We need our protest songs

August 15, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Laura Campbell

The other day I was listening to some music from the ’90s and remembered just how quickly and how drastically our popular culture has changed in the past 20 years. 

There was a time when rock and roll was protest music … and rock and roll was mainstream. My sister and I grew up listening to the radio, of course, as many of you dear readers did, and we also watched a lot of music television! Every day after school, at least one hour of music videos were consumed, like zombies consume the dead. My poor parents!

One of our favourite bands was a Los Angeles-based group called Rage Against the Machine. Rage is one of the most successful rock bands of all time, selling over 16 million records worldwide. They sang about revolution – about injustice and war, about the genocide of Native Americans, and so on. But since 2000 (the year of their last record, Renegade), no popular equivalent of such a band exists. Am I too old, or out of touch? (I called my sister, who has a much deeper cultural compass than I, and she confirmed, that no … it doesn’t exist in the mainstream right now).

Certainly there is plenty of counter-culture out there; there is a broad spectrum of music across genres that challenges us to think differently (especially in the hip-hop scene). But it is so out-of-sight, so underground, with little evidence that it may re-appear on our radio stations any time soon (and this is due to a variety of reasons, especially the onset of music streaming apps). So what interests me so much about the ’90s as a cultural period, is that despite the fact that “capitalism had won,” that the threat of nuclear holocaust should have disappeared with the end of the Cold War, there was still so much skepticism. There was a resistance to the commodification of counter-culture. But then the year 2000 hit. Something changed. And before I knew it, I was watching an Apple commercial set to Nina Simone’s Sinnerman. My heart sank into the pit of my stomach. 

My question is: where has the counter-culture gone? People have been left behind by capitalism in a very real way. Most of us just keep working, paying our bills, and keep striving to live a positive, healthy life. But I would argue that we have mostly become less and less effective at uniting around causes that challenge the corporate machine, and the 1% who benefit from it. Even if we aren’t always successful at building a more equitable society, it is still important to try, and certainly equally important to sometimes commiserate about it all together. But there are two things standing in the way: 1) time. Folks don’t have enough of it, because we are working. 2) The internet!

The internet was supposed to liberate us, connect us, and provide all kinds of tools of resistance to oppression etc. But then along came Instagram, Facebook and the culture of hyper individualism. The era of the self has literally become the most effective conduit through which the world’s largest corporations have exponentially increased their profits. Our data is mined, analyzed, and utilized to strategically sell us everything: our idealized version of ourselves. It is so successful, that eventually WE become the advertisement. My phone knows that I’m writing this column and thinking about this very thing… so every few posts along my ‘feed’ is an advertisement asking me to ‘unplug’ and download a new meditation app. My phone knows I’m having an existential crisis related to climate change, war, disease, famine and my helplessness in the face of it all. My phone knows. 

At a recent World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland, the world’s wealthiest corporate leaders gathered to acknowledge that inequality was a growing problem (thanks captain obvious), and that the best way to deal with it is to focus on ‘individual well-being.’ If every person who feels helpless in the face of the world’s problems just goes on more bike rides, does yoga, meditates, eats healthy foods (keto diet!), then there won’t be any challenges to the system … right? Right.  

Ironically, anti-system movements do exist. But they are no longer progressive. They are not expressed through song, but are instead manifested inside the new far-right political scene. The “new” counter-culture seeks to restore the order of days long since passed: before women’s liberation, before social justice efforts became broadly legislated (with of course much work left to be done), before gay rights, etc. 

We need to fight back. Not just in our political scene, but culturally as well. We need rock and roll like we’ve never needed it before. We need rap and hip hop. We need our country and folk singers (shout out to Luke Bryan!). We need all of these genres and mediums to sing the songs of resistance once again. This is a key part of how we rebuild our communities and networks of solidarity. 

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