So you want to change the world. In the words of Joe Strummer, “You gotta give it all you got, or forget it,” and he’d know: their protest song, ‘Rock The Casbah’, became their highest charting single worldwide, and you know all the lyrics, don’t you? If the revolution can only come about with majority (as in the precious democracy, the commune and the anarchist ideal) then major media is the only way to create it. Yeah, the Slits gave power to women who didn’t subscribe to the norm in ‘Typical Girls’, but who got women chanting “Who run the world? Girls!” in clubs across the world? Beyoncé was top ten in Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Scotland, South Korea, and multi-platinum in Australia and Canada.
There are four chief costs of the popularist protest, anchored in the very axes that make them effective. The first and most obvious is the suffocation of meaning – to write a popular song you have to exploit popular thought at the risk of excluding a wider audience. The concept behind your song must be accessible – and agreeable – to all. Forget ‘return the engines of capital to the workers’, forget ‘abortion is a right’, even forget ‘examine the over-representation of blackness in prison communities’ – the most radical message you’ll find here is ‘Where Is The Love?’, the Black Eyed Peas 2003 protest against… something? Similarly, Twisted Sister’s hyper-generalised protest song ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It’ has been covered by dozens of punk bands in three different languages, including a version by the Veronicas used in an ad campaign for birth control pill Yaz. It’s the ultimate malleable teen protest song, one that lead singer Dee Snider proudly embraces: “Any time that the team is down by two, or somebody had a bad day at the office, they’re gonna stand up and sing We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
You can declare and declaw more specifically too – like that one song about the Troubles you already know all the words to, ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ by U2, a song deliberately cut back to a version so non-partisan that, played to a Belfast crowd of 3000, Bono states “about three walked out.” Your cause now barely exists, but the passion is wide-spread and real – or gruesomely appropriated by your enemies, the next risk you face: seeing your words used to support a cause you stand against. UK pop political rock band the Manic Street Preachers tried this with their UK #1 ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’, inspired by Welsh protesters involved in the Spanish Civil War but in practice only outcrying “fascists” and whatever the intolerable “this” is, and were rewarded by inclusion on a British National Party website – essentially the fascists they deplored.
The third cut of this approach is your cause being reduced to a catchy tune: did you know Prince’s ‘1999’ was about nuclear war and dystopia? If you don’t want to declaw your protest, piggyback the catchiest tune you can imagine and repurpose that instead. Take Bob Marley’s 1983 posthumous release ‘Buffalo Soldier’, a protest against anti-black racism in America that you know the lyrics to already. Or Nena’s ’99 Luftballons’, a hit fit for Eurovision describing the accidental triggering of nuclear war off the back of a military radar picking up childrens’ balloons, or Jay Z’s ’99 Problems’, a dialogue about anti-black racism experienced by the artist on a daily basis hung off a brilliant, catchy hook. Closer to home, Cold Chisel’s 1978 ‘Khe Sanh’, a song touted as a second Australian anthem, is an unflinching portrait of a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran framed by a famous riff.
Your final kickback from the popularist is reduction – a popular protest song may mug your other songs, just as an otherwise mainstream artist suddenly producing a protest song looks fake and bizarre (see Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ in 2012, a rare gem with its widespread popularity attributable to its accessibility and timeliness around Referendum 74, legalising same-sex marriage in Washington). Have you heard Cypress Hill’s protest songs like ‘Riot Starter’ – did you know they created protest songs, or do you just know ‘Insane In The Brain’ (which, in turn, samples James Brown’s ‘I’m Black And I’m Proud’, an unofficial anthem of the Black Power movement; but you’re probably more familiar with ‘I Got You (I Feel Good)’).
The protest song that is accessible is the protest song that is effective: you’ll reach new ears and allies, even in the camps of your enemies. You can change the world at the cost of changing minds, become a figurehead at the cost of your reputation as an artist. Is it worth it?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
First published in Pelican Magazine, #86 Edition 3, May 2015, p 31.