Opinion: We may be at a tipping point on the protest song

Editor’s Note: Bryan Reesman is a New York-based journalist. He is the author of “Bon Jovi: The Story” and host of the YouTube show “Side Jams.” The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

Protest songs, from “John Brown’s Body” to “Fight the Power,” have had a long and celebrated history of advocating for social change — and, in many cases, of uniting people behind important causes like labor rights, the anti-war movement, and equality for all. Given the current fragile state of our democracy, now would seem like the the time for more people to be standing up and raising their voices in protest songs. In mainstream music in 2024, however, it feels like the protest song has been oddly muted.

Bryan Reesman - Susan Lorenz
Bryan Reesman - Susan Lorenz

Four years ago, at a moment defined by political polarization, a pandemic and Black Lives Matter, more artists were making statements about a wide range of social issues and the state of our country. But America’s social chasm has only grown since then, aided by media bubbles and streaming algorithms.

So where are all the new protest songs?

There is certainly a marked difference in exposure for today’s protest songs. When jazz singer Billie Holiday addressed lynchings in the South with 1939’s “Strange Fruit,” radio barely played it. Today, an artist can bypass mainstream networks and go straight to the web. Such immediacy is powerful, and it also carries risks in a knee-jerk society ready to be outraged. But many are also receptive.

Six years ago, Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” and its controversial video exploring racial violence and police brutality against African Americans blew up thanks to YouTube — it is nearing a billion views. However, when interviewed about it, Gambino (aka Donald Glover) chose not to discuss the clip’s meaning, leaving interpretation up to each viewer. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” from 2015 was a popular song expressing hope in the face of racial prejudice and police brutality, and it became an anthem for Black Lives Matter protests in 2016 and beyond.

Kendrick Lamar performs "Alright" during the 2015 BET Awards in Los Angeles, California, June 28, 2015. - Kevork Djansezian/Reuters
Kendrick Lamar performs "Alright" during the 2015 BET Awards in Los Angeles, California, June 28, 2015. - Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

MILCK rose to prominence when she performed her song “Quiet,”about surviving sexual assault and abuse, with people at the 2017’s Women’s March. Some songs electrify the zeitgeist of the time. One of the biggest musical statements of 2024, Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter” album amplified the discourse on the black roots of country music, and its closing track “Amen” makes an allusion to the protest song “Mercy Me” by Marvin Gaye.

Protest songs often thrive at an indie level, and there have been many this year. The perennial mainstream rock champions of protest are Green Day whose new album “Saviors” includes “The American Dream Is Killing Me.” ”People on the street/Unemployed and obsolete/Did you ever learn to read the ransom note?/Don’t want no huddled masses/TikTok and taxes/Under the overpass/Sleeping in broken glass.” But it feels like bigger songs are not as visible this year.

For many younger artists, there can be concerns about social media hordes twisting their words through isolated sound bites; these performers also lack the cross-generational fanbases of more established artists. Bruce Springsteen, for example, can more easily address certain social issues because that’s been coded into his musical DNA.

US bluegrass and hip hop group Gangstagrass performs on stage of the Smukfest Music Festival in Skanderborg, Denmark, on August 3, 2023. - Helle Arensbak/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Ima
US bluegrass and hip hop group Gangstagrass performs on stage of the Smukfest Music Festival in Skanderborg, Denmark, on August 3, 2023. - Helle Arensbak/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP via Getty Ima

The protest songs of the current moment are there if you know where to look. Gangstragrass is a multiracial group whose music combines bluegrass with hip-hop and whose political beliefs within its membership span a wide range. Their new song “Mother” addresses our precarious environment: “If this planet’s an organism and the people are cells/And her skin is what we’re piercing when we’re drilling these wells/Tell me, what do we say to ourselves/When the blood spills and brings a torrent of death, she’s getting more ill.”

2020’s provocative “Freedom” takes on seeking racial justice and equality from both revolutionary and scholarly perspectives, pondering whether nonviolence is always effective when one is faced with repeated violence. The New York Times noted that they draw fans of all political persuasions. The song was well-received by their growing audience, but often, the challenge is getting such material to a wider audience.

As Gangstagrass’s Dolio the Sleuth, one of the group’s two MCs, told me via a group Zoom, “There’s consolidation on the distribution of music, when it comes to venues, and when it comes to ticketing. When all of those avenues are being controlled by people who have other interests — that are not necessarily in the best interests of the community at large — you’re going to get a muzzling on the voices who are trying to talk about the things that matter. There’s probably way more of it now than there’s ever been — it’s just that they don’t get above ground broadcasts [or] distribution. It’s taking it back to the grassroots level.”

