Monday, April 14, 2008

Whatever Happened To Protest Music?

"You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud"

"Masters of War," ---Bob Dylan, 1963

"We can dance, we can dance, we can dance, we can dance tonight
Come on just move your body
Come on just move your body"

"Not Leaving Without You," ---Paris Hilton, 2006


Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics.

Back in the 1960s, even the biggest-selling music artists routinely released songs that protested the Vietnam War and demanded change. From John Lennon ("Give Peace A Chance") to the Rolling Stones ("Street Fighting Man") to Bob Dylan ("Masters of War") the pop charts were full of protest songs.

Today, we're living in an era that is like the 1960s in many ways. The nation's social fabric has been torn asunder. An unpopular war based on lies rages on. And the occupant in the White House is a crook who makes even Richard Nixon look like a good president. In short, America is going down the toilet.

But unlike the 1960s, if you listen to today's music, you'd be unaware that there was any problem at all with today's America. The top pop stars of today have little to say about anything. Outside of some of the socially conscious hip-hop artists, today's music stars are content to peddle the most bland, innocuous lyrics imaginable. Mostly, the songs are about sex, sex, and more sex. If there's any message at all, it's: "Be apathetic. Don't use your brain. Be a good little consumer."

The shame of it all is that there's probably never been an era in American history that cried out more for protest songs.

Today, America is saddled with an unbelievably corrupt occupant in the White House. George W. Bush is guilty of a long list of serious crimes, from embracing torture as official state policy to illegal wiretaps to lying America into a $3 trillion fiasco of a war.

What's worse is that our nation's mainstream media has failed in its responsibility to inform the American people about Bush's crimes. Indeed, "journalists" like the Judith Miller of The New York Times actually worked hand-in-hand with the White House, to sell Bush's war to the American people.

Given this sad state of affairs, one might think that at least some of today's pop stars would be inclined to speak out about the ongoing crisis in America. The crimes of Bush and Cheney could easily be the inspiration for hundreds of protest songs.

But sadly, this isn't the case. Today's pampered pop and rock stars are quite content to sit in their mansions and count their cash and refuse to speak out on the issues of the day, much less write songs about them.

And as a result, our radio stations and pop charts today are full of the most sugary, banal, shallow dross imaginable. In fact, there's probably never been an era in U.S. musical history where popular music was as sanitized and apolitical as it is today.

True, there is the occasional exception (like when the Dixie Chicks dared to speak up against Bush). As a result, their career took a hit when Clear Channel yanked the group's songs from its radio stations. The band even received death threats from the NeoCon Bush supporters.

Most other top artists, though, have failed to follow the Dixie Chicks' lead and speak out. It's clear that they are cowards who are afraid any sort of risks of damaging their commercial prospects. (Of course, it's also possible that they simply don't give a sh*t about what's going on in America). I'm not sure which is worse: apathy, or cowardice---but today's pop stars are similar to the mainstream media in that they lack a spine and they're only concerned about making as much money as possible.

Ironically, despite the blatant commercialism of today's pop scene, music sales continue to plunge in the U.S. The big record labels bitch and moan endlessly about this. They point the finger of blame at file-sharing services. The latter, no doubt, have some of the blame---but I believe the main culprit is that today's music just plain sucks.

The best pop/rock music has always been risk-taking, rebellious, bold and creative. That's the polar opposite of today's sad line-up of Britney, Paris Hilton, Justin Timberlake and their endless clones.

