Think of protest music and you often think of the 1960s—of long-haired men and women strumming guitars at sit-ins, of Dylan, Guthrie, Gil Scott Heron. Or maybe further back, to Billie Holiday’s haunting ‘Strange Fruit,’ or ahead, to the jagged countercultural irreverence of the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
In fact, the apparent dearth of really iconic contemporary protest songs is frequently pointed to by the older generation as evidence of millennial apathy towards the great issues of our time. The lack of an obvious heir to Dylan among the musicians active today is seen as a sign that the ‘protest song’ as a weapon of mobilisation and collective catharsis is no more.
Yet while the genres we associate with the form perhaps no longer hold as great a sway in cultural consciousness as they did several decades ago, protest music is still out there, surfacing everywhere from chart commercial R&B to alternative electronic dance music. And though it sounds very different to the Americana-inflected folk we have come to intimately associate with the genre, it does not shy away from confronting the great political questions of our age.
1. The Last Living Rose – PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey’s Mercury prize winning 2011 album Let England Shake was her most openly political to date and indeed one of the most overtly political British albums to achieve moderate mainstream success in recent years, climbing to number 24 in the official UK charts following its Mercury win. For all it was an unabashedly issue driven work, the album is notably absent the kind of catchy anthemic slogans we generally associate with protest music. Instead Harvey took on a ventriloquists approach, assuming the personas of a cast of imagined characters across time in order to draw parallels between British follies from WW1 to Iraq.
The opening lines of one of the album’s shorter songs ‘The Last Living Rose’ now ring eerily prophetic in post-Brexit Britain, as Harvey sings with sweet-voiced irony, ‘goddamn Europeans / take me back to beautiful England / and the grey damp filthiness of ages, and battered books / fog rolling down behind the mountains / on the graveyards and dead sea-captains.’ Meanwhile, in the background, a steady drumbeat recalls a military parade. It is an opening that pitches Britain’s imperial naval past and contemporary Eurosceptic isolationism as two sides of the same nationalistic coin. British nationalism itself is shown to be birthed from little but empty greed and disaffection –the Thames ‘glistens like gold hastily sold for nothing’ while the streets of London echo with ‘the music of drunken beatings.’ It is a bleak vision of contemporary Britain, but one alleviated a little by the wistful ambivalence of the final verse, with Harvey singing, ‘let me watch the night fall on the river / the moon rises up and turns it silver / the moon moves the ocean shimmers.’ In a mere fifteen lines, the song encompasses the tangled love-hate relationship one can have to the country of their birth, from jaded cynicism to stubborn, reluctant affection.
2. Formation – Beyoncé
One of the strengths of Lemonade as an album was the way it seamlessly interwove the personal and political in a way that never seemed contrived or tasteless. Released one day after what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday and one day before what would have been Sandra Bland’s 29th birthday (both are well-known victims of police violence in the U.S.), ‘Formation’ is less a lament than a song of defiance and arguably Beyoncé’s most significant and explicit musical contribution to the Black Lives Matter movement to date.
‘Formation’ epitomises what many have described as the album’s wider exploration on the place of women within political struggle (in this case, black women without the Black Power movement in the U.S), while also functioning as a celebration of Beyoncé’s Southern roots and an exuberant two-fingers to the onus of respectability politics. The video, set in a landscape heavily reminiscent of post-Katrina New Orleans, features Yoncé dancing on top of a half-submerged police car and in various gothic antebellum interiors (the album’s visuals were strongly inspired by by Julie Dash’s neglected feminist film Daughters of the Dust, recently brought back into cinemas as a result of the exposure it received). This reference is just part of a wider celebration of black people’s accomplishments in the U.S. in the face of unremitting state brutality, and a rebuff to critics who attribute Beyoncé’s success to an internal conspiracy (‘y’all corny with that Illuminati mess’). By being unapologetically positive about black identity (‘I like my baby heir with my baby hair and afros’), Beyoncé makes it clear that despite being embraced by liberal white America, her allegiance remains firmly to her roots and to the history of African-American political struggle.
3. Tell the Children – Tink
Written as a response to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, this haunting yet popularly under-appreciated Timbaland-produced song is soaked in an atmosphere of both tenderness and dread. The opening words ‘Don’t shoot’ reference one of the key slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement, while the refrain ‘tell the children to watch out, watch out’ reflects a national mood of fear caused by the state’s callow, systematic disregard of black life. Tink’s vocal’s intertwine with overdubbing of newscaster’s announcing the jury’s fateful decision, gunshots and rap interludes bristling with righteous anger (‘a badge is a pass to do whatever / so now we living in fear of the people here to protect us.’) It is a song filled with the all the burning immediacy of classic protest anthem.
4. American Idiot – Green Day
Pop-punk and emo, with all its angst and bombast (and beneath it all, a curious wholesomeness) thrived in the Bush years. Nowhere was this better distilled than Green Day’s 2004 concept album American Idiot, filled with catchy guitar-riffs and (not particularly subtle) slogans crying out to be adopted by the young and pissed-off everywhere.
While ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends,’ is probably the more iconic track off the album, it is the angry, danceable energy of the titular song that emerges most prescient in 2016—another decade, another American idiot attempting to gain access to the country’s nuclear launch codes. The song is a kind of anti-manifesto, with Billie Joe Armstrong railing against ‘the age of paranoia’ and the ‘redneck agenda’ he sees as infecting American foreign and domestic policy. Yet it is the song’s chorus of ‘don’t wanna be an American idiot’ that provides the enduring rallying cry for future generations, particularly those now faced with the prospect of a Trump presidency.
5. 4 Degrees – Anohni
The singer formerly of Anthony and the Johnson’s 2016 album Hopelessness has won praise for incorporating the confrontational language of protest music into EDM-inspired soundscapes, exploring issues ranging from climate change to patriarchal violence.
The song ‘4 Degrees’ refers to a recent study which concludes that the earth’s temperature will rise 4 degrees celsius by the end of the next century if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate, leading to the extinction of numerous species. The chilling refrain ‘it’s only four degrees’ hammers home the inertia of governments worldwide, while also examining Anohni’s (and thus the listener’s) own unwitting complicity in the destruction of the planet. It is a song that walks a fine line between fatalism and an urgent plea for change – part elegy, part rallying call.