“I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar, it meant that you were a protest singer. I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible.” Morrissey, 1985 (The Smiths – Shakespeare’s Sister)
“Let’s just keep fighting the end of the world. We can hold hands and we can make plans, for life.” MurrayLightburn, 2003 (The Dears – No Cities Left)
Although the riots that recently ravaged the major cities of England were shocking, signs of unrest amongst the populace have been plain to see for a few years. Recession, the MPs' expenses scandal and the extraordinary hike in university tuition fees are just some of the events that have led to a feeling of disaffection and tension on the streets.
Clearly, a sustained period of rioting and looting is an extreme response, and the factors that caused such acts are far more complex and myriad than those mentioned above. Indeed, solving these problems will require a long and sustained period of action, though no-one yet knows how this should be approached. It’s an unusual case; whereas the people normally rise up against their rulers or authority, these riots saw local businesses and homes attacked. It's plain to see that something has gone badly wrong.
However, it’s not the first time there have been economic problems in England and it’s not the first time people have taken to the streets to voice their unhappiness. Pop music often mirrors the mood of the nation. Under the previous Conservative government there were a number of politically-charged records in the charts, but now – where there’s a Conservative government in all but name – the stars of today have been curiously quiet.
The last major riots in the UK were almost exactly thirty years ago. The soundtrack to those events was The Specials’ Ghost Town, a sparse, unsettling song about urban decay and inner city violence. Ghost Town spent three weeks at number 1 in the charts – it’s a fantastic record but the fact it reflected major events of the time was also fundamental to its success. In fact, watch any reports or footage of those riots, and there’s a good chance Ghost Town will have been chosen to accompany the pictures.
In 2011, what do we get atop the charts as the anthem of our distress? Cher Lloyd’s Swagger Jagger. Although it’s an unhappy accident, there’s something that chimes with the attitudes of the rioters and theself-centred, confrontational nature of Lloyd’s song (“You can’t stop looking at me, so get off of my face”). That said, it’s unlikely any of the rioters were inspired by the words of a teenage reality show alumnus.
Protest songs have a rich and vibrant history. In the early to mid-20th Century, folk singers would travel round with little more than a guitar on their back, singing songs of oppression, deceit and skullduggery. These acts were particularly popular in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1960s, a scene which spawned Bob Dylan, a keen student of Woody Guthrie amongst others. It’s difficult to imagine an artist of Dylan’s popularity today writing something as acerbic (yet articulate) as Masters Of War (except Dylan himself, perhaps).
As the 60s became the 70s, Curtis Mayfield wasn’t exactly shy about saying what he felt, and Marvin Gaye released the timeless What’s Going On. The 80s saw the newly mainstream hip-hop, hardcore punk and Billy Bragg pick up the baton, while the riot grrrls and Rage Against The Machine did for the 90s. In the 21st Century though, a swathe of post-9/11 tracks aside, the protest song seems to be a dying art.
Why could this be? Maybe it’s because the pursuit of commercial success comes before the desire to actually say something of any substance. Maybe it’s because the artists of today aren’t as politically engaged as those of yesteryear. Maybe it’s because rock and roll is now so much part of the establishment, it would seem mightily hypocritical to be rallying against it. Either way, modern artists tend to make any protest-like feelings they possess relatively opaque in their songs. It appears the only recent act to buck this trend and make a real statement against something was Green Day, with their rock opera,American Idiot. In a ridiculous turn of events, The Ordinary Boys started with a mod-like album of scathing attacks on modern British life, Over The Counter Culture, before their lead singer, Preston, became a contestant on Celebrity Big Brother, married a glamour model and ended up as a gossip magazine staple.
So, who is the new Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg? Where is the next Public Enemy? In the wake of the tuition fee protests in London, Brighton-based act, The Agitator, were pushed to prominence. However, further interrogation revealed them to be all fur coat and no knickers, full as they were of clichéd posturing and empty sloganeering. Their rallying cry of, “Now is the time to agitate,” is hopelessly vague and unlikely to overthrow a schoolgirl, let alone a government. In times of desperate need, “agitating” a group makes you a minor annoyance rather than a revolutionary.
Protest music is the music of the people; the lingua franca of the streets. As previously mentioned, it’s difficult for guitar-based music to become that when it’s such a commodity. In the UK, at least, it looks like hip-hop and grime could lead the way. Music journalist Dorian Lynskey - someone who should know a thing or two about protest music, having written a weighty tome on the subject (33 Revolutions Per Minute) - recently mentioned how the lyrics of Dizzee Rascal’s 2009 single, Dirtee Cash, seem particularly prescient given recent events (“Let me take you down to London city, where the attitude’s bad and the weather is shitty”). Dizzee probably has enough influence to become some sort of figurehead for the disaffected, though as his stock rises, how long can he really connect to the feelings of the people? Hip-hop artists generally start their careers stressing how much like us they are, but that attitude often changes when sponsorship, sexual attention and dollar signs come calling. Over the coming months, it will be interesting to see what comes through from new and exciting artists.
It could be argued that the power of song has been diminished, but perhaps this is only the case in the capitalist, commercialised west. When citizens took to the streets of Cairo earlier this year to protest about the reign of Hosni Mubarak, singers armed with acoustic guitars rallied the crowds into the small hours. The protest movement is still relevant after all. Maybe it’s only in times of real strife that people feel the need to articulate their frustrations in such a way. It just seems a shame that in the western world, it’s a tradition that’s falling by the wayside.