Meanwhile, here's a salute to some of the best protest music of yesteryear:
  • "Ohio," ---Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970.
  • "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag," ---Country Joe & the Fish, 1967.
  • "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," ---Gil Scott-Heron, 1970.
  • "Power To The People," ---John Lennon, 1971.
  • "The Call Up," ---by The Clash, 1980.
  • "For What It's Worth," ----Buffalo Springfield, 1967.
  • "Shipbuilding," ---Elvis Costello, 1982.
  • "Between the Wars," ---Billy Bragg, 1985.
  • "Talkin' World War III Blues," ---Bob Dylan, 1963.
  • "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy," ---Pete Seeger, 1967.
  • "Get Up, Stand Up," ---Bob Marley, 1973.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget Edwin Starr's "War"
"What is it good for c Absolutely nothing
War is something that I despise
For it means destruction of innocent lives
For it means tears in thousands of mothers' eyes
When their sons go out to fight to give their lives."
And don't think the Bush administration hasn't played a heavy hand in keeping this war out of popular culture. With continued talk of tax cuts and no sacafice (other than shopping) asked of the poulace; it's no wonder the little Brittany's of the world have no clue. Great post Marc

microdot said...

Uh huh....War was great because it was mainstream MoTown!
How about Trouble Comin' Every Day

By Frank Zappa...
He wrote a lot of lyrics critical of government, but so much was obscure and silly...

Trouble Comin Every Day, though, that was as nasty as it gets, if you're gonna just write one...

Anonymous said...

What about Green Day's "American Idiot"? Or pretty much anything on the last 2 System of a Down albums? I'm not a fan of even the most popular rap music, but the Eminem song, "Mosh" was one that was on people's lips 4 years ago. As for more folky sounding protest music, David Rovics has some pretty amazing stuff. On my blog, I've been trying to feature a protest song on Fridays. Thanks for the reminder on all of the good stuff from the past. Funny how "For What It's Worth" still has relevancy in this modern world.

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of current protest songs. Go to and you will see over 2,500! Or try for more.

Anonymous said...

Johnny we owe this to 'ya
Traditional - new words by Rowland 4/08

Am Em
With guns and bombs and IEDs, hurroo, hurroo
Am C
With guns and bombs and EFPs, hurroo, hurroo
With guns and bombs and RPGs
Am Em
The Iraqis nearly slew 'ya
C G Am Em
Johnny lad you look so bad
Johnny I hardly knew 'ya

While on the road to old Baghdad, hurroo, hurroo
While on the road to old Baghdad, hurroo, hurroo
On Highway 9 to old Baghdad
A roadside bomb took all we had
It's all for a fraud is what's so sad
Johnny I hardly knew 'ya

I'm happy for to see you home, hurroo, hurroo
I'm happy for to see you home, hurroo, hurroo
I'm happy for to see you home
Back from the land of Babylon
Flesh eating bugs and shattered bones
Johnny I hardly knew 'ya

You haven't an arm you haven't a leg, hurroo, hurroo
You haven't an arm you haven't a leg, hurroo, hurroo
You haven't an arm you haven't a leg
You're a hopeless shell of a man on a peg
You'll have to be put with a bowl to beg
Johnny I hardly knew 'ya

When Johnny comes hobbling home again, hurroo, hurroo
When Johnny comes hobbling home again, hurroo, hurroo
Bush will cheer, Cheney will shout
Condi and Rummy will strut about
They all have a date with the Hangman's drop
Johnny we owe that to 'ya

They're rolling out the guns again, Iran, Iran
They're rolling out the guns again, Iran, Iran
They're vomiting up more mortal sin
They're the devil himself in human skin
Don't let them eat our sons again
Johnny's begging of 'ya

Unknown said...

There are plenty of protest songs being written. You just cant get them from any mainstream sources.

Michael Hawkins said...


Alice Cooper put plenty of rebellion/protest in his brutal planet/dragontown albums. Maybe not a direct protest agains the government as much as a reclammation on humanity as a whole.

More recently, Mehadeth made some pretty decent "protest songs" IMHO. They released their "united abominations" album in 2007, an album with very high production rates, and great music within its genre.
Not the "peace sells" complaint against politics or "the system has failed" rehashed, but new and original material.

It's just that the "protest song" isn't much an interest of the current pop-public, but there's plenty of rebellion to be found even in mainstream-metal music and hardrock.

As for pop,
consider "toy soldiers" "dear mister president" etc ...
Plenty of big shots over at the glitter stages have probed the marked for kids willing to chip out on protest, guess the sales just weren't all that.

