The Dumbing Down of Protest Music

Yeah, the Daily Beast has it right.

This month, two anniversaries seem to harmonize with one another. Fifty years ago, civil-rights protestors marching from Selma to Montgomery were rallying and singing and sometimes bleeding and dying for freedom. And 30 years ago, a feel-good anthem sung by rock stars to fight African hunger was climbing the charts. Moving from “We Shall Overcome” in 1965 to “We Are the World” in 1985 highlights African-Americans’ miraculous leap forward in those two decades.

But the We-are-the-Worlding of protest also reflects a decline from a high-stakes politics of seriousness to a politics frequently fraught with celebrity-inflected idiocy and posturing. In 1965, the Reverend Martin Luther King called on priests, ministers, and rabbis for moral authority. Today, activists yearn for Brangelina’s celebrity super-couple glamour infusion.

Amid many momentous anti-segregation protests, Selma framed the moral issue starkly. Televised images of deputized white hooligans beating nonviolent blacks and whites brought Southern oppression into American living rooms. By mid-March, President Lyndon Johnson had launched the Voting Rights Act to combat Southern voter harassment by singling out jurisdictions where fewer than half the citizens voted.

Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

2 thoughts on “The Dumbing Down of Protest Music

  • March 30, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    Having read this article one thing is clear… Dumbing down IS and always has been a problem but it has nothing to do with music. This article embodies exactly the “slackivist” level of commitment to action that it decries. Conflating social activism and charity work as though they were one and the same displays the level of thought, research and analysis that went into this “journalism” is pretty much what one expects from the Twitter-net-era.

    I’m not here to do the author’s job for them but I’m feeling charitable so here are some pointers on how to “do journalism”.

    1) Choose a subject.
    (in this case one presumes it’s something called “protest music”)

    2) Define it.
    (Fail. The author fails to define what this music is or its relevance of function in the world of social activism)

    3) State and give examples PROVING or at least arguing that it A) actually exists AND that B) it is some way relevant to the life of your potential reader’s existence/world.
    (Fail. What is “serious” protest music? As opposed to, one presumes, frivolous or giddy protest music? Would people still fight or protest for their rights if this music didn’t exist? Give one example where MUSIC won a negotiation or an election or was central to the achieving of ANY quantifiable goal )

    4) Having achieved the above steps, make your case that the change/issue or trend you feel you’ve identified is worthy of comment, of attention, perhaps even of action.
    (Fail. Conflating this hypothetical “serious protest music” and social activism (MLK/”We shall overcome”) with the loudest possible example of “charity work” ever (“We are the World”) demonstrates that the author understands neither phenomenon, how they differ and the many ways in which they have absolutely nothing to do with each other.)

    5) Just because “everybody knows” something doesn’t mean it’s even remotely true or substantiated by fact. It’s your job to research FACTS, not just accepted opinions and to PROVE your case not merely assume it’s true.
    (How is the “dumbing down” of something that you haven’t proven has any importance or relevance in the first place in any way having an impact on the world?
    Many American Baby-Boomers lament the lack of inclination to protest in today’s youth because they labor under the collective, convenient and nostalgia-based delusion that their hippie-days “sex drugs and rock and roll” protests brought about all manner of social improvement and change in and of themselves. Not one of them has ever been able to prove this. Others have made far more convincing cases that point to geo-political, technological, ideological or socio-economic or other forces in more compelling explanations that in no way support the popularly received “story” of ’60’s protest-culture.)

    5) Repeat the above steps until you realize that actual journalism requires WORK and most importantly THOUGHT.

    6) The next time you come up with a catchy or inflammatory title, be so kind as to actually deliver an article that is in some way related to it and that actually makes some sort of coherent point along those lines.

    You’re welcome.

  • March 30, 2015 at 4:50 pm

    Alan, there’s also a more sinister culprit. Most modern performers have contracts with corporate music labels which expressly forbid speaking out against anything within the company’s realm.

    That’s why the closest thing to a protest song you’ll hear now is that terrible generic one by Nickelback or the female empowerment hits of Katy Perry.

    In order to have real protest singers, the general population has to feel the pain. Once they start hurting enough they’ll start singing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.