Where have all the protest songs gone?
Music, politics, ideas. You don’t really hear much about that nowadays do you? Right now I’m reading two books about politics in music, ‘Girls To The Front’ by Sara Marcus, about the Riot Grrrl feminist punk movement in the early ‘90s, and ‘33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History Of Protest Songs’ by Dorian Lynskey, which weighs and feels like a brick that should be lobbed at your local neighbourhood riot police.
Both books show that one of music’s prevailing characteristics is its ability to galvanise and give people a voice or a soundtrack against injustice or oppression. Music is also a handy way to articulate different thoughts and ideas, often delivered under the radar of a decent melody or an infectious groove. But despite a return of protest activism in the West amid a global recession, and a slew of popular uprisings in the Middle East, are there any musicians out there that are resonating with the causes that are really affecting people today?
Take Iceland for example. It’s been nearly 3 years since the Kreppocalypse left deep rifts in society between the haves and the have-nots. In the initial weeks after the initial crash, radio stations such as X-ið 977 and Rás 2 inserted well-known protest songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s into their playlists, such as Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’ and The Clash’s ‘Straight to Hell’. But since the pots and pans revolution, there seems to be a real political disconnect between our cultural ambassadors and the general public.
It’s not that Icelandic artists have been quiet about the Kreppa. Numerous artists have released songs that have dealt with the Kreppa head on.
– ‘Let Them Bleed’ by Toggi, an uplifting pop rock melody that masks some exceedingly vicious lyrics about politicians and banksters.
– ‘Behind Closed Doors’ by rapper Authentic The Exception, a sample-heavy bombastic tune about the social fallout from the crisis.
– Jónas Sigurðsson on his current album ‘Allt er eitthvað’, recorded ‘Skuldaólin’, about a father drowning in debt, and ‘Hleypið mér út úr þessu partýi’ (“Help me out from this party”), about the post-kreppa societal madness.
– Bjartmar og Bergrisarnir’s ‘Skrýtin Veröld’ which is almost a concept album post-Kreppa Iceland.
– Rapper Blazroca composed several tracks on his album ‘Kópacabana’ that cover the Kreppa and the protests, such as ‘Reykjavík—Belfast’.
And that’s before we get to musicians who’ve taken to activism and actual politics to get their message across, such as Björk campaigning against the selling off of the country’s natural resources, troubadour Hörður Torfason, who was instrumental in organising the initial protests, and artists who’ve performed at benefit concerts for causes such as the Reykjavík 9.
WHERE’S THE RESONANCE?
So if artists are speaking out, then why is it not resonating with the general public? Perhaps it’s the musicians themselves. Many who’ve spoken out come from a generation who started out in the ‘80s and ‘90s, who are linked to the protest music of folk, rock and punk, and still see the value of ideas and actions through music. But many of this generation’s musicians are not as rooted with such a history, more often than not following a bovine ‘hey, it’s all cool, we’re just about the music’ consensus.
Or maybe it’s the songs themselves. On June 19th, there was a ‘kreppa songs’ protest, which saw people singing songs in support of the protests that were happening in Europe. They even has a version of ‘Ísland er land þitt’, with new words written by famed novelist Hallgrímur Helgason. Now compare that to tracks such as of Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Sleep Now In the Fire’ (which was the soundtrack to the anti globalisation protests of the late ‘90s), or Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow’ (which was omnipresent in the recent student protests in the UK), both intense songs with punching rhythms and a strong anti authoritarian nature. These days, a reworking of old Icelandic songs just isn’t going to cut it.
But I have a feeling it’s more down to the general apathy and coolness of the public to traditional protest and protest music itself. The internet is partially to blame for this, with what Naomi Klein calls ‘the release value nature of online protest’, where people will vent anonymously in forums and join numerous Facebook groups that acts like a cyber-palliative, a short term catharsis that saps the will to physically go out and demand change. For ex-ample, at the said ‘kreppa singing’ protest, despite the noble sentiment of the protesters, and receiving coverage from the press, hardly anybody showed up. It had all the atmosphere of an evangelical choir singing to indifferent tourists.
NOBODY CARES ABOUT YOUR BORING POLITICS
But what’s more unsettling is that it seems that younger people in Iceland just don’t seem to care. As reported in the last issue of the Grapevine, a recent study by Reykjavík University showed that young people were more likely to retreat to the warm structural cocoon of family, sports, state institu-tions and looking good, than engaging in cultural or intellectual activities such as cinema, playing music, or reading books. The idea of engaging with youth about social issues and politics nowadays seems increasingly distant. Even when you actually have a person connecting with many people, such as local comedian Steindi Jr. who—with songs such as ‘Djamm í kvöld’ and ‘Heima’—completely nails the emptiness of much of Icelandic society, people completely miss what he says, instead seeming perfectly happy to bellow “WOOO YEAH! DJAMM Í KVÖLD!” and marvel at how many celebri-ties he can squeeze into his videos.
Espousing political and differing views in music has always been fraught with difficulties and with rabid discourse on the internet, those that do often face a beatdown that make musicians think twice. But in all honesty, why should musicians bother singing about issues if the people they are performing to (and that they affect) are too impassive to do anything about them?