Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Impact of Commercialism on Protest Music

The second article in the text, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, The Decline and Rebirth of Folk-Protest Music by Jerry Rodnitsky, considers the history of social protest music and how its popularity has varied over time.

As was noted in the previous post, protest music came into its own in the 1960s during a time when there was significant debate regarding issues such as civil rights and the Vietnam War. Following the end of the Vietnam War, feminism became a central driver of music in this field. However a change in music styles, illustrated by Bob Dylan’s move away from acoustic folk music to electric popular music, saw the decrease in importance of lyrical content and a rise in the importance of sound, style and theatrics. At this time, arguably punk took the place of folk music as the more widely heard vehicle for protest music.

Folk music become the vehicle for social protest almost as a middle ground to complexity of jazz and the over simplicity of rock music in the 1950s. Changing social circumstances whilst contributing to the rise of protest music, also played a part in its demise. Rodnitsky states that in contrast to rock at that time: ...folk songs were usually filled with meaning and integrity ... However, after 1975 there were few well-defined, mass social movements to tie them to.

With less centralised issues came less cohesive support which led to a gradual tendency to focus less on collective values and more on individuality. Rodnitsky notes that Dlyan’s move away from acoustic folk music in early 1965 was an important turning point but I would argue that the commercialism of the music industry and society as a whole occurred over a period of ten years or more, as a dialectical process, with each influencing the other in small increments. Eventually the tide of social responsibility and protest music went out with the incoming tide producing a series of forms of popular music, all with far less emphasis on content.

It was not until U2 in the 1980s that popular music was seen to embrace the protest qualities in a way that paralleled the height of folk music in the 1960s. Rodnitsky notes the No Nukes, Live Aid and Farm Aid concerts illustrated further isolated incidents of music’s association with politics. More recently similar concerts supporting victims of the Sunami could be seen within this category. However by and large protest music has been forced to the fringes - punk, rap, hip hop and satirical songs all frequently have protest qualities but are limited in effectiveness given the prevalence of other forms of music more specifically directed at entertainment. Some contemporary popular music can be seen to have protest qualities but until recent times, and still to a large extent, this has been strictly controlled within the confines of commercialism.

With globalisation there should arguably be greater opportunity for protest music to develop and succeed. There are both national and international issues that can be addressed as well as the opportunity to attract audiences on these scales - the Bush Administration in the United States, the Iraq, Middle East, Afganistan and other wars, and environmental issues such as global warming, are all areas capable of commentary on a global scale. This is in addition to issues that have been relevant over time including civil rights and poverty. Yet one could well question whether there has been the opportunity for substantial contributions by artists in these areas. Of course there are examples but the level of public awareness and support has not come close to that of the 1960s.

I think the important point of this article is one of context. Protest music is heavily dependent on context. The trick is to find the environment that allows protest music to best serve its purpose. Lawrence Lessig contends that the regulation of cyberspace turns on factors such as law, economics, architecture and social norms. Each of these are equally relevant to protest music as they are to any other element of cyberspace. In acknowledging that this is indeed the new home of protest music, our attention should be drawn to examining this context.

I sometimes think that if I were given the task of setting up a new popular music industry from scratch that I would use protest music as the template or starting point for every decision. I think that dance and emotive music would survive in any situation – these forms have a social use that is universal across cultures and time periods – but protest music should be treated as a threatened species. If the music industry could sit back for a minute and consider the ability to communicate and to contribute to the world as its most important asset (rather than money) I think we would see some major changes to the way the digital music environment is regulated and in turn some major changes to the prevalence and effectiveness of protest music.

The question I ask is: how do we make sure that protest music not only survives but excels in this environment? How do we bring the tide back in?

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