Edited by Zeth Lundy / Produced by Zeth Lundy and Sarah Zupko
Most songs are written for one of two reasons: love or protest. At its fundamental level, self-expression in music is all about raising awareness, the subject of which fluctuates between beauty and outrage — two kinds of passion that rouse people to song in equal measure.
The protest song is not simply an idealist’s sing-along custom-made for populous sit-ins and social demonstrations; human protest is waged at every level of our existence, in private and in public, and transcends the picket line to include battles for gender rights, racial equality, and freedom from the tyranny of self-righteous authority figures. The very best protest songs are those that touch upon universal themes that can be reapplied to a multitude of struggles from decade to decade, whether or not they were originally written in response to a specific event.
It makes sense that music — pop music, in particular, the readymade stuff of the masses — is used as a fundamental tool of dissent. Music speaks for us as individuals and groups, in eminently hummable phrases and cathartic dominion; its audience connects with its populist means of chorus and refrain; and its immediacy, its need to relay a message in mere minutes, is a most urgent sympathizer. Protest music’s tipping point in popular culture came in the 1960s, when songwriters like Bob Dylan redirected pop music’s focus to relevant real-time crises, such as the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. It has continued to be a vital method of expression for years since, lending voice to fights for basic human rights and campaigns of logic against hollow governmental agencies, most notably during the tumultuous tenure of the latest Bush Administration and its ongoing quagmire in Iraq.
This isn’t to say that protest songs are surefire ways to make a difference, because honestly, there’s very little a three-minute ditty can do to rid the world of all its evils. In fact, you could even say that putting one’s faith in a protest song is an act of futility or absurdity, and you’d probably be right. Still, we shouldn’t be stopped from dissenting, from stating truths or challenging wrongs, because if you don’t take a stand for something then you’ll be defined by anything. PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of the protest song form, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity alike. May they inspire you to stand up and be heard in the midst of whatever dark hour you find yourself in.
— Zeth Lundy