“The times they are a–changin',” sang Bob Dylan. But when times did change, protest songs such as that one went out of fashion quickly. Dylan distanced himself from what he called his “finger-pointing songs” and so long as the economy and mood of the country seemed relatively fine, there didn’t seem to be much need for protest music.
But times are changing once again. And as citizens encamp in various cities as part of the Occupy Wall Street protests, what’s missing are the voices that years ago would have captured the movement’s ideas in song. When the Huffington Post put together a playlist for Occupy Wall Street, most songs were from before 1980.
“Of young artists, I can’t really think of anybody offhand who might fulfill an appropriate function as a protest singer,” said Ian Peddie, author of the book “The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest.” “We don’t see songs like (the Sex Pistols’) ‘Anarchy in the UK’ anymore. The days of lyrically storming the barricades are fewer and fewer.”
Peddie credits Bruce Springsteen, Rage Against the Machine and recently-deceased rap pioneer Gil Scott Heron with keeping the tradition of socially engaging music alive, but both of those artists emerged decades ago.
So why don’t we hear protest music anymore? Well, the very type of corporate structure that’s being protested now keeps it off the air, said Douglas Rushkoff, author of the anti-corporation tome “Life, Inc.”
“Radio is a corporate medium, so you can’t wage genuine valid protest inside it,” Rushkoff said. “Radio’s customers are its advertisers. Why would they play music from people telling (advertisers) not to buy their stuff?”
But there is protest music out there, according to folksinger Anthony da Costa and singer-songwriter and activist Jessie Torrisi. You just need to look for it — and to not expect it to take the form of a “new Dylan.”
“There are people in the folk scene who in the serious sense of the word are ‘labor movement singers,’” said da Costa. “There’s a woman named Anne Feeney who has traveled around the country for years being part of different labor movements and singing union songs.”
Torrisi said that in the commercial music world, the rapper M.I.A. is helping to bring issues of global injustices to mainstream audiences.
“What artists do instead of writing political music is raise money for causes or give concerts and try and raise awareness that way,” Torrisi said.
Other current artists whose work could be considered part of the protest genre include singer-songwriter Steve Earle, the hip hop duo Dead Prez and John Legend when he teamed up with the Roots for the CD “Wake Up!”
Torrisi said that one reason we don’t hear more protest music is in order to write such songs, artists need to be in an environment where change is in the air. But if the Occupy Wall Street protests continue, maybe change will come about and someone will pick up where Dylan or Joe Strummer left off.