Protest songs continue to spark controversy

By Emma Collins and Cameron Coyle, F/G Scholars

Helen Reardon grew up during the height of rock ‘n roll, a “lad[y] of the ‘60s,” as she described herself. She came of age when rock music challenged the status quo angering the older, more conservative generation with its sexual innuendos and political undertones.

But even though she grew up listening to protest music, Reardon doesn’t find herself listening to political music nowadays. She said the music today is more “rough and tough” with a negative message that wasn’t found in the songs she used to listen to. She said the time period she grew up in was better suited to political music, and today she would only listen to new political songs on one condition.

“I wouldn’t listen to it unless the music was really, really good, and I could tune out the words,” she said.

Deciding whether to listen to protest or political music today is becoming more common as musical artists begin to weigh in on the political climate. Recently, artists such as Kanye West and Taylor Swift have come out in support of candidates, sparking controversy and angering fans who disagree with those political stances. Other artists are producing songs protesting or criticizing current politics.

Hip-hop and rap are currently filled with protest music, and Kendrick Lamar’s most critically successful album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” may be the best contemporary example of this.

Lamar’s concept album details the struggles of growing up in a dangerous, low-income environment as an African-American, while also mentioning real-world events such as the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and also maintaining a sense of hope throughout its 80-minute runtime. It won rap album of the year at the 2016 Grammys and was also nominated for album of the year, as well as scoring a 96 on Metacritic (the highest score he has received on an album).

“To Pimp a Butterfly” hasn’t sold quite as many copies as his other major studio releases, but this may be because the album features Lamar’s most experimental instrumentation, with many of the songs sounding like a jazz-rap fusion.

Matt Chase, 38, said he thinks musicians and artists should be able to express their political beliefs.

“I think [political messages in music] is part of that experience,” Chase said. “I think that they should. It’s them using their free right to their free speech and using it in a way that reaches other people.”

Chase struggles to separate the artist from their art and acknowledges a musician’s message can hinder his enjoyment of their work, but he doesn’t believe he is alone.

“I think everybody has that problem sometimes,” Chase said. “Because everyone’s got their own personal message that they like, and if someone disagrees with it, you might have a problem with that.”

Bruce Springsteen is another artist who successfully produced subtle protest music. His most successful album, “Born in the USA,” is by far the singer/songwriter’s most successful LP, and it also holds an often-overlooked message.

The album’s titular song is usually seen as a song of praise for the United States, but it is really an indictment on America for the Vietnam War and the country’s hypocrisy of what citizens it truly values. The second verse contains the lyrics “Got in a little hometown jam / So they put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land / To go and kill the yellow man.” The cover shows Springsteen’s buttocks in tight blue jeans in front of the American flag, believed by many to be a sign of protest as well.

The album is certified 15 times platinum and has an audience that spreads across the political spectrum, with many conservative listeners seemingly only focusing on the repeated chorus line of “I was born in the U.S.A.” and the signature saxophone of Springsteen’s music.

Bob Dylan may be the single most famous American protest musician. Never one to hide his political feelings, Dylan wrote folk songs like “Death of Emmet Till,” “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “Hurricane,” which details the true story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a middleweight boxer who was falsely imprisoned on suspicion of homicide due to racial profiling in the mid-1960s (Carter was freed nearly 10 years after the song’s 1976 release date).

Fans of Dylan know his main influence was Woody Guthrie, the mid-20th-century folk singer/songwriter. Guthrie was exposed to the hardships of America at a young age as he was raised in the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Guthrie had a disdain for those with too much power; he associated with multiple United States communist groups but never officially joined any, and he also placed a sticker on his guitar that famously read “This machine kills fascists.”

His most famous album, “Dust Bowl Ballads”, was released in the summer of 1940 and served as a semi-autobiographical account of Guthrie’s upbringing with lyrics like “I’ve seen dust so black I couldn’t see a thing / And the wind so cold, boy, it nearly cut your water off” on the song “Dust Bowl Blues.” He later recorded “This Land Is Your Land” in 1944 as a response to what he felt was an overplaying of “God Bless America.”

Not all musicians hold political beliefs that are celebrated by the public and the mainstream. Recently Kanye West re-entered the headlines after declaring he was a supporter of President Donald Trump, leading many to stop supporting the artist, question his mental health and even wonder if this was a stunt to sell more records. West was filleted by the media after making outlandish comments saying slavery was a choice by African-Americans (he later apologized and attempted to clarify his statement with middling success).

Shortly after his slavery comments, West released his album titled “ye,” which addressed his mental health issues and other problems in his life, and it debuted at number one on the charts. The very next week he released a joint album with Kid Cudi, which reached the second spot on the chart, making it only West’s second album, along with his debut, to not reach the top spot. West may have lost the support of some fans, but his overall sales remained fairly consistent despite the negative attention. At the end of October, West declared he was going to take a step back from politics.

Some musicians have made news recently by calling out Trump for using their songs at his rallies without his permission. New and old artists alike have made their disproval known, such as Adele, the Rolling Stones, Elton John, George Harrison, Queen and Rihanna. These artists have made it clear they do not support the president and his policies nor do they approve of the use of their songs being used to excite his fan base at a political event. Many of these artists have made their left-leaning politics public and have also had their songs used at liberal political rallies.

Justin Verhotz, 30, said he doesn’t have a problem separating the art from the artist and enjoying someone’s work despite his or her political beliefs.

“Some of my favorite musicians are those that made political statements, going back all the way to Woody Guthrie, Neil Young, Bob Dylan,” Verhotz said. “I think that’s what music is about.”

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