The New Republic has a story by David Browne about the decline of protest music—more specifically, he addresses the question of why protest songs don’t seem to matter as much now as they did back in the Vietnam era. In general, he argues, the problem with protest songs these days is that they’re not very good: once upon a time we had fantastic tunes like Creedence‘s “Fortunate Son,” the Temptations‘ “Ball of Confusion,” and—in an assertion that makes Browne a lonely, lonely man among his peers—”Sun City.” Now we have Black Eyed Peas‘ “Where Is the Love?”—”Idiot Wind” run through a “My Humps” filter—and Pink‘s thoroughgoingly godawful “Dear Mr. President.”
The problem with making a qualitative argument is that people who disagree with you can always cite different songs to dismiss the assertion; that’s something Sasha-Frere Jones learned about in a hurry recently. Me, I can point to a pair of what I think are excellent protest songs of relatively recent vintage: Iris DeMent‘s “Wasteland of the Free” (ignore the doofy anti-Bush slideshow; the song came out in 1996) and James McMurtry‘s “We Can’t Make it Here.”
Both songs have a few dumb lines, and DeMent in particular gets confused about what her targets are. (“We’ve got high school kids running around in Calvin Klein and Guess/Who cannot pass a sixth-grade reading test.” Stop them before they dress again!) But if what you want out of a protest song is a clear tune and a singer who possesses the courage of his or her convictions, it’s hard to argue that the guiding spirit of the protest song has disappeared. (And if the job of a protest song is to piss off those in power, DeMent succeeds on that front too: As this story from our sister paper in Tampa points out, a Florida state senator threatened to pull a public radio station’s funding after hearing “Wasteland” on the air.)
The bigger problem with Browne’s piece, though, is that he speedily skips over this crucial reason why protest songs don’t get over today: he supposes that maybe, just perhaps, “audience (and radio) fragmentation that prevents one genre-specific song from reaching a truly mass audience.” This notion deserves more than the brief mention he gives it; indeed it’s pretty close to the sole reason for the death of the protest song. In the Vietnam era, when a larger proportion of the culture got its current-affairs knowledge from a smaller handful of outlets, a singular protest song had a better chance of becoming a hit. Today, when nobody huddles around war footage at the dinner table—Dad’s reading Little Green Footballs, Mom’s flipping through a shelter mag, and the kids get the news from Facebook or a neighborhood podcast (I’m imagining an extreme division, but you get the point)—nobody’s going to agree with the ideas of a protest song, or even that one might be worth hearing.