Protest music helped save 20th-century America. But are today’s pop artists up to the task?

Time to level up, Taylor.
Time to level up, Taylor.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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During the second half of the 20th century, popular music and social justice went hand in hand. Oppressive Jim Crow laws spurred Sam Cooke to pen the civil rights masterpiece “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Margaret Thatcher’s conservative crusade in the UK led to the rise of the Clash. And during the Vietnam War, as Donald Trump, George W. Bush and thousands more with rich fathers escaped the fates of poor men in Vietnam, John Fogerty gave us “Fortunate Son.”

These sublime, vital songs emerged as anthems for protestors fighting institutional racism, insidious income inequality, and immoral wars. Now, as white nationalism surges in the US and abroad, popular artists have a new opportunity to write progressive rallying cries, lead by example, and remind listeners that great art can imbue a generation with a fresh a sense of purpose. But is mainstream music up to the task?

There are certainly bright spots among today’s most popular artists, particularly among people of color. With the release of her 2016 album Lemonade, the mighty Beyonce embraced politics with grand statements on black oppression in singles “Formation” and “Freedom.” Hip-hop artists such as Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and Killer Mike of Run the Jewels (a noted supporter of Bernie Sanders) are just on the verge of becoming household names. And many underground artists, including Jon Connon and Moe Pope, have made political and social issues central to their work.

It’s mainstream pop—and its once-dangerous big brother, rock’n’roll—that has largely abandoned efforts to engage with political issues. American politics and Top 40 songs finalized a long, sad divorce around the dawn of the millennium. During the George W. Bush administration, America’s greatest protest singer was Neil Young, a Canadian in his 60s, who spent his post-9/11 years writing titles such as “Living with War,” “Shock and Awe” and “Let’s Impeach the President.” He had an assist from punks, folkies and MCs. Green Day sold 15 million albums shouting about “the subliminal mind fuck America” on American Idiot, and M.I.A. made her name advocating for disaffected around the globe on smash single “Paper Planes.” (Not coincidentally, both borrowed from the Clash for their revolutionary sounds.) But Green Day and M.I.A. were the exceptions, not the rule.

The best-selling pop artists of the new millennium, meanwhile, are all about escapism. Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Bruno Mars, and Pitbull urge us to drink and dance—the better to forget about drones bombing civilians, police brutality, Muslim bans, and big banks laughing all the way to the bailout.

The few pop stars who have attempted to get political in recent months have stumbled in their efforts. In December, hitmaker J. Cole landed his fourth consecutive number-one LP. But his response to the shooting of Michael Brown, “Be Free,” disappeared almost instantly. Country star Brad Paisley and hip-hop icon LL Cool J’s collaboration, “Accidental Racist,” was laughed into obscurity. Last month, Depeche Mode’s anti-nationalist “Where’s the Revolution” (their best single in years, if not decades) made the Top 40 in a half-dozen European countries. But the track failed to dent the Billboard’s Hot 100 in the States.

In the once-dynamic genre of rock’n’roll, the few bands that manage to pack sold-out arenas tend to avoid controversy. Coldplay, Foo Fighters and Jack White’s brief dalliances with protest music seem embarrassingly wimpy compared to their forbearers U2, Pearl Jam and Neil Young, who wear resistance as a badge of honor. Other major acts—Kings of Leon, Black Keys, twentyone pilots—seem decidedly uninterested in making social statements.

So what’s the problem? Part of the issue may lie in the waning influence of rock and pop in the cultural consciousness.

“Maybe rock and pop artists have less to say or maybe the genre is simply less relevant, even outdated,” says Kingsley Flood frontman Naseem Khuri.

Khuri can easily flip on a hip-hop station and hear young voice Kendrick Lamar lay down the Black Lives Matter anthem “Alright,” or heritage act A Tribe Called Quest take on gentrification in “We the People…” But he can’t find similar insight on rock radio.

“I’m hoping I will be inspired to learn about a topic because I heard a song about it on all mainstream radio stations, not just hip-hop ones,” he said.

