The 1960s was a decade of monumental change in sociopolitical, technological, and musical spheres. The United States was in the midst of an unpopular war and for the first time the American people were brought to the front lines. Each night families would sit in front of their television screens and watch the images of violence and destruction that planted the seeds for thousands of protest songs. Civil rights and war became the motifs of rock bands, folk musicians and Motown vocalists. The Protest Song Movement reached across the lines that had been drawn to separate genres. Its success is a reminder that labels and distinctions are the products of critics and record companies. Although the mediums of self-expression varied from musician to musician, the message in the lyrics was often the same. The focal point of the Protest Song Movement of the 1960s was the Vietnam War. Today, artists remain political but the scope of their involvement has changed as they are now speaking out against the American dependence on the media, commercialism, and most recently the condition of Africa.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
As the 1960s came to a close, two artists were working vigorously on anthems that would define their beliefs. Marvin Gaye, a Motown soul singer wrote “What’s Going On” and John Lennon penned “Imagine”. These two musicians had very different backgrounds. One was African American, the other a British citizen. One had started his career as a rock musician, the other had roots in Soul/ R&B. However, both Lennon and Gaye had written songs protesting the senseless of war and urging peace. There was a sense of community in the music world that crossed boundaries. Normally, folk movements start with the common people and rise to popularity. Here the movement came from the top down, and the community that spawned the Protest Movement was composed of popular musicians themselves. This was a folk movement without precedent, not based on art or the media, yet truly influential.
John Lennon – Imagine
Today, American musicians have reached a level of self-involvement and passiveness that seems shocking when analyzed. Underground music continues to make statements, but these bands have such limited influence that their points have little influence on the American people. A minority of musicians continue to push their opinions, protesting commercialism, the media, and African apartheid. These artists are attempting to reverse the negative effects of the media and mobilize their listeners to make a change. If other musicians would only resist the opinions and trends that the mass media implements, songs protesting and advocating other causes could reemerge.
Green Day – American Idiot
In 2004, the punk rock band Green Day released the album titled American Idiot, which became an instant hit and went all the way to number one on the American Billboard charts. The title track refers to the “new media” and those who follow it as “American idiots”. Of course punk rock has always been anti-establishment and continues to be one of the strongest forces in the modern Protest Song Movement. However, even the self-centered Kanye West took a stab at the protest song with 2005’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”, which claims that the diamonds we consume are the product of child slave labor. Not only does this song denounce consumerism, but it also addresses Africa, which has been a hot issue among musicians this decade. Finally, it’s a common belief that the media and commercialism institute conformity, and in 2003 the alternative rock group Radiohead released “2+2=5” (an allusion to George Orwell’s 1984). Americans today allow the media to make choices for them. The message is clear: “You have not been paying attention.”
Kanye West – Diamonds of Sierra Leone
The Protest Song continues to survive in modern music. Although it attracts a much smaller following than its 1960s counterpart, its scope remains as broad as ever. Every genre has artists with issues that need to be heard. But how come the protest song has become such a rarity, and refuses to address the current unpopular war? It’s possible that many musicians fear a backlash, as was the case when the Dixie Chicks bashed President George W. Bush and severely hindered their record sales. In the 1960s, artists used songs as a medium to spread their message, and to many this was far more important than success or album sales. Today, the message is only of secondary importance after the music. Kanye might sing about child labor now, but ask him to take a pay cut, he might be singing a slightly different tune.
Radiohead – 2+2=5