Music is part of the human discourse and is therefore embedded in complex social, cultural and political structures. Music is as diverse as its audience and similar to every other form of interpersonal/human interaction and therefore among others influenced by factors like gender, race and class. Accordingly, music does not remain unaltered by current political changes but both reacts to them and shapes them. Music referring to social, cultural or political problems is called protest music. Protest music is not a genre in the classical sense as its significance and distinction lie in its lyrics alone. The musical arrangement often supports the message but apart from that spreads throughout all kinds of genres. In general, the genre of protest music displays a great diversity in both lyrics and musical implementation.
‘The songs […] tend to stem from concern, anger, doubt, and, in practically every case, sincere emotion. Some are spontaneous outpourings of feelings, some carefully composed tracts; some are crystalline in their clarity , others enthralling in their ambiguity; some are answers, some just necessary questions; some were acts of enormous bravery, others the beneficiaries of enormous luck. There are as many ways of writing a protest song as there are to write a love song.’ (Lynsky, Dorian, 33 Revolutions Per Minute. A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holliday to Greenday, New York 2011, S. iii.)
Furthermore, many musicians who are associated with protest music would not describe themselves as protest musicians. Often they even clarify that they only process things that are currently important to them. If neither musical nor thematic uniformity is given, how can we then define protest music?
‘Broadly speaking, the protest in protest songs means an opposition to a policy, an action against the people in power grounded in a sense of injustice’ (Weinstein, Deena, Rock protest songs: so many and so few, in: Peddie, Ian (Hrsg.),The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, Aldershot (UK) and Burlington (USA) 2006,3-16, S.3.)
Therefore, the definition of protest music is also dependent on the understanding of power and protest itself. Most people agree that protest music mainly refers to music that turns on institutionalized authorities and their actions. This engagement happens on two different levels. Firstly, protest music can identify who abuses power and how power is abused. For instance, this could be police brutality. Moreover, the music can identify entire systems of injustice., for example, the existence of power in general, a certain policy or a certain action of a political authority.
Another important factor is the influence that protest music has. Is protest music defined by the artist or the audience? Is it recognized as being political by the audience? Is the political message understood as intended by the artist?
The emergence of punk in the 1970s turned the genre of protest music into a critique of political, economic and social problems in Britain at the time.
The Clash: Career Opportunities (1977)
The song is an open attack on both the political and economic situation in Great Britain at the time it was produced. In particular, it criticizes the lack of jobs available to youth, and the dreariness and the lack of stimulation of the few jobs available. The Clash specifically pointed out the service in the military and the police forces as well as jobs perceived as being ‘menial’. For instance, this includes bus drivers or ticket inspectors and ‘making tea at the BBC’.
They offered me the office, offered me the shop
They said I’d better take anything they’d got
Do you wanna make tea at the BBC?
Do you wanna be, do you really wanna be a cop?
Sex Pistols: God Save The Queen (1977)
Released during Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, this song was so controversial at the time of its publication that both the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority refused to play it. It is an attack on the treatment of working-class people in the UK.
God save the queen
The fascist regime
They made you a moron
A potential H bomb
God save the queen
She’s not a human being
and There’s no future
And England’s dreaming
Rock against Racism
The campaign set up by pop, rock, punk and reggae musicians in the United Kingdom in 1976 was a response to an increasing racial conflict as well as growing white nationalist groups (e.g. the National Front). Its aim was to discourage young people from embracing racism.