Khuri sees the disappearance of dissent in music from a unique position. His Palestine-American upbringing (his parents are Palestinian refugees who emigrated to the United States from Lebanon) informs the band’s lyrics. But Khuri also has an academic’s understanding of politics. He graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government with a master’s, and his wife worked in the Obama White House as a speechwriter.

Khuri writes about literal divisions between society, like an overpass separating a wealthy Boston neighborhood and an area that’s “a little too black, a little too poor.” Another song’s lyrics recount an encounter with would-be friends who drift away from happy hour when a bombing comes on the news and they discover Khuri’s heritage.

For Khuri, politics and rock’n’roll belong together. The songwriter’s introduction to many injustices came through his record collection: the plight of undocumented immigrants (Bruce Springsteen’s “Matamoros Banks”), horror of female genital mutilation (Tori Amos’ “Cornflake Girl”), the Armenian genocide (a big chunk of System of a Down’s catalog).

“From ‘This Land is Your Land’ to ‘Strange Fruit,’ I have been shaped by music as a loud voice for societal reflection and change, and have been disappointed by rock ‘n’ roll’s relative quiet of late,” he says. “There doesn’t seem to be any ‘Born in the USA’-style takedowns permeating our consciousness. The Rage Against the Machines and System of a Downs aren’t cutting through now. I’m not thinking about any public policy challenge because I heard a band singing about it. I’m not learning.”

The history of pop protest

Since Sam Cooke and Bob Dylan, pop and protest have maintained a deep connection. Through liberal and conservative administrations, recessions and boom years, the connection has stood firm.

We tend think of the 1960s and early 1970s as the heyday of political pop, a time when Edwin Starr’s “War” topped the Billboard singles chart for three weeks. (By comparison, Taylor Swift mega-smash “Bad Blood” only lasted a week at No. 1.) But socially-conscious music had widespread appeal through the Ronald Reagan administration and Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution.

Yes, the 1980s were a decade of yuppies and hair metal. But the pop trifecta of Michael Jackson, Madonna and Prince made compassion, controversy, and empowerment thematic centerpieces: Think of “Man in the Mirror,” “Express Yourself,” and “Sign o’ the Times.”  Even the sonic fluff often came with messages. The German singer Nena’s “99 Luftballons (99 Red Balloons)” looked at the dangers of war hawks bent on nuclear destruction. Genesis’ “Land of Confusion” video directly mocked Reagan, the Cold War, and the arms race.

Alongside the pop giants, the biggest rock acts—U2, R.E.M. and Springsteen (and their understudies Midnight Oil, INXS and John Mellencamp)—found inspiration in injustice. Rock gods Springsteen, Sting and Peter Gabriel toured together to raise money for Amnesty International. Tracy Chapman had a runaway global hit about poverty in “Fast Car.” Bono and the Edge put two songs about Martin Luther King, Jr., on a single album (1984’s The Unforgettable Fire).

The 1990s inherited the previous decade’s sense of revolt with hit albums by Rage Against the Machine, Radiohead, Lauryn Hill, and Pearl Jam. Socially-conscious hip-hop exploded. Grunge had suburban kids questioning capitalism. An unprecedented number of female voices created a movement in the Lilith Fair.

But eventually, the major labels wrestled control from the young, energized voices. They wanted a more predictable, commodifiable stream of artists. And so they ushered in the boy-band boom and pop-country takeover. Why go looking for the next big thing in dance clubs and dirty bars when you could manufacture an act? Soon enough, mainstream music was dominated by inoffensive prefab artists like NSNYC and the Backstreet Boys, and apolitical pap such as LeAnn Rimes and Kenny Chesney.

Notes from the underground

Under the current system, capitalist gatekeepers are unlikely to go in for dissent. And so if we’re looking for the next Pearl Jam or Prince, it may be useful to look at how independent-minded artists are finding ways to reach broad audiences without record deals.

Some artists, including Amanda Palmer and Chad Stokes of Dispatch, have found power and autonomy releasing music on their own. This approach takes control out of the hands of corporations and gives the tools of the revolution back to the people. It allows underground artists to compete with whatever music Universal, Sony and Warner are jamming down teens’ throats today.

