Protest music nowadays isn’t like it used to be

The day after the 2016 presidential election was a day of mourning in my community. Following Donald Trump’s defeat over Hillary Clinton, my very liberal high school in my very liberal hometown ceased to function, with nearly every class I went to dedicated to discussing the ramifications of the election results. 

Amid the grim feelings suffocating the hallways, a friend of mine shrugged and said, “At least we’ll get some really good art out of this.” 

She was referring to art – specifically music – born out of protest and civil unrest; music that permeated the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, with musicians using their medium as a channel to express disdain for the status quo.

Protest music continued into the birth of rap and hip hop, with groups like Public Enemy and N.W.A channeling their anger at the status quo into hit songs.

“Music speaks to people on a very basic level,” said Paul Booth, a professor in the College of Communication at DePaul University. “That’s not to say it’s simple, but we feel music…Music is something that moves us. And whenever we are having some sort of a cultural crisis, people latch onto things that make them feel, things that make them feel better, things that make them feel sympathetic, empathetic, that helps them identify in other people. We don’t reach for things that make us think, we reach for things that make us feel. And I think music is that ultimate feeling, it creates effect.” 

Despite the wide variety of protests taking place following President Trump’s ascension into office, popular music has not taken on the same explicit political stance as the music of previous periods of civil unrest in American history. 

That’s not to say that political consciousness has left the airwaves completely. Songs like Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” and Beyoncé’s “Formation” address the struggles and identity of black America, respectively. 

What is becoming more commonplace, however, are calculated gestures at political issues, with a lack of emotional connection making the music feel like a PR stunt rather than a call to action.

The most recent example of this is Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down,” a flashy pop anthem in which Swift compares facing “haters” on Twitter to the plight of the LGBTQ+ community. 

“I don’t want to tear down Taylor Swift, but ‘You Need To Calm Down’ is a very lazy attempt at creating a political gesture,” said Madeliene Mason, a senior majoring in theatre arts. “The references to queer culture within it are so lazily placed.”

While preaching a message of inclusivity and tolerance, for many, the song rang less of a brave call to action against bigotry and more of a catch-up attempt for the notoriously apolitical Swift to align herself to a movement. What’s more is that Swift only chose to make a political statement after her career took a hit when it was discovered she had a legion of fans on the far-right, who dubbed her an “Aryan goddess.”

None of this is to accuse Swift of only releasing the song for a career boost or to suggest that her attempt to use her platform to advocate for a marginalized group –albeit clumsily –is wrong. However, it speaks to the ways in which profits play into an artist’s decision to challenge the status quo.

One of the most infamous instances of a musician speaking out politically occurred in 2003 when the Dixie Chicks publicly denounced President George W. Bush nine days before the invasion of Iraq while performing in London.

We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas,” said lead singer Natalie Maines.  

Maines’ comment received an enormous backlash from American country listeners, resulting in mass destruction of their CDs, death threats an eventual blacklisting of their music.

“You see people from Craig Hodges to the Dixie Chicks to Colin Kaepernick, and people who have spoken out and what’s happened to them,” said Evan Moore, an adjunct professor in the College of Communication. “And it’s money. When an artist wants to make it and they want to cross over into a wide audience and the audience doesn’t want to hear those issues. They don’t want to hear about social justice, they don’t want to hear about immigration, they barely want to hear about sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

Given the polarized nature of American politics, it is very possible that something as easily consumable as music or other forms of art is enough to inspire change, whether personal or largely political. 

“I think [art] still works very well for political commentary and for political protest,” Booth said. 

“The trouble right now is that people are so polarized that they refuse to see another person’s point of view, both on both sides of the issues. So the reason art may seem like it’s less effective today is because people are less willing to change their minds. But I’m not sure that that has anything to do with art’s efficacy. I think it has a lot more to do with people’s stubbornness.”  

None of this means that change is impossible or that art is meaningless when it comes to inspiring protests or progress. While the lack of popular protest music may leave a hole in both the charts and the larger political consciousness, this does not mean that protests themselves are meaningless or incapable of achieving change. 

Rather than looking to the Top 40 for messages of progress, perhaps it is more helpful to look to those marching in the streets to keep the spirit of protest alive. 

“It’s hard to know what the extent of something as amorphous as protest music can be,” Booth said. “The Democratic wave in the 2018 [midterm] election, where the Democrats took over the House [of Representatives], the huge groundswell support for many of the Democratic Candidates, the fact that a lot of the protests we’ve seen have actually prevented some bills from being passed, there are some concrete things that protests have achieved. Music is part of that. Maybe music didn’t 100 percent create something, but it’s part of a general spirit, I think it has had some sort of effect. You can’t separate it out.”