“someone out there please, pick up a guitar and howl”

In this article (the Guardian, 4 Nov 2010), ‘Someone out there please pick up a guitar and howl‘ (read here), John Harris laments the decline of public protest or resistance in popular culture. Particularly, he points out, that which was once considered or perhaps even accepted as part of or coming from popular music.

Harris’ is not the first lament of this kind to appear in the popular media or on blogs more recently. A Google search on “where have all the protest songs gone” for instance, turns up any number of articles on this perceived absence. (Of course, the search term is derived from the Pete Seeger [1961] song, ‘Where have all the Flowers Gone’.)

In these articles, most authors return to the popular music of the 1960s as a somewhat nostalgic base. They then contextualise a notion of protest music around more recent events that seem to work to resurface this era in popular consciousness. For instance, there is Guill’s (2010, the Star.com, 25 June: Where have all the protest songs gone?) reflecting on a perceived absence of protest music in relation to the G20 Summit in Toronto earlier this year.

Here are a couple more examples along these lines (though with more refined searching you can turn up even more):

These thoughts and laments are engaged with, critically as a key element of my thesis, ‘A pedagogy of pop? Protest music, adult learning and education for social change‘. They represent part of what I have identified through my research as a mass media propagated ‘popular myth’.

Such myths and their associated narratives and stories relate to the popular music that has grown to become a prominent space within (and perhaps against) the popular culture of the once conceived ‘Western Democracies’, contemporary to the last half of the Twentieth Century and continuing today. It has been widely referred to as a ‘soundtrack to our times’ as it has reflected this epoch of cultural and social transformation. But questioning this notion of popular music being a ‘reflector’, along the lines of Michael Franti (1992) in his song, ‘Television the drug of the nation’; I am asking has some popular music also been a “director”?

Heavily inspired by and derived from African-American culture, electric blues, rhythm and blues and gospel, combined with as Elvis himself has claimed “folk or hillbilly music”,  this is the popular music of advanced capitalism. From its emergence in the post-Second World War boom of the 1950s North America, with ‘baby boomers’ coming of age as ‘teenagers’ (itself a marketing construct), disposable capital and the newish concept of leisure time.

Through the social and cultural milieu of the 1960s with the folk revival, the civil rights and anti-war movements, the hippy counter-culture, folk rock and Woodstock. Through the so-called indulgent 1970s which was punctuated by angry punk rock, into the 1980s where it is widely agreed that if popular music did offer a resistance and challenge ‘the system’, that this was through hip hop.The 1980s however, was also the decade of ‘Band Aid’ and ‘Live Aid’, which Bob Geldof  has referred to as massive global education campaigns aimed at ending famine.

From the so-called nihilism of ‘grunge’ in the 1990s, to an overt political melding of hard-rock and hip hop of bands such as Rage Against the Machine. Popular music has followed as capitalism has risen and risen to globally triumphant neoLiberalism.

But has at least some of the popular music contemporary to this epoch also questioned or even contested the capitalism as the dominant and dominating paradigm that makes it possible? Does capitalism offer ‘spaces’,  particularly in the mass media for it to be contested by popular music?

These are some of the key questions that I ask with my research, where I am looking into whether protest music as a genre of this ‘contemporary popular music’, has been an inspiration, catalyst for or led to processes of social change.

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts, opinions and ideas on these contentions and more. This is why I have set up this blog, as a space for you to participate in my project which aims to work with these questions.

Read more about participating in my research project here.

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One Response to ““someone out there please, pick up a guitar and howl””

  1. dupsilliz 7 January, 2011 at 10:43 am #

    What words..

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