I (don’t) predict a riot: protest gone wrong?

reveals the modern music industry’s lack of purpose

Image: Flickr; DBKING

There’s two common chants in the mu – sic industry as of late. The first goes a bit like this: “Modern music is shit. Ah, remember the good old days when music had soul…” The second “oh, Jeremy Corbyn.” These delightful refrains, often chanted by the same individuals, present the current contradiction in the industry. The main criticism levelled at the industry is its lack of innovation and general emotional vacancy. Ironically, this has been a consistent argument levelled at the industry in just about every era. There’s a reason why great songs usually emerge from countercultural movements. Musicians are inspired or depressed into action by their perceived horror at the state of everyone else’s musical offerings.

However, there has been a recent absence of the ‘pro – test song’. Unfortunately, I am unwilling to count the unabashed appropriation of the White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ / ‘oh Jeremy Corbyn’, a now frequent feature of nights out and political rallies. Perhaps I am wrong to do so; this song falls in a long tradition of protest music, and while it doesn’t quite hit the same musical mark as its predecessors it is still a politically inclined song. What it does not do, though, is bring anything new musically to the table. If this is the most widespread ‘protest song’ of recent memory, then maybe there is a serious issue within the industry. What happened to combining talent with social action? The chant does remind us, though, that protest and music have a special potency when combined.

Protest movements have been abundant throughout history, most powerfully preserved in the public imagination when talent and social change walked so closely hand in hand that the two could not be separated. Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ cannot be judged separate from Rubin Carter’s imprisonment, neither can ‘At Folsom Prison’, especially when Johnny Cash re – corded the live version in the place itself. The performance of American folk artists at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, or at the Woodstock Festival, also closely tied their music to the anti-war and civil rights movements, an association which has instilled a sense of historic destiny to their music.

It might be unfair to compare songs sup – porting racial equality with the newest chart releases aiming to simply entertain. That doesn’t mean that there is no modern comparison or that current music is always superficial; there are plenty of causes which still need championing, and many musicians do take political stances. For example, Wolf Al – ice played at a Tories Out march in protest against the Conservative-DUP election result. What’s the difference? Those artists who performed fifty years ago have more nostalgic padding than those of four months ago. They’ve proven that they were on the right side of history, and so irony strikes again – the protest moments we celebrate the most are those which have very little edge or dispute to them remaining.

There’s another kind of protest which goes a little less recognised, but is equally potent. The role of identity and inclusion within the industry has been a marker for social progressivism, but at some stage rules had to be broken in order to allow people into the mainstream. The efforts to censor RnB mu – sic during the 1950s was a direct attempt to exclude African Americans from the radio and the public sphere. Often white artists would cover songs in order to capitalise on black musical talent, for example Fats Domino’s ‘Ain’t That a Shame’ was covered by Pat Boone and reached number 1 on the US Billboard Chart. Domino would go on to become a widely successful artist but this initial resistance to who Domino was – a black man – rather than what he was singing about, shows how challenging the norms involved in the music industry can be an act of rebellion itself.

The fact is, protest music can be more about the protest than the music, as shown by the Corbyn chant. We assign meaning to these songs based on what they represent, and elevate them appropriately. I suppose it’s surprising then that more cur – rent music hasn’t attempted to cash in on this market. Or not, as the only protests the industry enjoys are ones that aren’t protesting them but some far off, worse iteration.

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