It was Pablo Picasso who declared that “art is the lie that tells us the truth.” Have these porkies finally been found out? Protest music, in all its forms, is still breathing – but it just might be on life support. Warning: this article contains assumptions and pop psychology (and a playlist). By David McTague.
A refugee crisis of a scale unseen since WWII. The UK in a post-‘Brexit’ Tory-land and headed right. There’s poverty everywhere, increasing numbers of people on the streets and crippling austerity punishing those who can least afford it. The Internet is in a Trump/Clinton/ISIS and Adam Curtis-inspired hyper normalised frenzy.
Meanwhile, Ken Loach is asking why people aren’t angry and Paul Weller is making his first big politicised outing in a long time, headlining the inaugural ‘Concerts for Corbyn’ around the corner. So, in a ‘post truth’ world, where have all the protest singers gone? Or, at the very least, where are all the protest songs? The silence seems quite at odds with what’s happening on the planet right now… or does it?
Those in the protest song tradition – such as Billy Bragg, Grace Petrie, Quiet Loner and Liverpool’s own Alun Parry – alongside many more in the folk and traditional world, still offer a steady stream of singing and songs. But, taking the recently sold-out Damien Dempsey gig at Liverpool Irish Festival as an example (where he would have played protest songs nearly the whole night through): how many opinions do these artists change? Don’t get me wrong, it’s sterling work, but are these artists preaching to the converted and ‘just’ confirming the beliefs of those in attendance?
We oft hear of the online echo chamber (there’s certainly a physical one, too) and we’re social creatures who gravitate to those with whom we share views. That’s all good… but where are the protest songs on the radio? Where are they in the charts (if they’re still a thing)? Where are those songs that will transcend, those that will catch people unawares and make them think and, perhaps, even change their perceptions? Where are the songs that make a penny drop and spark something inside? What’s happening?
More questions than answers, I’m afraid. Are they being filtered out by algorithms, the robots, our overlords and puppet masters? Or are artists – specifically those looking for pop success – too nervous to speak out for fear of damaging their fledgling careers? A notable exception to all this is Sleaford Mods and their visceral brand of reality check: hard hitting, refreshing and translating into a powerful live show. The hip-hop community, especially in the US, has been active in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter and protest songs have certainly been hitting the airwaves across the pond – but it’s a sad indictment of the times that it takes the murder of innocent people (at the hands of those who are purportedly there to protect them) to get voices heard. Roots reggae music, of course, remains deeply political and spiritual. Meanwhile, of the current local crop, She Drew The Gun and their great single, ‘Poem’, have clocked up over 100,000 Spotify plays and had BBC 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq declaring something along the lines of he would play it every day until he heard a better song.
Music can still be a huge force for social change… just like it always has been. And the artists are out there. But they’re out there in the niches and crevices, playing back street bars and slots in the upstairs rooms of pubs. As a result, their songs are often limited in finding the opportunities they so often deserve. So, we’re going to shine a light on a gaggle of Merseyside artists with something to say and an audience to hear it…
She Drew The Gun: ‘Poem’ – an understated anthem for austerity Britain
Alun Parry: ‘My Name Is Dessie Warren’ – a potent song, also covered by Ian Prowse, that made a tangible difference
Nick Ellis: ‘The Grand Illusion’ – a knowing look from the back room of your favourite boozer
Rachael Jean Harris: ‘Exodus’ – fierce and fragile all at once
Merseyside isn’t the only place such songs are happening, though. The same thing is taking place in most cities across the land – certainly places where there’s history of social protest: Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow… seek and ye shall find. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for songs that speak from the heart and those tunes entwined with political and societal views and commentary. Still, it’s hardly the days of John Lennon calling for us to ‘Give Peace a Chance’ and there doesn’t seem to be voices like Nina Simone, Bruce Springsteen, Sly and The Family Stone, Gil Scott Heron, Billie Holiday… the list goes on.
It seems that what is pushed on us at the moment is nice people with nice sounds and unfortunately not much to say. Maybe people don’t have the same urge to use these positions for social good and we’re left with safe, bland, banal popular music and wider entertainment. Of course, the increasingly fragmented media landscape means it’s highly unlikely we’ll have artists who will ever again be as ‘big’ as the likes of Lennon or Bob Marley – but given the mixed-up world we find ourselves in, it does feel like a lot of the more mainstream artists have made a move to the blander end of the spectrum.
As we’ve shown, there are great protest songs still out there… but what is their reach? If Bob Dylan released ‘The Times They Are A Changin” tomorrow, he’d be lucky to get a few thousand plays in the first year – let alone get it played regularly on national radio.
Playlist! Fifteen of the very best in broadsides and ballads… don’t forget to tell us yours!
Pic by John Johnson