No if you excuse me, I'm going to listen to my new scorpions CD (hits play for "winds of change")

WageslaveZ said...

Tell me true tell me why was Jesus crucified
Is it for this that daddy died?
Was it for you? was it me?
Did i watch too much t.v.?
Is that a hint of accusation in your eyes?
If it wasn't for the nips
Being so good at building ships
The yards would still be open on The clyde
And it can't be much fun for them
Beneath the rising sun
With all their kids committing Suicide
What have we done maggie what have We done
What have we done to england
Should we shout should we scream
"What happened to the post war dream?"
Oh maggie maggie what have we done?

-Pink Floyd: The Postwar Dream-

Lotus said...

Hopping in rather late on this, I have a couple of additional suggestions:

"The War Drags On" - Donovan
"The Unknown Soldier" - The Doors

There are several by Phil Ochs I would nominate but I'll just mention likely the best known:
"I Ain't Marchin' Anymore"

If you want something remarkably apt after nearly 40 years:
"Monster" - Steppenwolf

And if you want a great protest song that almost no one ever heard of:
"Draft Resister" - also Steppenwolf

Finally, with a nod to anonymous for the new lyrics, some years ago the Chad Mitchell Trio did a truly powerful song by combining the celebratory Civil War song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" with the original version, the bitter and sorrowful Irish ballad "Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye." That one is also about a returning vet, but the last verse of it goes

You haven't an arm and you haven't a leg, haroo, haroo.
You haven't an arm and you haven't a leg, haroo, haroo.
You haven't an arm and you haven't a leg -
You're an eyeless, boneless, chickenless egg.
And you'll have to be put with a bowl to beg.
Johnny, we hardly knew ye.

Anonymous is obviously familiar with the original.

On the overall issue, though, despite the, uh, protests, I think Marc is on the, er, oh damn, mark. The point is not that there is no protest music to be found, it's that you have to find it. There was a time when the lyrics, what the songs meant and in fact that they meant something worthwhile was simply more important to a greater portion of even mainstream pop artists than is the case now.

Some years ago, a British pop duo named Chad and Jeremy followed up a string of breezy hit singles with an album called "Of Cabbages and Kings," which was full of social protest (albeit of a gentle sort). It was "experimental" but not particularly musically radical for 1967 - but it was still a significant career risk for them.

The point of this story is that one of them, when asked about the album, said "There comes a point where the money doesn't matter anymore" and doing something worthwhile became the most important consideration. No, that doesn't make them radicals but I defy anyone to imagine one of our current pop divas ever saying any such thing.

Marc McDonald said...

Hi, folks, thanks for your comments! I appreciate the song suggestions; lots of great titles there.

One point I'd like to make is that I'm aware that there are still protest songs being written today. I just don't hear them on the radio or see them in the Top 40 chart. (Back in the '60s, protest songs were on the radio and in the charts---that's the key difference between then and now).

In fact, if you survey our popular culture in general today (from TV to radio to cinema), you'd have little idea that America is involved in an illegal bloody war of aggression that is slaughtering hundreds of thousands of men, women and children.

If you weren't up on the news, you'd think that all was well in America today. Our popular culture today is smug, arrogant, apolitical and cowardly. In that regard, it echoes our spineless, dishonest mainstream media.


Some interesting thoguhts here to be sure. And of course the most interesting ones seem to revolve around Bob Dylan. And since you are clearly a fan, I thought I'd introduce you to my new novel, BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, which I think you'd enjoy.

It's a murder-mystery. But not just any rock superstar is knocking on heaven's door. The murdered rock legend is none other than Bob Dorian, an enigmatic, obtuse, inscrutable, well, you get the picture...

Suspects? Tons of them. The only problem is they're all characters in Bob's songs.

You can get a copy on or go "behind the tracks" at to learn more about the book.

Marilyn Mock said...

