What is protest music?

In my thesis I describe what is most commonly called popular music as contemporary to the last half of the Twentieth Century and continuing today. Therefore, what I refer to as contemporary popular music started in the 1950s as Rock ‘n’ Roll, and is:

  • derived from African-American music such as the blues, jazz and rhythm and blues
  • recorded music that is produced in three simultaneously occurring ways:
  1. popular music as artefact: the record, CD, DVD, and Internet download;
  2. popular music as commodity: this emphasises the economic value of popular music as it is exchanged for money and also used in television, advertising, and soundtracks etc; and
  3. popular music as texts: this emphasises the popular song or popular music as a source of meanings. It is through popular music as texts that distinctions can be made in relation to identity and genres and sub-genres.
  • Contemporary popular music that is available for public broadcast and/or receives or as recorded music, is available for airplay in the mass media, eg. radio, TV.

Since the beginnings of Rock ‘n’ Roll, critics and authors have argued – or it has often been ‘mythologised’  – that this contemporary popular music has carried in it and with it a certain amount of angst or rebellion. (Eg. the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rebel in the 1950s, the folk singers in the 1960s, the counter-culture in the later 1960s, punk rock in the 1970s, hip hop in the 1980s, even grunge in the 1990s and so on).

My thesis asks whether some contemporary popular music, in various ways and forms, can and does argue against and contradict the dominant paradigm? Does some contemporary popular music resist, disturb and upturn universal and official ‘truth’ claims? Can it work to undermine the power relationships and structures of civil society?

My thesis argues that there is a popular myth that has entered popular mass consciousness, that even suggests or almost accepts (somewhat uncritically), that some contemporary popular music has motivated and inspired adults (young and old alike) to question, challenge and confront authority, and act on and redress social injustices and inequalities, and that this has led to social change.

I would like to hear your thoughts, stories, opinions and ideas on this. And, if such a protest music exists, what is it called? What should it be named? Some of the names that have been used include:

Protest music, topical and finger-pointing songs, complaint music, songs with a social conscience, rebel songs, and so on. Have you heard any other names for these?

Are there particular artists/performers that write and perform these songs? I would love to hear some examples.

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2 Responses to “What is protest music?”

  1. Oz 22 November, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    I seem to recall reading something about how Billy Bragg gained his political consciousness by attending a Rock Against Racism concert which he went to because the Clash were playing.

  2. pedagogyofpop 22 November, 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    Maybe so Oz, I hadn’t heard that but the RAR concerts and movement were quite influential for a number of artists. They are still going today, with variations on the theme, including in Australia. Arguably, it has been written that other than in the Clash’s case who I think started out fairly political, it was RAR that moved punk or early post-punk toward a more political framework.

    Thanks, you have inspired me to do a short post on Rock Against Racism.
    Thanks,
    John

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