Where has all the protest gone?

Posted: May 24, 2013 in Music
Tags: , , , , ,

Maybe it’s my age or something. But where has all the protest gone? It’s not that the horrors have gone away – the wars, the exploitation and the repression. But in popular culture today who now sings about it? Who now writes poetry about it? There are worthy newspaper reports but nobody is really shouting out ‘No. Stop!’ Protest it seems is no longer a fashionable thing. It wasn’t always thus.

I won’t venture here too far back into history, though I could. Do you remember Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today…

Where are the equivalent popular songs today? And then there was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son:

Some folks inherit star spangled eyes,
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord,
And when you ask them, “How much should we give?”
Ooh, they only answer More! more! more!

Both of these were protests against the Vietnam War; a war I remotely watched every day on British television news in the safety of rural England. How much I heard about the Mekong Delta and the Tet Offensive! But in Britain too we had an abundance of protest. We all know John Lennon’s Imagine:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace.

Nice words indeed. But there were protest songs everywhere. I guess you don’t remember Tony McPhee and The Groundhogs? I remember seeing them in a South London pub. Tony was by then a sort of under-appreciated guitar hero. But in 1970, in Thank Christ For the Bomb, he sang:

In 1914 a war began, a million soldiers lent a hand,
Weren’t many planes to give support, hand to hand was the way they fought.

Young men were called up for the cause, for king and country and the cross,
In their naivete they thought it was for glory, so they’d been taught.

In 1939 once again there came the sound of marching men,
Occupying European land, all the way to North French sands,

But, in the final year of that war, two big bangs settled the score,
Against Japan, who’d joined the fight, the rising sun didn’t look so bright.

Since that day it’s been stalemate, everyone’s scared to obliterate,
So it seems for peace we can thank the bomb, so I say thank Christ for the bomb.

Who sings stuff like that now?

British folk singers sung about the theft of the common people’s land in The World Turned Upside Down, a song dating back to the 1640s:

The sin of property
We do disdain
No man has any right to buy and sell
The earth for private gain
By theft and murder
They took the land
Now everywhere the walls
Spring up at their command.

The list of popular protest is truly endless. And it wasn’t just a thing for a few intellectual liberals; it was part of everyday culture. I haven’t even touched on poetry and literature. But please do tell me where this protest is today? I really can’t see or hear it.

What’s going on?

  1. Tom Lucas says:

    It may feel that way, but there is quite a bit of protest in the underground/punk rock scene. As a former high school teacher, I have quite a few old students in my Facebook network. There’s always discussion of social issues going on amongst them. They are doing it. They are not laying down and many are politically active.

    Also, they have fewer hangups and practice tolerance so it’s nice to see us evolving.

    • Stephen Lewis says:

      Well Tom it’s nice to have a reply from you as I’ve seen you do occasionally read some of the things I write.

      I know there’s still protest out there and I’m involved in it too; mostly through my published work in magazines but also here locally.

      But I can’t see it as a part of the popular consciousness as it was. Oh I sound like an old fart!

      But what’s the bit about fewer hangups and tolerance?


      • Tom Lucas says:

        I should probably leave a comment or two more often as I do often enjoy you posts.

        I was a high school teacher up until 2010. The kids didn’t care about race or sexual identity nearly as much as their parents or grandparents. It didn’t even seem to register. I found that very encouraging for our future.

  2. I think “people” have become immune to wars and suffering in the main. They shrug their shoulders
    and do nothing. Although it is good to note that people are becoming hugely suspicious and disparaging of the political classes. If that is the case then there is hope. Have a listen to Jackson Browne’s track “How Long” It is probably one of the greatest protest songs ever written in modern times. Also listen to Jackson’s “Lives in the balance” an anti war song and utterly brilliant musically to boot! You might try listening to one of my own songs “blame it on the sun” on the soundcloud link below. By the way your articles are always a good read!

    • Stephen Lewis says:

      Thanks Mark I will. I remember you introducing me to Jackson Browne back in the early 1970s by playing me some of his records at your house. Stephen

  3. Lisa says:

    It is perhaps not that there is less protest but that The System restricts what and how much gets through to mainstream. We’ll have the odd whimsical little offering with some new beauty at a piano wailing about too much death in a country she’s never been to and it will be squeaky clean and incapable of inciting any kind of rebellion or righteous anger from its listeners…just as our puppet masters would have it. Edgy enough to make us think we’re living in a society that allows open discussion of hard topics but never to the point of the truth.

  4. Kostas says:

    Hi Mark, your blog is quite interesting! I think there are protest songs nowadays, and a lot of them. The problem is that media are just playing specific playlists with specific style of music.

    • Very true Kostas. The media as a whole is a complete stitch up. The BBC are one of the worst. The spin they put on news items they choose to broadcast is appalling. They have been desperate to show Assad has been using chemical weapons in Syria for weeks. They interview people talking about Assad’s troop’s atrocities. There may possibly be truth in these however I feel its spin to move public opinion and ready them for our Govt. and others to arm the rebels. Syria may not be a democracy but we pretty much threw our own out when we joined the EU. Vive la revolution! Power to the people!

  5. billgrisdale says:

    Can I put Chris Wood forward as a fine example of the contemporary ‘protest’ singer? Please refer to ‘Hollow Point’ and ‘The Cottager’s Reply’, and even ‘John Ball’ for examples.

  6. Stephen Lewis says:

    Thanks Bill, I had a listen to these songs and as you say they are indeed great protest songs. It’s a pity though that such protest is it seems now limited to folk music and thus isn’t part of a wider culture as it once was.

  7. Liam says:

    Rather late to this party, regardless…

    ” where has all the protest gone ”

    From where I sit the answer appears to be “Playing tennis(*), everyone”

    * pick your favorite self absorbed pastime

    I share your view that there is no effective push back, and the scandals, injustice, exploitation utter lack of accountability just get worse.

    And all this is an age when have never been better equipped to organise, nor more likely to spied upon. I fear for our children.

  8. James W Cummings says:

    I`ll give you an example of a modern protest song Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson`s recent ” It`s all going to pot.”

  9. Clare says:

    Extremely late to this post! Responding to Tom Lucas post and vaguely linking in to the ‘Protest song’ theme, check this one out: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8j741TUIET0

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