Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Lost Art of the Protest Song

There is nothing quite like a good protest song. Something that says, "I'm taking a stand," without having to actually force anything down your throat. You never actually had to say, "I think war is terrible," but it was there for someone to interpret through lyrics. Bob Dylan was the master at this. Songs like "Subterranean Homesick Blues" or "Blowin' in the Wind" are perfect examples of this. He had something to say, and he said it...but he said it with a sense of poetry.
It seems as though that art has been lost somewhere along the way. Artists still feel the need to voice their opinions on war and government (now more than ever, it seems like), but they're not quite sure how to do it.
So, instead of getting beautifully written songs, we get garbage like Bright Eyes' "When the President Talks to God", Over the Rhine's "If A Song Could Be President", or Neil Young's entire Living With War album. They know that they have something to say - namely, that they think the President is doing a terrible job - but there's nothing beautiful or poetic about it. They have basically written a "song", but have given no thought whatsoever to the accompaning music, or even the way the words flow together. Songs like these seem to be written more to get a reaction out of the crowd...not so much to actually write a good song.
You can stand on stage these days and say something like, "Yeah, the President is really stupid/I don't like the way he runs this country/I don't even like his hair/And he talks like a moron", and, as long as you're holding a guitar, people will clap and scream their approval from all corners of the room. There doesn't have to be any poetry in the lyrics, there doesn't have to be any cohesiveness in the music...just say exactly how much you hate the government and you have fans. I chalk this up to everyone at the moment feeling like they have strong political views. I also chalk it up to lazy songwriting. If you can get a reaction from people by writing the most basic of words, why should you even try to make it sound good? It's just lazy.
There are still some people who know how it's done. The last great protest song that I remember hearing was Tom Wait's "The Day After Tomorrow", off his 2004 album, Real Gone. It's a song like that that really makes you feel something. If you haven't heard it yet, do yourself a favor and listen to it as soon as possible.
Perhaps I'm wrong. Perhaps I've missed a massive amount of great protest songs. For all of our sakes, I hope that I have.

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