PJ Harvey heralds the return of the protest song
“Don’t you remember when you were young / How you wanted to set the world on fire?” sings Tim McIlrath on Endgame, the new album by punk band Rise Against. It sounds like a rallying cry for a generation of rockers who have been led to believe, by bling-addled hedonists and smug reality-TV judges, that popular music can’t be revolutionary.
But revolutionary-minded music can certainly be popular: Endgame hit No. 1 last month in Canada, and No. 2 in the U.S.; Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers (No. 1 in the U.S. last month), finds the rapper railing against Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Barack Obama; Green Day’s new live album, Awesome as F**k, opens with a three-song tirade against apathy and fundamentalist religion; and this year’s most critically acclaimed and widely discussed album thus far is P.J. Harvey’s war-song opus, Let England Shake.
Are we witnessing a new golden era of protest music, to accompany the global rise of protest movements? In North Africa, protest hip hop has been something of a soundtrack to revolution. But in the West, it’s unclear how much newly penned songs — even popular ones — can serve as catalyst for change. According to Dorian Lynskey, author of 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, “We’ve lost faith in the idea that rock stars might be revolutionaries.” Nonetheless, he says, there’s a “wide hunger” for politically engaged music, “as long as it’s clever.”
Illustration by Kagan McLeod