrid of GIF, song, tweet and computer virus that unites people, black and white.