What is a protest song?
Protesting, in its original form, was a positive affirmation made in one’s defence – to testify one’s truth. Truth, with its tendency to point the finger at shysters, by its very nature, is often unpopular. And pop music, I think we can all agree is full of shysters. That is why it is ironic that popular music should give birth to something as mind-shakingly truthful as the protest song. Before you syllogise this argument and tell me of it’s shortcomings, let me assure you that I am aware of the leap in logic I am making here. Let me fill in the gaps.
The protest song was not designed to be pop music, at least not in the sense that we understand music as popular. It was intended as a motivator, an oral recording of injustice and a call to arms. Think of the treason songs of 19th century Irish folk music and the protest blues that inspired civil disobedience in the 20th century. These songs were designed to both aggravate and please the listener, depending on which side of the battleline they were standing. The protest song is also a rebel song and that is no doubt why it appeals to that quintessential rebel, the teenager, the arch consumer of music and its discontents in our post modern times.
Let’s not forget truth, though. For a song to really touch a chord in our hearts and our minds, it must speak of something felt and known… no brainer there. But for it to touch a chord in our souls, the deeper collective issue of meaning – that great modern bugbear – must rear its head. Love songs speak to the heart. Freaky Jazz improv speaks to the mind, but the protest song, the I been fucked over Blues, speaks to the soul. Now the logical positivists among you are probably getting ready to exit, browser left, but stay with me. I’m not going on a crusade to convince you to abandon your materialist ways and hop on the fairy train – as lovely as that ride may be – rather I want to tell you a little bit about blood.
Blood connects things. It brings oxygen to every cell in the body but also carries all the shit away. Soul, to my mind, is the vibration of blood. The heart pushes it unceasingly and the brain, the receptacle of the mind, thankfully receives it. But damn the river and there ain’t no life. And when you spill blood, that’s some serious shit. Blood conveys truth in the body because it sees both sides of the coin. It knows what promotes life and what brings death. It helps sort out the shit from the shine.
This, to my mind, is the inherent source of truth that we can sense, if we have the presence of mind to feel it: our verifying mechanism for truth. Some call it intuition, but I prefer the vernacular term. I’m sure you’ve felt the ticking of your own bullshit meter. Everyone knows the tricky bit is learning to trust in it. The world seems plagued by scoundrels and cheats, and this is why the bullshit meter no doubt evolved. And that’s why advertisers and used car salesmen learn techniques to try and harness that feeling, by attaching it to the shit they are trying to sell.
Music evolved as a way to convey truth, but primeval marketeers soon employed it to sell their take on the good-life. Be it war, religion, or promises of better hunting grounds, that great blood stirrer was put into action. Music manipulates, even at the most basic level. Think of a lullaby. Their use is pretty much universal in human culture. It’s basic intent is, of course, to lull a child to sleep – to exert a parental desire upon an active child, to which the child is not always entirely willing. A child’s response is often to scream, to protest it’s own truth, I don’t want to fucking sleep… the protest song was born here, a clash of desires, a clash of perspectives, a clash of truths.
Fast forward to the modern world of industrialized music. This infant cry, that proudly sang of personal and social injustice has been harnessed, formularised, and replicated in the marketable form that we call Punk. Music that was nurtured by artists advocating true expression who were later coopted by the music factory and turned into product. There’s a great line in the Husker Du song Obnoxious, from their 1983 transitional album Everything Falls Apart, that succinctly captures the impending commodification of punk:
Tell us we’re obnoxious
You can’t sell our product
Who asked you to?
Say we play too fast
Music’s not gonna last
Well, I think you’re wrong
You don’t like the way we look
You don’t like the way we talk
You can all go get fucked
This is the spirit of the Punk protest, the infant cry that howled out of the drug-fucked acid-rainbow-lollypop dreams of the 60’s and the later complexification of pop music in the 70’s. A call for the return to the raw and truthful expression of infancy. For, as Morris Major and the Minors put it, there’ll be “no sleep till bedtime”.