A monthly column from US-based session musician, songwriter, producer and one time Rolling Stone magazine writer, Jon Tiven. Lifting the lid off of the business of making music…
Where have all the protest songs gone?
The old joke is; if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there.
I didn’t leave my teens till the seventies, and I never put any substances into my body that messed with my memories, so I have vivid recollections of those times.
Back then it seemed like the charts were always peppered with protest songs. The first one that struck me to the heart with a bang not a whimper, was Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” written by the wondrous P.F. Sloan.
At least one serious attempt at social commentary would capture the musical heart of America (and the world) every few months.
Be that “Ohio” (CSN&Y), “Bangladesh” (George Harrison), or a multitude of Bob Dylan screeds; (“Blowin In The Wind” thru “Hurricane”).
It was as if our musical heroes were providing an alternate source of Op-Ed to the tame mass media, registering moral outrage when the status quo journalists’ response to war, racism, and fascism was comparatively mild.
And so today we are faced with a true existential threat to democracy with an American President who not only rejects the “left wing agenda”, but emulates the worst foreign leaders alive; (Putin, Kim Jong-un) and dead; (Hitler, Mussolini)…. and makes no bones about it.
When the mass media response to this would-be dictator is “measured,” who will voice the response of the morally outraged? With very few exceptions, the musical community has been silent, apparently unwilling to underline the facts of the day and accept responsibility for being the “messenger.” Why?
Have the successors to Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones become strictly careerists, voicing only the personal and not the Universal? Has contemporary pop music been lulled into submission, where the only lyrical topics that get our attention are things like, “If you come on to me, I’ll come on to you”, or “Why don’t you meet me in the middle?”
Or is pop music no longer an intrinsic part of the way people receive information, so only light fare is permitted if you want to capture large audiences?
If everything has turned to shit, then surely making a living and having a career is more important than changing the world or enlightening people in these times. So why bother? I don’t have answers, only questions.
Are the great song writing minds of our time so sickened by this President, that they feel it’s beneath them to address him in song? Surely you can address the issues of our time without bringing the individual responsible into the song.
I know no one wants to immortalise this odious creature, but who will channel OUR rage – our response? Did anyone ever accuse the Sex Pistols of debasing themselves by taking on The Queen? As I said, only questions.
Mr. Dylan, King of the Jews and Rabbi to every modern songwriter, I know you’ve given your all to the protest song, and no one has beaten you at that game.
You have the mental agility to articulate a response to this abomination, to register your moral indignation, and I am confident that your brain has been engaged in the state of the world.
You were writing about the rise of the ‘robber Barons’ not long ago, and now it has become a “thing.” I implore you to put your genius to the task of encapsulating a message that will bring moral clarity to those who are lost, and bring fire in the belly to those in need of encouragement.
Modern-day Shakespeare that thou art, many look to you as the conscience of modern thought, and if you could share your heart in your art we would be most grateful.
And what of the new generation? I saw Eminem’s take on the ‘Dotard’, and thought it was a strong put-down of him as a human. More of a personal swipe than a well-thought out response to his “ideology,” tactics, or followers.
Oh Marshall, what can you and those who followed you, sing to make people think? To wake the apathetic from their slumber and galvanise the young to march, demonstrate and more importantly, to vote? Just questions….
Not sure I am supposed to write about the political in this column, but these are times when the musical community is supposed to serve as a sounding board for the feelings of the downtrodden. The dispossessed. The persecuted.
It’s time to kick ‘em in the nuts!
That’s the lesson of the sixties, if there is a lasting lesson; that music can change our lives and provide a common thread that we all can hold on to in times of extreme struggle.
We can’t sing the same protest songs forever. I don’t expect Lana Del Rey (pictured above) or Katy Perry (pictured below) to deliver these, but I would expect Florence Welch (red hair photo, below) to be able to go there.
Taylor Swift’s bold embrace of that which is blue has been extremely heartening, and I take back any aspersion I may have cast upon her in the past. Now give us an anthem; we can’t shake it off any longer, it’s time to kick ‘em in the nuts!
We don’t need any more fluff songs. We don’t need a K-pop sensation telling us to love ourselves.
Yes, when you are a celebrity, it’s difficult to get the message across, that celebrity worship is toxic, but a true artist should be able to communicate that one. Otherwise we better have George Clooney or Tom Hanks running for President next time, or we are doomed.
Our national character has been debased daily by a man who has brought out the worst in us. To ‘Make Americans Gracious Again’ would be a good starting point. Can’t some artist make that case?
In the face of America auditioning to join the ‘Axis of Evil’, don’t we need a visionary to wave the flag for the values that should be intrinsic to our very being?
But as I have said, I’m just asking the questions. Now it’s your turn…
By Jon Tiven
- I have dedicated this month’s column to my much-missed friend and esteemed colleague, the late and great P.F. Sloan. Pictured below (left), with Buddy Miller (right).
Lana Del Rey, Katy Perry and Florence Welch photos: Jason Sheldon