Never let it be said that protest music is dead. Though the days of Billy Bragg, John Lennon and the Sex Pistols may be long behind us, protest music has seen a recent resurgence, having lain mostly dormant for what feels like a long time. In the UK, popular protest songs have been thin on the ground ever since the end of Thatcher and the rise of New Labour. Songs by mainstream artists addressing social and political issues have mostly come from overseas (see Green Day’s American Idiot and Madonna’s American Life), but even these have been few and far between.
But now, in these torrid political times, this is finally changing. Curiously, while protest music has traditionally seen men leading the pack, now it is women who are paving the way.
PJ Harvey, Kate Tempest, Solange, Beyoncé, ANOHNI and M.I.A. are just some of the women at the forefront of a new brand of protest music. While some of the themes that characterised the classic protest songs of the sixties, seventies and eighties are still potent (institutional racism, poverty and war remain prevalent), more current preoccupations such as gentrification, climate change and the refugee crisis also take centre stage.
Take Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table, for instance. Both released this year, the two albums (particularly the latter), focus on the black experience at a time when black lives are at the forefront of American political discourse. Defiant, polemic and brave, both albums make bold statements about the current state of race relations in the US. In fact, it’s hard to think of a more sit-up-and-listen line than Beyoncé’s “I love my negro nose and Jackson 5 nostrils,” from a major pop star in recent memory. As celebratory as it is middle-finger-up fuck-you fantastic, ‘Formation’ is the epitome of what makes a top protest song.
Elsewhere, addressing the ongoing refugee crisis is M.I.A. Among the tracks on her 2016 album AIM is ‘Borders’, a track that reduces the crisis to flippant social media speak to savage online slacktivists who feign horror at crises on Twitter but do nothing to actually help. The track is built around the line “Borders – what’s up with that?”, a strikingly blasé challenge to the world’s fascination with border-based politics, particularly prescient given the recent xenophobia-fuelled Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s obsession with building a wall across the Mexican border.
Since 2011, with the release of her critically-acclaimed album Let England Shake, PJ Harvey has played a huge role in dragging politics back into music. Her latest album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, released this year, continues to bring political themes to the table, detailing her own eye-witness accounts of her travels in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C. Lyrics about bombed out buildings, destitute children and Native Americans turned alcoholics blend to form a frightening, discombobulated and uncomfortable view of the modern world. At the heart of it all is Harvey feeling hopeless, documenting what she has seen but lacking the power to do anything but write. This is summed up in the closing lines of the album in which Harvey recounts seeing a boy begging for money. “I can’t look through or past / A face saying dollar, dollar / A face pock-marked and hollow / Staring from the glass.” Unlike Beyoncé’s call to arms, Harvey’s brand of protest music is characterised more by feelings of despair.
A similar feeling runs through ANOHNI’s 2016 album, aptly titled HOPELESSNESS. Like Harvey’s album, ANOHNI is left aghast by the state of the modern world: mourning the deaths caused by drone bombs, despairing over the impact of climate change and feeling betrayed by President Obama’s broken promise to close Guantanamo Bay – a theme Harvey also dealt with on her 2013 track ‘Shaker Aamer’. But beneath all the sadness – and hopelessness – is rage. Rage that children are dying, rage at the state of the planet, rage at destruction wrought by illegal wars and rage that not enough is being done to help.
While all these artists offer protest music through different genres and tackle different themes, what binds them is the overarching empathy at the heart of their songs. There is anger here, of course, but also a delicate, human touch concerned with real, human experiences. Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos is a clear example of this. Through creating characters and delving into their emotions, back-stories and motives, she is able to discuss themes of isolation, poverty and gentrification, enthralling her listeners through the narratives of each character rather than bombarding them with preachy declarations. For example, Tempest discusses the housing crisis through a track about old flats being knocked down to make way for a trendy new apartment complex and the choking isolation of corporate life through a story about an office worker so disconnected from reality he’s unsure whether he’s even alive.
All of this mounts to closing track ‘Tunnel Vision’ where Tempest lets rip at everything from deforestation to dying refugees and police brutality. Tempest lays into politicians and police, but also recognises the listener’s – and her own – role in society’s moral corruption. It’s impossible not to see ourselves in lines such as “Thinking we’re engaged when we’re pacified / Staring at the screen so we don’t have to see the planet die.” Tempest lays blame at our collective feet, refusing to let us ignore our own part in the problems facing our society and our planet.
This is surely the sign of a sophisticated protest song – able not only to point the finger at politicians but to recognise the artist’s own complicity. Just as Harvey is able to acknowledge her guilt at ignoring the pleas from a begging child, Tempest uses the pronoun ‘we’ to indict us all, the lazy slacktivists that M.I.A mocks for being faux-woke and useless. Speaking to Pitchfork, ANOHNI also recognises her own part in the destruction she bemoans throughout her album. She describes her track ‘4 Degrees’ as a “brutal attempt to hold myself accountable, not just valorise my intentions but also reflect on the true impact of my behaviours.” This self-reflection feels like a very modern twist on the traditional protest song. In an age of Twitter, fast food and gentrification, these artists recognise that ranting at world leaders is no longer enough – we’re all part of a system that corrupts and destroys.
The resurgence of popular protest music may say nothing good about the state of our society, but it is undoubtedly a positive thing for music. Eloquent, damning and intelligent, modern protest tracks are laying to rest the myth (so often peddled by ageing white guys) that modern music is facile and meaningless. The truth is, we are living in a golden age of protest music, more challenging, intelligent and sophisticated than anything we’ve seen before. Perhaps it is mere coincidence that this recent surge is being led by women – and it feels too simplistic to suggest that the vital empathetic undertones present in this music are due to the musicians’ gender – but it is undoubtable that women are leading the way when it comes to tackling current political issues. So while our world may be dying, at least we can be thankful for the bounty of righteous, angry and downright superb albums these women are bringing to the funeral.