Where Have All the Protest Singers Gone?

This post was inspired by an article in The Guardian newspaper by Ed Vulliamy entitled, “Bruce Springsteen: last of the protest singers”. Vulliamy makes the point that Springsteen is the last of the iconic stadium rock acts who is still writing meaningful – and timely – protest songs.

And he’s right. Think about the list of stadium rock acts – from the Rolling Stones to Bon Jovi. And the reason for this is Springsteen’s lyrics. I recently wrote a blog post about what writers can learn from songwriters, and Springsteen was the first example I used. However, I didn’t look at his political lyrics – it was more a general overview of his lyrics. But just to take a recent example – on Springsteen’s new album, Wrecking Ball, his sights are set firmly on the bankers, bondholders, etc. that have gotten both the US and Europe into the financial mess that these countries are in. And it is this timeliness that is the reason Springsteen’s songs resonate so much.

Springsteen’s continued relevance is because his lyrics are not outright polemics. He doesn’t write political screeds; he criticises through the voices of the people in his songs. He talks about people and how their lives are affected by what’s happening in the world around them: the child in “Used Cars” who swears someday when he makes it rich he’ll never have to ride in a used car again like his parents; the young child hiding in the corn fields and staring up at the “Mansion on the Hill”. In the song “Johnny 99”, he narrates the story of a man who goes “postal”, embarking on a shooting spree and eventually being convicted to 100 years in jail for it. The reason for his rampage is contained in the opening lines of the song:

“Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month
Ralph went out lookin’ for a job but he couldn’t find none
He came home too drunk from mixin’ Tanqueray and win
He got a gun shot a night clerk now they call him Johnny 99”

This is a reflection of the crisis that hit the auto industry in the US in the 80s. But rather than being some tedious rehashing of facts and figures, Springsteen frames it within a compelling narrative, so we barely even notice what it is he’s alluded to in the opening.

He did this with the plight of Vietnam Vets in the 80s (“Born in the USA”, “Shut Out the Light”). After Sept 11 when America was reeling, Springsteen returned with The Rising, an album that doesn’t specifically mention Sept 11 or the Twin Towers, but whose shadow is cast over every line of every song. And now, he’s back with this new album – Wrecking Ball – that speaks volumes about our current situation.

But another issue that this brings up is the fact that the latest generation of singers coming up are not doing this. The fact is, the Old Guard – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, even U2 – are ineffectual. They no longer speak about such things to any great extent and – even if they did – have no way of connecting with a younger audience. (This is not to suggest that Springsteen’s audience is “young” necessarily, but I think a cursory glance around at a Springsteen concert would confirm that he attracts – proportionately – a younger audience than most established stadium rock acts, with the exception perhaps of U2)

So who are the singers and bands that are connecting with “the youth” of today? For the purposes of this post, I took a look at some of the Top 40 charts in both Ireland and Britain. Now, bear in mind, the whole purpose of this post is the contention that Springsteen is the last major MAINSTREAM artist writing political songs. At his height in the 80s, Springsteen was going head to head with Madonna and Michael Jackson, and singing about Vietnam Vets while scoring Top 10 hits. But if we look at some of the artists in the Top 40 today – Lady Gaga, Cheryl Cole, Coldplay, Rihanna, Ed Sheeran, Katy Perry, Jessie J – while there are plenty of Madonna and Michael Jackson-type pop acts, there are very few artists it would seem with an actual message.

This, of course, could be dismissed as old-fogeyism. But if it is, I would challenge anyone to tell me – where are today’s protest singers?


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7 thoughts on “Where Have All the Protest Singers Gone?

  1. Hi Derek

    You are right. There has never been a time more suited for protest and never have there been so few songs catching the mood of the people. This song by Stevie Wonder could be our government and the power elite, right now, but unfortunately it was released in 1974, before either of us were born: He’s talking about Richard Nixon (who, it must be said, inspired some high quality protest singing, he was also the “tricky dicky” referred to in “Gimme Some Truth” by John Lennon) but it could be our leaders, right here and now.

    Stevie Wonder – You Ain’t Done Nuthin

  2. Excellent post. Joan Baez? Where is she now? Yes, she’s 71, but her lyrics and sounds moved our generation. Today, not sure what the music is about…sex, drugs, rock n roll, but politics? Not so much.

  3. Ooh, ooh! Hands Held High by Linkin Park. In fact, quite a bit of Linkin Park’s songs are protest songs. Also, I believe Green Day has some. Gym Class Heroes has one out now called The Fighter that is protest-ish. I believe that there are a lot more than people realize. And, in the artists’ defense, the radio doesn’t typically pick the protest/controversial songs to play on the radio. Sadly, not too many people will dig deeper to try and find real songs.

    1. That’s a great point about the radio, Ashley. Don’t know a lot about Linkin Park but, you’re right, Green Day did have the American Idiot album (although it was only one album). Still those two would be the only “stadium rock” acts I’m talking about in the post. There’s definitely niche singers and bands doing protest stuff but no-one of Springsteen’s status, I don’t think.

  4. I have to say that the songs of the protest-singers (sometimes known as ‘folk singers’) of my day (that makes me feel so old!) are still valid — Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Kingston Trio, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs…. the list is rather long really. Listen to some of their songs from the 1960’s and 1970’s and realize that some things are timeless.

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