Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Protest in Modern Music

 Mapping key moments in protest music along a timeline from 1970-2010, one can easily notice a declining trend in its popularity. Like a good childhood friend, politics has been by rock and roll’s side since the beginning. Its rich history begins with the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, two bands of modern youths who expressed a deep understanding of society during a time when governments were trying new things; like communism. Naturally a socially conscious youth of the mid twentieth century would have been engaged in the dialogue of politics.

 Inspired by the legacy of Pete Seeger’s message “We Shall Overcome”, folk singers like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez started providing the soundtrack for the Civil Rights movement throughout the 60’s. As the decade progressed, rock musicians joined them in protesting the Vietnam War. There seemed to be an increasing trend in protest in rock when the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Ramones brought forth to the nation the style known as punk rock. The movement would cement its identity over the next two decades, with Minor Threat, Fugazi, and Dead Kennedys marking some of the loudest and clearest anti-capitalist bands ever to play. Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were feminist punk bands who rallied many against chauvinistic hypocrisies of the patriarchal structure. This period also witnessed the bright beginnings of hip-hop, with Public Enemy and NWA pioneering protest music from the black urban perspective. In 1992 Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled album masterfully combined the two aforementioned styles, debuting at number one on American charts.

 In the year 2000, something odd happened to the way music was sold and distributed; the sales of audio CDs began to drop, marking the shift towards MP3 and other digital music storage methods not involving individual copies of artists’ work (ie; vinyl records, tape cassettes, compact discs). This helps explain why LPs are so glamorized, people covet the square foot of album art space and needle-in-groove tactile sound. In contrast, the new generation of listeners will be accustomed to 300 pixel squares of RGB album art, and lossy downsampled music files. From the first visit to the record store to the day you bequeath your album collection unto your kids, the experience of owning music is becoming lost and confused with the frustratingly intangible world of digital media.

  In this climate, an unlikely Armenian-American alternative metal band known as System of a Down released Toxicity, a political album which rocketed to #1 on the charts within two weeks of radio play. Their hit single “Chop Suey!” forced listeners to ponder their sweeping, unsubstantiated chorus “angels deserve to die.” This use of intentionally ambiguous lyrics helped their album reach widespread success by disguising their unpopular radical ideologies, and was more importantly a calculated step in a larger campaign. Toxicity would act as an easy-to-swallow mainstream advertisement for the greater SOAD project, which is as well an anarchist propaganda machine as a rock band. Both their 1998 self-titled release and 2002’s Steal This Album! would be more completely political, the previous being an active protest of the faulty mechanisms of religious and political society: “...revolution / the only solution / the play was mastered and called genocide..., thinkers are dangerous...” Steal This Album! was the pinnacle of SOAD’s activist and music career, criticizing pervasive advertising, the invasion of Iraq, and other global political issues while still managing a #15 spot on the charts. The physical album was also a clever critique of the new culture of Kazaa and burned CDs. The release was designed to mimic a CD-R in a standard jewel case with ‘Steal This Album!, System of a Down’ sharpied on it, showing the confidence to dare their listeners to pilfer music, and the audacity to question them about the implications of it.

 Nowadays it would seem absurd for a sharply critical band to dominate the pop-charts, and I will return to this point later. SOAD’s success can be attributed in part to their immense talent and innovative techniques as visionary musicians. Their signature extended use of syncopation between perfectly toned instruments and the hyper-dynamic vocals is both aesthetically sucessful and helps amplify the meaning of SOAD’s lyrics.

  In reality, much of their popularity was garnered through their association with the New Wave of American Metal (sometimes referred to as nu-metal), a movement that was combined the high-fidelity richness of pop & rap with the speed and distortion of grunge & metal. In the late 90’s, bands such as Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, Korn, Godsmack, and Disturbed drafted off Kurt Cobain’s hearse right into the center of the alt. music scene. Most nu-metal eventually became mired in the profiteering behemoth of popular music, and unlike punk or grunge before it merely feigned the appearance of being anti-establishment.

 The pop scene would remain free of any notable political music in pop&rock until the beginning of this decade, when Gorillaz released their third full length Plastic Beach, which could only manage to grasp the second spot on American charts. But besides falling short of number one, Plastic Beach is an outstanding piece of innovation in the area of contemporary protest music. Using the technique of lyrical obfuscation for the purpose of accessibility, Gorillaz were able to deliver a critical viewpoint of our fossil-fuel run society without any significant pushback. Songs like “Superfast Jellyfish,” a goofy number about fastfood and mystery-meat, and “Sweepstakes,” which congratulates Western society for our winning luck, allow the less engaged to be simply entertained while still providing fodder for artistic interpretation and critical thought. They attached the artistically political lyrics to an upbeat brand of electronic-rock/hip-hop, the increased interest in electronica and dub-step corresponding perfectly with current tends. Their pastiche of these styles mirror System of a Down and Rage Against the Machine’s in popularity and affluency. The difference between Plastic Beach and its two distinctive predecessors can be recognized immediately in the names of the projects; Gorillaz is, although revolutionary in their own sense, not dedicated solely towards promoting political messages. Nevertheless their place in protest music history is sealed by this epic release which includes collaborations with such 20th century music icons as Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed lending their voices to the message.

 Since the inception of their ‘virtual band’ in 1998, Gorillaz has always challenged what it means to be modern makers of music. Gorillaz fourth album The Fall, was released later in 2010 and was recorded almost entirely on an Apple iPad while on tour promoting Plastic Beach. Like Steal This Album!, it demonstrates to listeners that the trends in music distribution ultimately affect music production. Although Steal This Album! was meant to evoke the idea of a homemade (burned) CD, it was still sold and distributed in record stores. The Fall is actually currently available for free online, and has a self-reflexive for-the-computer-by-the-computer ethos. Gorillaz goes beyond simply acknowledging the media shift, they produce an album which actually uses the quick-and-easy distribution and consumption capabilities given to us by the age of smartphones and iPads.

 The evidence I have presented suggests that today’s protest music is an intelligent adaptation of yesterdays, as it must be presented in a pastiche of culturally relevant styles in order to catch the listener’s attention and presumably to assure her that what she’s listening to is safe within the status quo. In addition, the political message must be obscured to some degree to keep the listener from feeling indoctrinated. Lastly, the most successful protest albums of the past two decades have been from projects who are also interested in critiquing the politics of music itself. During the 60’s and 70’s “Revolution” and “Beggars Banquet” were popular tunes, but that was when the youth had open ears for differing opinions. As the cultural, political, and technological climate continues to change, it will be interesting to see whether protest music will be able to further adapt to increasingly unfavorable conditions, or if it will simply become a thing of the past.

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