Can Anyone Write A Protest Song?


Woody Guthrie, photo from Wikimedia Commons

So there I was recently listening to Leaders of the Free World by Elbow, which incidentally is a fine album, probably more consistent, if not better than their latest. But I found the most striking thing about it was how quickly the title track has aged and how outdated it sounds just five years after its’ recording. Leaders of the Free World is symptomatic of a different era, not just of songwriting but a different paradigm of global politics, possibly one we won’t see again. This was a far simpler time, in hindsight almost Enid Blyton-esque in its naivety. A time when the bad guys were dumb, the good guys were clever and right and wrong were as black-and-white as… er, well black and white.

Since the mid-00’s – arguably a golden age of alternative music – the world has essentially ended. A worldwide recession that we’re currently struggling our way clear of has rearranged things so considerably that it has forced us to reappraise society. Banks who were supposed to be looking after our money in fact were speculating it dubiously; this is the only solid reason we have for the ‘Credit Crunch’ (a hopelessly winsome title for the essentially ideological entity that brought entire economies to their knees) transpiring. People paid for things with money they didn’t have – and in fact didn’t even exist – and when the time came to actually… y’know, pay… they obviously couldn’t. How postmodern is that? Anyway, blame is difficult to apportion. Responsibility barely lies with people at all; it lies in a quasi-Althusserian realm of frameworks, machinery and state apparatus. Where there are any, the people responsible are no cloak-wearing villains. They aren’t Doctor fucking Claw from Inspector Gadget, however disappointing that may be. They look more like Penfold from Danger Mouse, the money but seemingly not the inclination to buy a decent-looking suit.

Previous generations of songwriters have been conveniently provided with something concrete and tangible to kick against. Civil Rights mobilization in ‘60’s America cued The Times They Are A-Changin’ and Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud, their titles standalone political statements. America’s unpopular slog through Vietnam produced satirical takes on patriotism in Hendrix’s rendition of Star Spangled Banner and later Springsteen’s Born in the USA. The turn of the century in fact provided two of the aforementioned paradigm shifts, the first prior to the recession in the World Trade Center attacks of September 11th. This resulted in a general politicisation of the population, particularly in the UK, and particularly when a million people protested against the Iraq War in London on February 13th 2003. The period also saw a proliferation of protest songs, and the ones that suddenly seem so irksome and childish at that.

Even at the time, it was obvious that the enemy was someone as inept and vulnerable to intellectual attack as George W. Bush, and it seemed so straightforward to point out his failings as to be redundant. Hence why songs of that era and ilk have aged like the guy at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, at least lyrically. Leaders of the Free World, Travis’ The Beautiful Occupation, Helicopter by Bloc Party. Even Nine Inch Nails’ The Hand That Feeds to a certain extent, although the general angsty vagueness Reznor’s lyrics entail ironically just about saves them. It’s the overwhelming specificity of the protest songs of this era that most strikes, and most hacks in the throat. It renders the sentiments displayed in them null and void. All protest songs are essentially zeitgeistic; the truly great ones however (Revolution, Subterranean Homesick Blues, What’s Going On) are ambiguous enough to elude relic status, allowing them to transcend their context and time constraints. Strangely, the tracks from the peroid in question that seem to have survived best come from Green Day’s American Idiot album, again thanks to their implicit vagueness. But Green Day’s subsequent misfire on 21st Century Breakdown arguably hankers for such a broad conceptual target as the one hit on American Idiot.

“Can anyone make a difference anymore? Can anyone write a protest song?” Manic Street Preachers asked in Let Robeson Sing, itself not much of a protest song from a messy, stylistically schizoid album released during an eventless worldwide malaise. However empty the air into which Nicky Wire wagged his finger at the time, the question quickly became pertinent. At first the answer was yes, but not a decent one; now the answer, it seems, is no. The post-recession world makes entirely different demands on songwriters than targets which loomed from the 20th Century’s fin de siècle fallout; there is nothing and nobody to blame. Truly great lyricists will rise to the challenge and provide commentary on the very void this leaves and its culturally massive implications. Some may choose to comment, Springsteenesque, upon the effect the recession has had, but will have in all honesty missed an opportunity. For those who reserve their opinion until the next great political shift, obsolescence awaits.

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