One of the most recent protest songs was done by none other than Eminem. His song "Mosh" came out right before the last election. The lyrics are the strongest protest words I've heard in a long, long time:

Let the president answer a higher anarchy
Strap him with an Ak-47, let him go fight his own war
Let him impress daddy that way
No more blood for oil, we got our own battles to fight on our own soil
No more psychological warfare, to trick us to thinking that we ain't loyal
If we don't serve our own country, we're patronizing a hero
Look in his eyes its all lies
The stars and stripes, they've been swiped, washed out and wiped
And replaced with his own face

Anonymous said...

hello and thanks for your provocative column. yes, there's still a lot of writing and singing to do. I've posted some of my old songs at and would be happy to correspond. thanks. Stuart Leiderman

- - -

copyright Stuart M. Leiderman

I woke up this morning, it was November 2
My gal said, "Darlin', what's the matter with you?
It's Election Day, we got voting to do;
If you want to see some changes, better put on your voting shoes."

I got those old General Election blues,
Sitting on my back porch, waiting for the evening news.
Lord, I'm feeling like I can’t belong,
'Til I find out if I voted right or wrong.
'Got those old General Election blues.

Well, we went out the door, headed for the polls,
My stomach was a'growling and my pocket's full of holes;
Well, they keep telling me, "This land's got plenty to spare."
But I ain't seen nothing since my President's been up there.

'Got those old General Election blues, etc.

There were people milling 'round, showing me all sorts of signs;
They were greasing my palm, and handing me lines saying,
"Vote for me! I'm Red, White and Blue," and
"My mother likes me, and the Army Corps does, too!"

'Got those old General Election blues, etc.

So I picked up my ballot, made up my mind,
I went into that booth, but what did I find?
There were pictures of eagles...and elephants, too.
There were even some donkeys, and I thought I was down at the zoo.

'Got those old General Election blues, etc.

Well, I voted some left, and I voted some right;
And I crossed off all the crooks and I've stayed up all night,
'Cause one chance is all I've got...what else can I do?
But just for good measure, I voted MYSELF in, too!

'Got those old General Election blues, etc.

- - - - - - -

copyright Stuart Leiderman

There's a controversy ragin', from the upper crust on down,
Shall we let the Trojan A-bombs in? Shall we targetize the town?
Shall we trust our lives on threats of war, on overkill and doom?
Or throw the think-tank soldiers out and quickly lower their boom?

Well, you can let them pick your pantry bare and tax away your wealth;
You can let them militarize the moon and pawn your children's health;
You can automate your every need and ring your town with missiles,
And try to live on Sugar-Pops, light beer and Russian thistles.
(But they'll never know you disagree...who wants their Arma-gutter?
No! 'Better make 'em count your vote for "Less guns and more butter!")

Now, the generals have it all planned out--they'll hide beneath the rocks.
And while the sky is burning up, they'll tend synthetic flocks
Of geese, and sheep and who-knows-what to satisfy their palates,
And sleep at night on mattresses of disappearing ballots.
Well, you can let them pick your pantry bare, etc.

The factories have it all planned out--they'll build the bombs or close;
And they'll ultimatum you to death and lead you by the nose,
And pick your brains to give their contracts more bang for the buck;
And once a year they'll send around a gift-wrapped flying f(ish)...
Well, you can let them pick your pantry bare, etc.

The unions have it all planned out--they've offered you a pension,
And they've took the rest to live up there in zero-G suspension.
Until the surface cools off the billion dead at best;
Then they'll land their ship and march right out to organize the rest.
Well, you can let them pick your pantry bare, etc.

The bankers have it all planned out--read the print above your scrawl.
There's a penalty for "acts of God" or premature withdrawal.
But left intact, your balance grows and the chance is multiplied
That your NOW account buys guns and warheads for the other side.
Well, you can let them pick your pantry bare, etc.

The diplomats have it all planned out--they'll hold another meeting.
But they'll water down their politics so no one takes a beating.
And they'll never recognize the risks of going with the flow,
'Cause they're more concerned to be the first to say, "I told you so."
Well, you can let them pick your pantry bare and tax away your wealth; etc.

- - - - - - -