Protest Songs Through the Years

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Throughout the ages, music has always been a heavy means of expressing discontent and protesting issues, especially in times of conflict. As Morrissey and The Smiths put it in ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’, “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar, it meant that you were a protest singer”. From the Vietnam War, to race relations, right up to modern day politics, music has been the method of sharing thoughts and aiming to influence the world to create change.

Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’, along with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, were produced during 1971 in the midst of the Vietnam War – a conflict which inspired many youths and artists to protest America’s participation. Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ begins by addressing mothers and brothers, stating that too many of them were “crying” and “dying”, going on to tell the fathers that “war is not the answer”. This  allows the message to strike a chord, making his plea not to “punish me with brutality” meant for all to hear, take on board, and hopefully agree and promote as well. Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ takes a similar stance as it challenges capitalism, war and religion to put into perspective that “all the people” should strive for “living life in peace”. Though he claims he may be seen as a “dreamer”, highlighting that war will lead to there being “nothing to kill or die for” – opening eyes and stressing that war won’t end positively.

Alternatively, Billie Holidays ‘Strange Fruit’ tackles a different kind of conflict; race relations in 1939 America. Explicitly disapproving and protesting against lynching, the strange fruit Holiday refers to is the “black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze”. Though this isn’t your typical type of conflict, such as war, she is protesting the longstanding racism and race wars prominent in America during this period. Considering the time in which this song was released, it is quite explicit and visually gruesome in its lyrics, through phrases such as “bulgin’ eyes”, “twisted mouth” and the bodies, or ‘fruit’, being left “for the crows to pluck”. Holiday’s song was coined by Atlantic Records producer Ahmet Ertegun as “a declaration of war… the beginning of the Civil Rights movement” highlighting its success as a protest song.

Even in 2019, Lana Del Ray’s recent single ‘Looking For America’ is a protest song critiquing the current political climate of America, particularly the war on banning guns. Explicit through the lyrics that she is searching for her “own version of America, one without the gun”, and again when she wishes there to be “no bombs in the sky”. This expresses the power of protest songs, and how they are used to speak to and for the people in times of conflict, even those not as large as war. They often do help create the change they are asking for, or least open people’s eyes to the ways in which the world needs to change, and as Morrissey stated above, anyone with a guitar is capable of creating their own form of musical protest.

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