Protest Songs in Popular Culture: From Preaching to the Choir to Making a Real Impact

Billboard

On his 1989 Spike LP, Elvis Costello released arguably the most lyrically beautiful and savage pop song about a politician. Describing Margaret Thatcher on the campaign trail, he concludes his chorus with the wish, "There's one thing I know I'd like to live long enough to savor / That's when they finally put you in the ground / I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down."

At this point, Thatcher and her party had already won three general elections and enjoyed control of English politics for 10 years. They would not relinquish it for another eight.

As the U.S. endures the last spasms of the ugliest election in modern history, it's natural to want to turn to the anger and heartache of protest music for some kind of succor. We want music to pour oil on the troubled waters to calm them or to light them ablaze. We hope that what makes it memorable and moving can prove galvanic for the public in the way our individual cries or votes cannot. But popular music, as insightful and evocative as it can be, usually provides little relief beyond the psychologically compensatory.


What we want and what we get are two different things. Protest music makes producers and marketers nervous; any song that has the potential to alienate half the electorate is less apt to rocket to No. 1. There is a reason why Katy Perry is campaigning against Donald Trump but not releasing singles about him. Her campaign-stop appearances show up on CNN; what comes out on the radio is something else.

When we do get political tracks from mainstream artists, they frequently take aim at the general. If you had to pick a founding holy quaternity of protest songs in the popular consciousness, you could go back to Pete Seeger's "We Shall Overcome," Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'" and "Masters of War."

Seeger's song became a civil rights anthem, speaking of social unity, while Cooke's song offered a more focused lament about Jim Crow in the United States. Dylan's "Masters of War," for all the vicious justice of "and I hope that you die / and your death will come soon" offered a general critique of the military-industrial complex. "The Times They Are a-Changin'" is vaguer still, serving as an anthem for the growing 1960s protest movement. Change or some sort is coming; it's time to join in or get out of the way.


When most of what we consider classic popular protest music gets more specific, it rarely singles out individuals (and even then often focuses on the victims instead, like Rubin Carter in Dylan's "The Hurricane"). Country Joe and the Fish's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" is about the Vietnam War's victims and its many architects, while Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" deals more specifically with the privilege baked into the local draft board system that sent the poor and non-white off to war while glad-handing Chamber of Commerce types kept their friends' boys at home.

Even songs that single out a political figure are often reactive rather than driving a debate. Morrissey's "Margaret on the Guillotine" finds itself in the same company as Costello's "Tramp the Dirt Down." Released in 1988, it appeared roughly nine years after Thatcher's first general election victory and found probably its greatest use in being posted endlessly to Twitter and Facebook on the day of her death.

In the United States, probably the most successful overtly political hit song of this century is Green Day's "Holiday" from American Idiot, with its "sieg heil to the president gasman" breakdown. It was released a year after the last campaign George W. Bush would ever run. Lil Wayne's heartbreakingly acidic response to Hurricane Katrina, "Georgia Bush," likewise appeared after Bush's 2004 reelection.


Even timeliness and a willingness to train the lyrical sights on a villain is no guarantee of effectiveness. The angry and elegiac "Ohio," from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young condemned the shooting at Kent State with the opening lines, "Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming." And while it has been absorbed into the popular consciousness as countercultural anthem, Richard Nixon went on to win the 1972 presidential election by the fourth-largest margin in U.S. history.

Then of course, there are the unforeseen pitfalls of the explicitly political song. The Dead Kennedy's 1979 single "California Über Alles" depicts a semi-comical future of Governor Jerry Brown's left-coast granola fascism, where you will "mellow out or you will pay" and "your kids will meditate in school." Fewer songs have so totally misread the changing currents of American political life. Thirty-seven years of conservative ascendancy later, Brown is again governor of California, trying to roll back the effects of the changes that were rushing past beneath songwriter Jello Biafra's sneer.

Every now and again, though, a song hits the sweet spot of mainstream attention, current events and a tide of change. In response to Arizona Governor Evan Mecham's canceling of the state's Martin Luther King holiday in 1987 (according to Mecham: "You folks don't need another holiday, what you folks need are jobs") and a subsequent defeat of a holiday referendum, Public Enemy released the 1991 single, "By the Time I Get to Arizona."


While the lyrics themselves are combative enough, the message in the music video was unmistakable, with Public Enemy detonating a bomb underneath the governor's car. MTV yanked it from the airwaves after one play, but the intensity of the backlash from a scandalized right wing allowed the song's message to enter the arena of mainstream political talking heads. The NFL moved the 1993 Super Bowl to Pasadena, and together with calls from Stevie Wonder and Dr. King's widow for a performers boycott, the state lost an estimated $350 million in revenues.

It remains to be seen whether this year's "30 Days, 40 Songs" project aimed at Donald Trump will produce a track with anything like the long-term specific resonance of a Public Enemy or the generally aspirational tone of a classic Dylan track. With the election ending, their target may not remain in the popular consciousness long enough for listeners to mobilize around any one song.