Sometimes a song grows unexpectedly. Oliver Anthony’s self-released country ballad “Rich Men North of Richmond” from last summer went No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and has accumulated 148 million YouTube views and over 220 million Spotify listens. The emotional vocal and guitar track, which expressed the frustrations of the common man struggling to make ends meet today, struck a blue-collar chord with its universal theme. It also threw shade on some welfare recipients and had a line of seemingly QAnon-inspired wordplay, “I wish politicians would look out for miners/And not just minors on an island somewhere/Lord, we got folks in the street ain’t got nothin’ to eat/And the obese milkin’ welfare.”

Despite efforts by the right and left to, respectively, claim and denounce “Rich Men North of Richmond,” classifying it as a protest song is tricky at best. As Anthony told Variety last year: “It’s hard to get a message out about your political ideology or your belief about the world in three minutes and change. I hate to see that song being weaponized,” he said. “I see the right trying to characterize me as one of their own, and I see the left trying to discredit me, I guess in retaliation. That s**t’s got to stop.”

The recent Judas Priest single “Panic Attack” railed against how internet disinformation and propagandistic memes drive some people into an irrational rage. One lyric seems to invoke the January 6th insurrection attempt. No interviewer has brought this up, yet some fans have noticed the lyrical inferences. It’s an unusually political song for the band, but singer Rob Halford felt compelled to address the subject matter, including the concept of how repeating a lie over and over again can make some people believe it is true, although couched with some metaphor. However, a line like “there’s still time do what’s right/eliminate those parasites” is more direct.

“Reaction wise [it] has been mixed because let’s face it, all our fans want to do is bang their heads,” Halford shared in an e-mail exchange from Europe. “Rightfully so, however our fan base is smart enough to understand what’s being said.” He also feels “artists should never write lyrics under the guise of how their fans will react and connect because then you lose the honesty in your work.”

Sometimes a song like Bon Jovi’s mournful 2020 ballad “American Reckoning,” about the murder of George Floyd and its repercussions, draws some ire for being “political.” (Such fans forget that he regularly, if quietly, stumps for Democratic presidential candidates.)

“I think calling a song like that political just outs the listener as being very unsympathetic,” Paris Paloma said in a Zoom interview. Her stirring folk pop anthem “labour” explores women’s struggles in advocating for themselves: “The capillaries in my eyes are bursting/If our love died, would that be the worst thing?/For somebody I thought was my saviour/You sure make me do a whole lot of labour.”

“So many women who have identities that I don’t have, whether they’re trans women or trans men, queer women, women of color — they bring their experiences to ‘labour,’” Paloma explained. “That’s how the song has taken form as something played at protests, sung at protests, and sung for the purpose of protests.”

Singer & songwriter Steve Earle performs at City Winery Nashville on April 03, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. - Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Singer & songwriter Steve Earle performs at City Winery Nashville on April 03, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. - Jason Kempin/Getty Images

“I’m not sure everybody should try to write protest songs because not everybody can do it,” legendary singer-songwriter Steve Earle shared with me in a Zoom chat. Earle posited that Bob Dylan abandoned protests songs to not “be trapped in that box. He also had a critique of the protest songs he had written originally — he called them ‘fingerpointing songs’ — and he wasn’t sure that that was valid.”

Earle noted that with protest music, one can sing things they can’t say. He said he often does it by taking the guise of a character rather than himself, the successful musician. “Nobody gives a f**k about what happened to you,” he asserted. “They give a f**k about what happened to you that they identify with. The common experience. The job is empathy. Art is empathy.”

Paloma shared similar thoughts: “I think more and more now, people are understanding that some things are called political when they shouldn’t be, when it’s just matters of basic human empathy,” she said. “I think calling something like the search for equality political is really convenient for the people who don’t want to engage with it. [They] call themselves apolitical when they just don’t empathize with people who are less privileged than they are.”

Perhaps the term “protest song” should be paused at a time when everything is being scrutinized for the wrong reasons. Many are simply humanist songs or calls to action that can cross party lines.

George Michael once titled an album “Listen Without Prejudice.” That’s the challenge in a modern society where false binaries push people towards the edges and away from the middle. With people deeply ensconced in their cultural, social and political bubbles, uniting them is the biggest challenge. That necessitates the aforementioned grassroots effort to skirt mainstream interference, but it also requires an internal pushback against one’s own personal prejudices. That’s an important place to start.

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