Today, entertainment is political. Despite this trend, however, political conviction continues to elicit resolute objection: people continue to dislike the invasive nature of today’s politics, and especially its extension into entertainment and media. Our television shows, our movies, our music — voice after voice laments the loss of feel-good TV and mindless tunes written only to entertain us.
But those voices are forgetting that entertainment has always been political. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the rich history of protest music, especially in the United States. For as long as there have been people oppressed, there have been songs to voice their resolve.
As a peaceful way to reach a wide audience in a format that people both understand and empathize with, the protest song has existed since the likes of “Yankee Doodle.” And from those simple, easy-to-remember Revolutionary War tunes, the genre evolved into more complex, artistic melodies, like Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a song protesting the lynching of Black Americans, which in 1939 catapulted protest music into the popular consciousness and paved the way for radio hits in the 1960s and beyond.
In 2020, when folk music tends to be relatively apolitical, it’s strange to think that, at some point, folk artists were the unquestioned musical leaders of protest movements, but it’s true: folk used to be dominated by themes of injustice, discontent, and a need for social change. This trend began in the ’40s, before folk really hit its stride as a protest music genre in the political turbulence of the ’60s, thanks in part to its popularity with college students fighting for change during the Vietnam War.
Similarly, soul artists took on meaningful roles in the genre in the ’60s, focused primarily on amplifying the ideals of the Civil Rights Movement. Although they received less radio play, they were still hugely influential as they promoted social change and celebrated Black people in America. The melodies of the ’60s were slow and dominated by acoustics, but were thematically more optimistic, especially the ones that found mass appeal. Often, they echoed earlier protest songs, with repetitive, easier-to-remember lyrics. Popular examples of ’60s protest anthems like “We Shall Overcome,” popularized by Joan Baez, and “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke are prime illustrations.
On the other hand, songs that didn’t share this optimism took on the task of introspection instead: “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary, ask poignant, philosophical questions and leave the listener to respond. These songs rarely sought to provide solutions or spend time deconstructing issues, choosing instead to provoke thought.
As the ’70s rolled around, soul artists took the front seat in protest music as the anti-war, civil rights, and women’s movements continued on amidst the rise of highly provocative issues like the Watergate scandal and environmentalism. Lyrics became more restless and specific, melodies became faster and more urgent, and the trend of repurposing much older protest songs for modern folk began to die out. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” echoed the sentiments of the ’60s, but brought a less acoustic sound, and songs like Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” and Curtis Mayfield’s discography continued that trend in their melodies while also bringing to the table much more pointed lyrics about protests, environmentalism, and women’s rights.
In the ’80s, the United States took a big swing toward conservatism, and protest music, consequently, shifted away from folk and soul. Cultural conservatism and Reagan’s presidency induced an onslaught of anger within people, and with genres like rap and hip-hop starting to gain traction, protest music changed in significant ways. No longer were there large-scale political movements to sing anthems for; instead, protest music served to express individual opinions and social commentary, inspired by rage and hostility. One need only look at Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” to get an idea of the the kind of songs from this era that infiltrated the public consciousness of the ’80s.
The ’90s continued in the same spirit of the ’80s, as rappers and hip-hop artists continued to churn out politically charged music while punk and rock artists, like The Clash and Rage Against the Machine, began to join them in equally angry fervor. There aren’t as many protest anthems that came out of this era; rather, there were just a lot of songs featuring themes of social unrest.
The ’90s, despite giving way to even more political turmoil in the form of the Bush administration, the Iraq War, and of course, the attacks on 9/11, still didn’t see much of a revival of the genre. Some bands tried — Green Day’s “American Idiot” was the 2000s’ most popular song with sentiments of protest, and Eminem released a couple anti-Bush songs as well. But the general attitude of the United States aligned more closely with John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change,” and so protest music failed to gain public acclaim even in the face of increasing musicians within the genre. The 2000s weren’t ready for a resurgence of protest music, especially as the Bush administration came to an end and people turned to more upbeat, empowering music in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election — like Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” and Beyoncé’s “Flawless.”
In 2016, however, Trump’s election changed the political atmosphere in an unfathomable way. With a renewed political movement in the form of Black Lives Matter (BLM), protest music found itself being reborn — only with an entirely new face. Hip-hop and rap continue to dominate political music and protest music, and songs are more complex than ever, exchanging the anger of the ’80s and ’90s for a more melancholic outlook and calmer melodies all tinged with the slightest bit of hope. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and Beyoncé’s “Formation” became anthems for the BLM movement, helped in part by social media and streaming platforms that catapulted them to popularity. Other prolific artists like J. Cole and Lil Baby are following in suit, and even those without radio play are topping charts and making a tangible impact on today’s political atmosphere.
And it certainly looks like this is the direction that protest music is going to continue following, especially as hip-hop remains the most widespread genre of music in general and more and more artists have begun expressing political views in their art form. From hope, to anger, to discontent, and perhaps back to hope, it’s always worth taking a look at the protest music of past decades — maybe you’ll find something that really strikes a chord.