Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Protest Music?

The Nation has a post today about the lack of great protest music since the 60s. At first I thought the author, Sam Graham-Felsen, had never heard of hip-hop or riot grrl or any of the other musical scenes so rife with protest music. Outraged and suffering from St. John's Wort withdrawal, I left some indignant comments schooling him on the history of hiphop and punk.

He read my, um, overheated comments and replied as follows:

Dear Left Behinds-- Yes, I'm young (24), but I'm no whipper-snapper. And no, I do no claim to be any sort of absolute authority on pop culture.

But have I heard Le Tigre? Of course! Do I know about "socially conscious" hip-hop? Sure! I've been listening to hip-hop my entire life. (By the way, I'd be careful about labelling Talib a political rapper. He despises being categorized as such.)

Anyway, I don't need to rattle off a list of every musical act that has made a protest song. The point of my post is not that there aren't any protest songs, but that there aren't any great protest songs. You can disagree with me all you want, but there are no protest songs today that come close to the quality of the protest songs of the 60s and 70s. Sure, there are more protest songs today than there have been at any other point in my lifetime, but they just ain't that good.

I know it's fun to take down the mighty Nation blogger, but please read my post a little bit more closely before assuming I'm an out-of-touch cultural moron.

Sam Graham-Felsen

p.s. By the way, I like your blog, esp the 10 worst Americans post!

After the jump, I discuss two great protest songs of our generation.

Example one: Joancrawfordsface's favorite folk-rocker Kimya Dawson. Her song "12/26" about the tsunami is outraged, heartbreaking, and inspirational, in the best tradition of protest music:

I'm appalled by our government's initial reaction
And the fact that they asked for a verbal retraction
From the folks who called them stingy, they're just covering their asses
While they thank their greedy god for wiping out the lower classes

Everything she's ever known is gone, gone, gone
Everyone she's ever loved is gone, gone, gone
The only reason she's alive is
She grabbed a palm frond, and held on
And held on

She even explicitly uses the word class! It's a breakthrough.

If anything, the problem is that there's too much so-called protest music, and it becomes a kind of stylized stance rather than genuinely inspirational or provocative (coughGreen DaycoughMadonnacough). Except for the good stuff, like Kimya.

Take Pink, with her earnest, funny, but unsophisticated "Stupid Girls" (click here for video). It's really cute, and I laugh whenever I see the interlude in the video in which she bulimically vomits into a sink while screaming "I WANNA BE SKINNY!," but let's face it, she's not igniting a social movement. That's what a lot of pop political music amounts to. So if you listen mostly to pop, I can see why the musical landscape might seem pretty bleak.

And when artists outside of the mainstream rise to true greatness, as often as not the invisible hand of the marketplace finds a way to crush them under its thumb.

An example of capitalist reappropriation of a great protest song is "Rich Girl" by that racist opportunist Gwen Stefani, who covers (without credit) a fabulous dancehall classic from ten years ago by Louchie Lou and Michie One (a version also covered by Patra and others) that I always loved for its politics. Check out the lyrics before Gwen got to them:

What kind of rich get a million rich?
Them a kind of rich where ya make mon sick

Worldwide thing, this is a worldwide thing
Rich is getting richer while the poor are getting stink [shit]
Worldwide thing, this is a worldwide thing
Rich is getting richer while the poor are getting stink

Reap and reap
But ya never did sow
Reap and reap
But ya never did sow

And if me rich, would a take a mon offa the streets
And if me rich, would I build up a school and teach in a-it
And if me rich, tings would I run neatly

And on and on they teach. So the whole "if I was a rich girl" bit is used ironically as a critique of the prevailing lack of social consciousness of the rich. If Michie One and Louchie Lou had the capital, they sing, they would reinvest it in the community, the people who sow but never reap. It's practically populist Marxism. Of course, they're coming from a grand tradition of explicitly political reggae and dancehall music, but I think this is a particularly great example of it.

Imagine how shocked fans of this song were when the odious bobblehead Gwen Stefani then stole their song, changed some of the lyrics (to include advertisements for her crappy new clothing line), and inverted the political message, turning it into an unironic ode to selfish consumerism.

Yet another reason the terrorists hate us.

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  • At 9:55 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    He's defining "his generation" pretty narrowly...I'm getting the sense that even ten years ago doesn't count. I think he's only talking about protest music under the presidency of George W. Bush, to be honest. "Fight the Power" doesn't feel that long ago to me. Anyway, I think clearly you have to include Dead Prez and the Coup.

    We've got 5 million ways to kill a CEO
    Slap him up and shake him up and then you know
    Let him off the flo' then bait him with the dough
    You can do it funk or do it disco y'know how this go

    Well I hope you testify that it was worth your waitin
    On the turf debatin how to get it percolatin
    He workin you while we happy just to work a day
    But I'ma slap him 'til my blood starts circulatin
    Do you checks have elasticity?
    Did they cut off yo' 'lectricity?
    Did you scream and yell explicitly?
    Force the boss into complicity
    I'm a white chalk stencil but I push a pencil
    Rollin dope fiend rentals through your residential
    Broke as fuck, eatin lentils with no utensil
    Finna teach pimp class with a hoe credential
    They own sweats shops, pet cops and fields of cola
    Murder babies with they molars on the areola
    Control the Pope, Dali Lama, Holy Rollers, and the Ayatollah
    Bump this rollin in your bucket or your new Corolla
    Well you might catch me on the scenic route, with my penis out
    Yellin, "Twamps for the executives with the meanest mouth!"
    Wanna know what this demeanor's bout? City tried to clean us out
    Green is clout, shut 'em down they ain't never seen a drought
    You interviewed but they ain't callin you back
    And for the record I ain't called it a gat
    But tuck this in the small of your back
    Wait in the bathroom stall 'til I tap

    To a great beat, by the way.

  • At 10:35 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Yeah, in my original reply I babbled about Dead Prez, then I edited all that out when I realized I misread his article.

    Hm, PE seems pretty long ago to me. The 80s were approximately a generation ago, after all.

  • At 1:13 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    I'd also like to nominate Cage, "Grand 'ol Party Crash" (f/ Jello Biafra and produced by DJ Shadow).


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