In December of last year, Rolling Stone published a readers’ poll of the greatest protest songs of all time. All such lists are highly subjective, but since we all like lists, here it is:
1. Bob Dylan, “Masters of War”
2. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Ohio”
3. Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”
4. Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”
5. Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction”
6. Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name”
7. Bob Dylan, “Blowin’ in the Wind”
8. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son”
9 Bob Dylan, “Hurricane”
10 Country Joe and the Fish, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”
You can also read the magazine’s take on it here: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/readers-poll-the-10-best-protest-songs-of-all-time-20141203
A couple of observations:
•The “newest” song is # 6—twenty-two years ago!
•One of them, “Hurricane” centers on the wrongful incarceration of Rubin Carter (he died a free man last April) while another, “Ohio” focuses on the deaths of four college students shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in 1970. All the others deal with major social issues—the Viet Nam War, segregation and discrimination, even (in #8) the ability of the wealthy to flout the rules.
•The “newest” song is twenty years old.
Oh, did I say that already?
And that’s the problem—today’s songwriters just don’t seem interested in that kind of involvement, or maybe there’s more money to be made in songs that espouse middle-American values. (It wasn’t the politically committed Bono who performed at the hockey game in D.C. on New Year’s day—it was Lee Greenwood who was, as always, proud to be an American.) Yes, there are exceptions. My wife and I are enduring Jackson Browne fans—he’s still chopping away at social and political issues, but he’s from the seventies…and his audience are getting near their seventies too. They’re not the ones to make the changes.
Now I should say this—the Rolling Stone article may be skewed. I don’t know how that magazine sits with people born after 1970. But even given that, I still say that the protest song and the protest singer of the sixties and seventies had a tremendous influence on our society. They weren’t afraid to take chances, to foment trouble, to (as the Eagles sang in “Sad Café”) “sing right out loud, the things we could not say.”
I have no argument with entertainment like “Call Me Maybe” and “Happy,” and I think Taylor Swift is very talented and Lady Gaga is as good as anyone who ever performed on any stage anywhere, but there are social injustices crying out for a voice to sing them—and fix them, from fracking to billionaire tax breaks to poverty to to the systemic abuse of minorities. A song like “Home” (which is hard not to like) contains this line “Don’t pay no mind to the demons/They fill you with fear.” Like fracking, billionaire tax breaks, etc.?
It would be gratifying if, the next time Rolling Stone commissions a reader’s poll on great protest songs, at least one of them came from this century. Peaceful protests and Internet screeds aren’t doing it. Maybe music will.