Music of Protest – Part 1

Eight years ago, when I was fairly new to Facebook, I spent a month posting links to protest music videos. I was taking a stab at social media, after playing around with blogs (like this one!) and how far reaching a touch it had. We were at the beginning of the Obama administration, and while I was feeling positive for that change, I saw the seething hatred from the right. Social media was bringing me that hate at a much faster rate then the news could ever hope.

I wanted to fight back.

Now the conservative right has culminated in the election of a rich, white businessman who has a history of racism, dirty dealings (and bankruptcy) and misogyny. I still want to fight back. Music has long been a way to rally behind a message, so it is with music I fight.

Back in late 2009, I posted the following videos. The comments below the links are the comments I left at the time I posted to Facebook back in December 2009.

Day 1 – Hurricane by Bob Dylan

In 1967, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was convicted of a murder he did not commit. Rubin was an up-and-coming middleweight boxer from Paterson, New Jersey. In June, 1966, three people were murdered in a bar. Rubin, an African-American, was convicted by an all-white jury, despite having been nowhere near the scene. He was sentence to life in prison.

It took 22 years to win his freedom.

Day 2 – An Open Letter to NYC by Beastie Boys

In the wake of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, many people were left wondering how to deal with the emotions and imagery of that day. It seems that most chose anger, hatred, or grief.

The Beastie Boys got their start as a punk band in New York. Instead of an angry message in their song, they sought to list the things they remember about New York and the things that make it unique. Instead of a stereotypical view of the city as violent, greedy and corrupt, they show why the diversity of New York is its greatest strength.

Note: Since I posted that in 2009, Adam Yauch has passed away.

Day 3 – Land of Confusion by Genesis

A lot of the music I’ll be posting comes from the ’80s. I’m a child of the 70s and 80s. It was during this time I formed my political perceptions and basic ideologies.

Many people look back on the 80s nostalgically as a time of general prosperity. Yet the 80s, particularly during Reagan’s second term, marked an explosion in a growing economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots.

It was also a time of increased globalization and American interference in global politics. From funding illegal wars in Central America to aiding our future enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, our government paved the way for an increasingly unstable future.

However, in this song Genesis presents us not only with these frightening visions, but a glimpse of hope that “our generation can put it right.” And while, 20 years on, we may still be presented with a similar, confusing, political landscape, any bit of optimism is welcome. Besides, it’s just damn cool video.

Day 4 – The Great Mandalla by Peter, Paul and Mary

In 1967, the United States was firmly entrenched in the Vietnam War. That year, over 11,000 of America’s youth would perish in the jungles of that far away country. Protesters where coming out in untold numbers and many were going to extremes to show their anger towards government policy. We seem apathetic in comparison, today.

This song tells the story of a young man who chose not to fight. But it tells that story not through his eyes, but through the eyes of those angry … or ashamed … of his choices.

Day 5 – I Want It All by Queen

Sometimes a song transcends its original intent. This song by Queen was written to represent youthful rebellion. But it was picked up as an anthem for civil rights movements across the globe.

Most notably, it’s use will be forever tied to the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa, where the song represented the struggle for equality to many of the nations indigenous citizens who’d been living under a white supremacy government since the times of European colonization.

It has also been picked up as an anthem by gay rights movements around the world.

Day 6 – Ludlow Massacre by Woody Guthrie

Things you can thank Unions for: improved workplace safety, retirement benefits, access to health care and paid parental leave when a new child is born, among many others.

In 1913, the United Mine Workers of America sought to have a number of grievances addressed by coal companies. They were ignored and the workers went on strike. Tensions on both sides escalated and the National Guard was called in.

On April 20, the National Guard moved in to the tent city set up by out of work miners and set the place ablaze, killing 20 people. The Union fought back.

Day 7 – One by Metallica

Heavy metal is all about glorification of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll, right? Well, no.

Metallica, as one example, has many songs that have a decidedly anti-war theme. The song One is based on the novel (and subsequent movie) Johnny Got His Gun. The book tells the story of a World War I soldier maimed by German artillery. He’s lost his limbs, his sight and his voice. It’s an unpleasant, difficult to read narrative.

In Metallica’s One, we find a soldier in similar circumstances – a victim of a landmine. While around for centuries, landmines came into their own in World War I, where they were used on all fronts.

