A Recipe for Protest Music In 2016

Protest Music 2016

Photo: By Lorie Shaull from Washington, United States (Election Day: The Newseum’s Campaign 2016 exhibit) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The live coverage of Trump and Clinton’s respective election night party venues illustrated the stark differences of their supporters. Clinton’s election night party (which wasn’t much of one as it became clearer she would lose), seemed to show a wide array of ages, ethnicities, and genders (although female was the majority) while Trump’s party consisted of men and women in suits and high heels, standing and chatting, some wore red “Make America Great Again” hats, but most were dressed as if at a job fair. Clinton voters sat in what appeared to be bleachers, sporting Hillary t-shirts, waving rainbow flags, and hugging each other, crying silently. For some it was a night of celebration, for others it didn’t matter, and for what seemed the majority, it was a night of great surprise or shock.

Trump’s win has already brought about a series of protests, both violent and peaceful, and soon it’s guaranteed to bring about a series of protest songs.

In order to better understand where the new president will take music in the coming four years, we’ll explore the current political climate and its promise for a wave of objection as expressed through both social movements and lyrics, how different musical genres play into musical protest, and the musicians we expect to participate in questioning if America is being made great again.

Recipe for Protest Music

Since music and politics beginnings, songs have been written and played as a nation or group’s catharsis during times of political or social calamity. Protest songs take on many forms and transcend many genres. In the past, politically charged songs inspired a generation of protesters, causing them to pick up these songs as their own anthems.

But what is the perfect political climate for an era of protest music? We witnessed it in the sixties and seventies: From Bob Dylan’s guitar, harmonica and award-winning lyrics, Marvin Gaye’s mournful bewilderment at the violence in both foreign war and in our own backyards, and an entire era of punk and ska sticking it to the man or woman (thanks to Margaret Thatcher).

Looking back at these decades, there’s a conclusive pattern between then and now. If you go down the list, you’ll find a check mark next to: foreign war (what once was waged in Vietnam is now Afghanistan and Iraq), social movements against racism (what once was the Civil Rights Movement is now #BlackLivesMatter), social movements against sexism (second-wave feminism is now in its third-wave), and distress caused by a political leader (Nixon with his scandals is now Trump with his).

Of course, you don’t need all these items checked for great political-leaning songs to be written. Since the early eighties, global warming was enough to inspire songs about the destruction of our planet. Notable rock bands in more recent years have taken their worries and grasp on climate change, as well (“Monkey Gone to Heaven” – The Pixies; “Idioteque” – Radiohead). Songs speaking out against the role consumerism and industry has in the degradation of the environment have even spun out of the pop genre, particularly with The Counting Crows Joni Mitchell penned, “Big Yellow Taxi.” Since political and social changes affect us all, protest songs transcend all genres.

Different Genre’s Relationship with Politics

It’s safe for most genres to channel their emotions of the political climate through song lyrics, especially if the meaning is hidden under a layer of minor obscurity (“American Woman” – The Guess Who), but we’ve seen in the past how other genres aren’t too kind to their musicians about having a stance, particularly with Natalie Maines’ (the Dixie Chicks) anti-Bush comments. However, a lot of the anger this moment caused was the result of country music lovers conservative leanings; many of them most likely voted for Bush. This remains relatively true still today. Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, Jr. loves their guns and their freedom, and Toby Keith, among others, released several pro-action songs after the 9/11 attacks called for war, upholding conservative or libertarian ideologies.

However, these are not protest songs by definition as they don’t call for social change, in fact, the opposite (“Keep the Change” – Hank Williams, Jr., “Okie From Muskogee” – Merle Haggard). One thing is relatively certain given these facts, though, if any genre is probable to write pro-Trump songs it would be the country music genre.
Earlier on, jazz was the closest form to punk rock before its birth, calling out institutionalized racism in America before the Civil Right Movement even began.

Songs like “Black, Brown, and Beige” by Duke Ellington, “Strange Fruit” by Billy Holiday and Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” held one thing resolutely true: the color of your skin mattered and the wounds of slavery and acts against humanity were fresh.
Many believe that rap and hip-hop have replaced jazz as the musical expression of protest and outlet for the black experience in America. Artists like Erykah Badu, Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike, D’Angelo, Sage Francis, and Immortal Technique all indicate a wave of anti-establishment messages.

And then, of course, there are other genres that were specifically born out of protest – most notably punk rock – in which not only is it “safe” to question a political leader, but expected. This is a standard set by the anti-Capitalist motif of the genre’s predecessors. This torch has been faithfully passed, even among comments of punk being “dead”. (Perhaps it did die but it’s been resurrected from the grave into a guitar-smashing zombie.)

Just this week Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers, Green Day, performed their latest single, “Bang, Bang” at the American Music Awards, during which they chanted at the audience, “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA!” The audience looked out-of-place, waving their hands as if at a Wiggles concert in black suits and cocktail dresses, but the message was still perfectly clear: We don’t respect or want a racially insensitive capitalist as president.

If there’s one genre that’s guaranteed to be brash and outspoken it’s punk rock. Along with Green Day, bands like Bad Religion and NOFX have been writing and performing songs that use ironic humor to question the ways of government, religion, and society since the ‘90’s. While bands with these track records are sure to find a whole new plethora of writing material from the election alone, there’s still the question of who else we’ll hear more political lyrics from.

The Future of Protesting Through Song

In the past, we’ve seen musicians arrested for their political protests, such as Rage Against the Machine, who stand to be mentioned for their “Sleep Now in a Fire” music video in which a man holds up a “Trump for President” sign (note: this occurred in 1999). We expect rock bands to continue to be, well, rock bands. That is to say, there’s no indication that Trump’s presidency will heighten the arrest of rock stars, but it definitely won’t hinder it from occurring.

Since the band’s break-up in 2005, fans have been clamoring for a reunion, but despite the surrealist political atmosphere, Rage continues to deny rumors.
We can expect to hear more from the rap and hip-hop genres and to be convincingly terrified by the accuracy of the pictures their lyrics paint. We’ve already witnessed lyrics to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” being chanted by a group of anti-Trump protesters at one of his rallies back in March, which is a huge indicator of how his voice has transcended just musical enjoyment and landed in the field of a historical, generational figure.

Musicians who have spoken out against Trump include Mac Miller, Miley Cyrus, Neil Young, John Legend, R.E.M., The White Stripes, the Rolling Stones, and more. We could expect them to his climb into the White House as the ultimate inspiration for a protest song. However, this would be a dangerous move for many artists, especially any with radio-play. As explored earlier, protesting is not particularly welcome within every genre and while the idea of enticing social change and political upheaval does seem more within the rock star abilities of bands like Rage Against the Machine or folk musicians such as Neil Young, some musicians may surprise you.

Earlier this November, it was announced that an entire album of anti-Trump songs would be released featuring a variety of artists. 30 Days, 30 Songs has been releasing a song per day as a way of protesting Trump’s win, including one titled “Million Dollar Loan” by Death Cab for Cutie. The song mocks Trump’s façade of being a hard-working American by mentioning the borrowing of his father’s money. Despite its initial title, the protest is now on day 50, surpassing its promise of only thirty songs. Thus far, artists include: Jimmy Eat World, Rogue Wave, Moby, Cold Way Kids, R.E.M., Franz Ferdinand, and more.

It’ll be interesting to see what other rock and non-rock artists join the protest and how long it will last. The political climate is right and we’re in the midst of some prolific musicians who aren’t afraid to voice their opinions and it’s due to this that we may experience an ample amount of protest songs coming into the new year with our new president, Donald Trump.


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