Led by Mercury Prize 2019 winner Dave, and an angry list of nominees, we check out songs of modern protest. Get riled up...with Anna Calvi, FONTAINES D.C. IDLES, Foals, Little Simz, SEED ensemble et. al. Has the Protest song changed? Only one way to find out…
Can an industry prize be considered anything other than establishment? Well, maybe not now. Take The Mercury Music Prize for example. Something seriously anti-establishment went on during this year’s ceremony in West London (September 19th). The bands (most of them anyhow) took to the stage to demonstrate and to remonstrate - in Slowthai’s case, to such an extent that the TV coverage was cut off. When was the last time that happened? Along with Little Simz, IDLES, FONTAINES D.C., black midi (whoa you do have to mind your letter case with band names these days!) Anna Calvi and winner Dave, the performers on the night seemed to have made a binding contract beforehand that they would each do their bit to see if they could collectively get a riot going. It made for somewhat oddly juxtaposed (if excellent) performance by Nao as if she hadn’t received the memo. It provided a little bit of breathing space I guess. Meanwhile Cate Le Bon looked too whacked-out to be too bothered either way, though her song Home To You, abstract as it is, appears to be a hymn to the displaced, nomadic existence of the refugee (and check out that video too).
Even the Jazz nomination this year (there is usually at least one) is angry. SEED Ensemble’s album Driftglass has a few protest tunes among its instrumental collection. The Darkies for example, was written as a response to the disturbing rise in racism, while Wake (for Grenfell) is obviously a statement too. Jazz today seems to embrace the social and political rebellious spirit as ever Jazz did. But all of a sudden, every branch of pop music has gone sociopolitical.
As many journalists have commented, the fact that the majority of the Mercury nominated artists have made albums of protest is not only a sign of the times, but has proved something of a coup for the Mercury’s - a prize that has been floundering a little in recent years for a variety of reasons, not least whether a celebration of ‘best album’ is relevant in today’s song-driven marketplace. The prize might just have put itself back into the centre of the UK’s cultural map. What sponsors Hyundai make of all this is anyone’s guess, but I hope they embrace it. These days a brand can gain substantial equity from stoking the flames a bit. The protest song has made a comeback. But, has the nature of protest pop changed? Well, we thought you might want to judge for yourself, via our double vinyl playlist Protest Now! (side a) and Protest Then! (side b). With Dave and Billie holding the torch (or, the mike!).
There are a few things to listen out for. For one thing, during the history of protest music, there has tended to be a focus on one or other serious issue going on - wars, bad presidents, shows of racism and oppression, injustices, terrorism and gun crime. In protest music from 2018-19, the overriding theme is that most things going on have become serious issues. We’ve got all of the above to contend with, along with climate change, plastic dependency, refugee crises, me-too, male suicide, the loneliness epidemic, mental health in crisis, and the brain-numbing effects of technology and social media. Oh, and lies, lies and more lies. You can see why people are anxious, but should pop music stoke us up, or cheer us up?
Our Protest Now! includes songs about big tech companies taking over entire neighbourhoods and changing the nature of community (Death Cab For Cutie’s Goldrush, Awate, Turkish Dcypha’s Displaced - with the rather wonderful refrain ‘we don’t care about your real estate, we’re from a real estate’). We even include an ingenious protest again songwriter royalties (Esthero’s Gimme Some Time), rather ingeniously (and charmingly) dropped onto the streaming services while nobody was listening.
For another thing, more concerning perhaps, protest songs of the past have tended to look to galvanise and rally the people round to wake up, stand up and rise up. The power was with the people, or could be, with a rallying cry. There seemed to be the belief that revolution could be started by way of a song. That doesn’t feel like the central theme these days.
While modern songs give vent to their anger in all manner of ways, there is an awful lot of what can only be called ‘resignation’. Empathy yes, anger yes, but resignation. The call to action that we can change things if we work together, seems to have been de-prioritised, perhaps because those making art simply observe that a change, when it comes right down to it, is less likely to come. When a million people can march against going to war, the government goes to war anyway. When a million people march to have the right to reverse decisions made in a fog of misinformation and distrust, the decision is held anyway. Revolution? Songs of protest would do well to get us all to look up from our smartphones at the same time, let along take to the streets in the name of revolution.
Toxic Times? The day after the Mercurys (September 20th) many millions of people from multiple countries took place in the Global Climate Change Strike, one of the largest people demonstrations ever coordinated. The whole movement was created by Greta Thunberg, a 16 year old Swede who is more inspiring, and more trusted than any politician on the planet. So, Greta it is to bring us full circle and complete our playlist (good backing band too!). Perhaps songs can change the world after all!
I do hope that the Mercury Prize and its sponsors use the opportunity they now have to play a bigger role in music discovery. We need more platforms to help elevate artists making great work, to the next level.
Should you feel the need to get riled up, further reading on the subject of protest songs. Amazingly, there is an entire website dedicated to the ongoing history of protest songs, called ‘The Ongoing History Of Protest Songs’. Meanwhile, Chris Richards’ recent piece in the Washington Post is a thought-provoking piece that led to the idea of us comparing our more modern brand of protest songs with those from throughout the history of popular song. Enjoy, if that’s the correct term. And power to the people!