Today, landmine deaths are overwhelmingly civilian, often casualties of wars no longer being fought. Recently, the United States once again chose not to become a signatory of the Ottawa Treaty, which bans the use of antipersonnel landmines.

Day 8 – Don’t Download This Song by Weird Al

What? Weird Al all up in my serious topic?

Ahm, well, yeah, after a week of serious, sometimes depressing, songs, why not?

Weird Al has been pushing the boundaries of Fair Use and copyright for over 25 years. With the advent of simple file sharing, copyright laws in the digital age are under intense scrutiny, with lawsuits resulting in multi-million dollar settlements.

Weird Al has never shied away from current events in his songs, and this one from 2006 poked fun at the RIAA’s tactics. Al’s current album “Internet Leaks” is comprised entirely of songs he released on the internet first.

Day 9 – Zombie by The Cranberries

In 1916 a rebellion led by a school teacher attempted to gain Irish independence from Britain. The uprising failed and its leaders executed. From that date to the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 (and to lesser extent beyond that), conflict continued though oppression of civil rights and violent retaliations.

This was a battle of religion as much as one of politics, with Catholics fighting Protestants. It would take a book (or two or three), and much more knowledge than I posses to explain the intricacies of the conflict.

In this song, The Cranberries examine the emotional tolls.

Day 10 – For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield

Another song that transcended its original intent. Originally written to express anger at the crackdown on youth and the imposing of curfews in West Hollywood in the early 60s. What it became was much larger. The song was used to epitomize not just social injustice at home in Hollywood, but the greater injustices of the Vietnam war and Civil Rights movements across the nation.

┬áDay 11 – 99 Red Balloons by Nena

Another of my favorite songs from the 80s. The song tells the story of over reaction on both sides during the height of the cold war. While the German version is arguably better (even the band thinks the English version doesn’t have the same “punch”) the English version is the one we are, perhaps, most accustomed to.

Germany, at the time, was a major pawn in both U.S. and Russian strategic maneuvering, and when the United States deployed nuclear weapons to West Germany in the mid-80s, it triggered protests across Europe.

Day 12 – Buffalo Solder by Bob Marley

In this song, Marley takes the image of the Buffalo Soldier to represent current day struggles of African Americans. The Buffalo soldiers were regiments of black soldiers that fought the Indian Wars during the 1860s through the 1890s. They continued on in some capacity until the early years of the 20th century.

Marley suggests that today’s Buffalo Soldiers are still fighting for survival. I can’t speak for others, but I’ve always loved Marley’s voice and lyrics. He has an uncanny way of taking words and topics that are deeply sad, but paring them up with music that has an uplifting and powerful feeling.

Day 13 – Civil War by Guns & Roses

Now, when I’m thinking I need some heavy duty social commentary, I can’t exactly say Guns and Roses is the first thing I grab. However, between the misogyny and drug and alcohol abuse, there are occasional gems.

I first heard this song on the album Nobody’s Child, a compilation album with songs from several groups. Funds from the sale of the album were used to benefit Romanian orphans. Civil War also appears on the two-part album Use Your Illusion.

Civil War incorporates vocal out-takes from Cool Hand Luke, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, and quotes a Peruvian general attempting to explain how war advances peace. In the years leading up to the release of the song, Peru had been undergoing major conflict.

Day 14 – Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin

Do you need words to express cultural ideas? Absolutely not!

Commissioned as a piece to express a jazz/classic combo, and played at an all-Jazz concert, Gershwin’s work goes far beyond simple Jazz to a snapshot of the times. To quote: “I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.”

Written in the “Roaring Twenties”, it was a time of economic and industrial prosperity in the nation. World War I was behind us, and the Great Depression had not yet occurred. The optimism of the day is inherent in this piece.

As is industrialism. “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety bang that is often so stimulating to a composer… I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.”

Day 15 – Listening Wind by The Talking Heads

Is it possible to feel empathy for a terrorist? It’s easy to dehumanize those who commit acts of violence, to see them as nothing more than “the enemy.”

But what motivates a person to take such extreme actions? For some, it’s religious fervor, for others, as with the Mojique of the song, it’s a deep seated resentment of American imperialism. Seen through his eyes, Americans are privileged invaders.

Released in 1980, this song is just as relevant today as it was then. In fact, I’d post this entire album if it wouldn’t break my own rules.

That’s it for this first part. I’ll get the second half in my next post.

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