Many people would say there is a serious lack of great protest songs nowadays. It’s a statement which is wholly blinded by perception. Of course, there are protest songs but they no longer come ready-packaged as a Bob Dylan identikit, now they come in a wide spectrum of style and messages.
This message was echoed by Talking Heads’ frontman David Byrne in 2018 when he shared a playlist of his favourite protest songs from over the last 60 years which included artists from all walks of life.
Protest songs can come in an array of different forms, a record doesn’t need to be overtly political to still have a political message at its core. Take Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, which is deeply moving and poetic as well as vibrant and visceral. It’s a far cry from the traditional folk protest album of a bygone era but that doesn’t take anything away from the message of disenchantment and anger the album distils.
Byrne made this point in a blog post from 2018, stating: “Not too many years ago there was a spate of newspaper and magazine articles asking where all the “protest” songs were. Well, here they are… about 60 years worth, non-stop. They never went away—in fact, they now come from all directions in every possible genre—country songs, giant pop hits, hip hop, classic rock, indie and folk. Yes, maybe there weren’t many songs questioning the wisdom of invading Iraq, but almost every other issue has been addressed.”
The article which Byrne referenced featured in The Guardian was written by two folk singers who are pining for the return of the great folk protest songs of the past and in the bizarre piece, they blame hip-hop and social media for its apparent death. As Byrne quite rightly points out, the protest song didn’t go anywhere—it’s just the medium in which it was delivered that has changed.
Byrne was sure to include a range of diverse acts in his playlist which means while Bob Dylan, of course, features but so does pop singer Kesha and Run The Jewels rapper Killer Mike. The Talking Heads man notes: “This playlist is therefore stylistically very diverse and forms a long timeline. This might make for some bumpy transitions and abrupt swerves for listeners, but I find that variety energising and hopeful.”
The frontman went on to detail the reasoning behind some of his more left-field choices that deal with an array of different topics: “I’ve even included a few songs that “protest the protests.” Buck Owens, the classic country artist from Bakersfield, for example, has two songs here. ‘Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,’ is a celebration of Americans who feel they are unnoticed, left behind. One might call it a populist anthem, but I think the reference to white socks is intentionally meant to be funny—in effect, it says: “we know who we are, we know how uncool white socks are.” George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “We’re Not the Jet Set” could fit here as well. Owens other song, “Streets Of Bakersfield” is also about a man who is ignored and all but invisible to the powers that be.”
Byrne went on to add: “We have songs about male abuse of power by Rihanna (“Man Down”) and the country act Delta Rae. A song questioning the death penalty (Steve Earle’s ‘Billy Austin’) and the police treatment of Afro Americans (Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’). There’s a country song about hypocrisy (“Harper Valley P.T.A.’) and songs that fight the power through celebration of who one is (‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud’)”.
The former Talking Heads vocalist then signed off in poignant style, concluding: “So, the power of song to give voice is eternal… in fact, it’s more widespread than ever.”
Here at Far Out we have turned Byrne’s list into the ultimate Spotify protest songs playlist for you to get your teeth stuck into for the next three hours and twenty-three minutes. The protest song is certainly alive and well.