“Millennials are going to have their own Neil Young, god willing, and it isn’t going to be some rocker in his 60s,” says Palmer, who rose to fame as one half of cabaret punk duo the Dresden Dolls a decade ago. “It’s probably going to be a band like PWR BTTM (a queer-identified garage punk band on underground label Father/Daughter).”

Palmer herself may be in the running as the next Young. She has good political bonafides: She brought her ukulele down to Occupy Wall Street camps to play for protesters, and has a quiver full of angry, insightful songs about everything from date rape to school shootings.

Equally important, Palmer knows how to reach people. She used to raise a record $1.2 million to fund a solo album, art book, and tour. That’s not to say she’s mainstream—even if the Dresden Dolls’ two East Coast reunion shows this summer attracted about 5,000 fans each. But she is pioneering the route of the radical political artist built entirely on a direct relationship with fans. She has 1.2 million followers on Twitter and zero Top 40 hits.

Stokes, famous for fronting the indie superstar band Dispatch in the late 1990s, thinks it’s unlikely that major record labels will back new, young revolutionaries.

“Even with this horrid development of electing Trump, our institutions are too institutionalized to promote political music,” Stokes said. “I think there’s room for it but we have to lead the way. There’s no way the status quo mainstream power keepers in the music industry will do it for us.”

Like Palmer, Stokes is an expert in going around the music machine and ending up at the top. Dispatch toured relentlessly in the 1990s, preaching a modern flower-child gospel born of folk, punk and reggae. Even without industry support, the Boston trio became massive; nearly 60,000 fans showed up to the three sold-out TD Garden reunion shows in 2011.

With solo shows and his current band, State Radio, Stokes sells out 3,000-seat clubs and champions progressive politics and community involvement through his music and actions. Like Palmer, he went down Occupy camps to play. Today, he also spends many mornings before concerts volunteering with fans (sometimes serving meals to homeless people or setting up charity runs) and helps run a nonprofit that promotes women’s rights around the world.

Stokes says we shouldn’t be looking to corporate radio for the sounds of dissent: “My guess is they will be too worried about where their bread is buttered.” If the Bernie bros and members of Hillary’s pantsuit nation want their own “Born in the U.S.A,” Stokes advises searching unfettered online outlets such as SoundCloud, noisetrade and YouTube.

“Political art is niche now, but we’re going to see a rise,” Stokes said. “It won’t be from the top down, but largely from the bottom up. And most of it won’t be from bands we have ever heard of.”

Macklemore’s LGBT marriage equality anthem “Same Love” offers hope for those who want to believe that protest music can still make big waves via unusual channels. The 2012 ballad just missed the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 and had strong sales and decent airplay—the chief factors Billboard uses to calculate its singles charts.

But focusing exclusively on these metrics slights the song’s impact. The single came from a self-produced, self-recorded and self-released album. But because the time was right and the song was great, “Same Love” became a phenomenon, with 168 million YouTube views, 144 million Spotify spins, and a 2014 Grammy nomination for Song of the Year.

It’s hard for a pop song championing Black Lives Matter or the Fight for $15 to achieve the reach and force of “Same Love.” But it’s not impossible. Artists have the passion and the tools at their disposal. If they continue to rage against the machine, there’s a chance a song will catch fire with a new generation of activists.

Ultimately, the social impact of a particular protest song is hard to measure. But it matters less whether the average listener gets the message, and more that artists remain closely connected to politics, and to the struggles of people in their hometowns and around the world.

“For certain people political music falls on deaf ears, like every knucklehead chanting a chorus to a Creedence song or to ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ or not listening to what the Clash was actually saying,” Mighty Mighty Bosstones frontman and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” announcer Dicky Barrett said. “It’s just important for the art to get made. Who gets it, gets it. Who doesn’t, doesn’t. John Lennon went to his grave and most of the world didn’t get what he was saying.”

And even if progressive politics fail to dominate the charts, there will be an army of Amanda Palmers and Naseem Khuris to defy Trump. The revolution is on, even if it won’t be so easy to hear on mainstream radio.

“Weimar Germany had Weill and Brecht,” Palmer says. “Someone’s gotta run our resistance speakeasy.”