Friday, February 1, 2008

The myth of ubiquity and comparative rarity of protest music

The first article in the text The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, is written by Deena Weinstein, ‘Rock Protest Songs: So Many and So Few’. Here Weinstein addresses what she terms the ‘myth of ubiquity and comparative rarity’ of protest music.

The rise of popular protest music in the 1960s was contextualised by a number of important events and conditions including the Vietnam War and civil rights movement. At this time, many of the established record label executives were uninterested in promoting the emerging form of protest music however new record labels took on the role of supporting these artists. The dramatic rise of protest music in this era was further enabled by the openness of FM radio. Commercial radio was more concerned with Top 40 music and refused to play anything controversial, as did most television stations, however FM radio and the emergence of rock critics provided exposure for these artists, enabling the form of music to attract a wide listening base.

Despite the solid grounding for this form of music Weinstein contends that there are three factors to consider when looking at the overall place of the genre within society today:

1. There are relatively few protest songs

2. Protest songs that do exist aren’t widely heard

3. Protest songs that are heard aren’t understood as protest songs.

On the relative rarity of protest music it is suggested that commercial interests which see greater profit from other forms of music such as dance and emotion based music (love songs) influence the degree to which this type of music is produced, heard and therefore received. FM radio eventually morphed with AM radio to have similar commercial interests and preferences. There was also an increase in concentration of media ownership enabling a constriction of the diversity of music that was produced and heard. This trend has changed significantly since the widespread adoption of the Internet with an increasing prevalence of protest music and access to it by listeners who want to find it. However to the vast majority of listeners, this music is still effectively underground as they are not exposed to it unless by direct personal choice and effort.

Some protest songs are not understood as being of this nature for a number of reasons. One reason is that as protest music often addresses a specific event or set of social circumstances, as time goes on, it becomes more difficult for listeners to identify with or relate to the lyrics. The shorter life span of protest music may also make it less commercially attractive.

The use of protest music in other contexts such as advertising jingles, movie sound tacks, or promoted with nonsensical video clips, can also detract from its social or political impact. The method by which the song is heard can also diminish receptive mediation with the advertisements of commercial radio and more frequent playing of non protest songs all contributing to a loss of meaning.

Weinstein suggests that the intelligibility of the lyrics can also be diminished by the level of physical activity inspired by the song (dancing), that the lyrics may be limited in impact as they are heard in short phrases rather than as a whole text, and that mondegreens – when we hear the wrong word – also impact on the extent to which a listener can extract the political or social messages. The lyrics may also seem abstract or ambiguous without additional information from the artist as to how the song was developed and it basis.

Weinstein also suggests that if one were to classify protest music solely by its effectiveness, that only a small number of songs could be considered. Here she questions the overall impact of protest music and production of social change. She suggests that whilst protest music is useful for consolidating views and reinforcing values within a sector of the community, it does not always have the effect of inspiring outsiders. In fact, she suggests that this type of music can sometimes create further opposition and evoke negative responses. However, she also acknowledges that sometimes protest music does have the desired effect of spurring political debate and commitment, particularly when presented as part of a wider social movement.

I found this to be a really interesting article and I very much agree with her comments on the way the mainstream media prevent the exposure and reception of this type of music. From my point of view there are additional factors that impact on the effectiveness of protest music to produce change. Associated with Weinstein’s thoughts regarding the commercial influence on protest music, is the length and scope of copyright law. As Weinstein notes, protest music, unlike other forms of popular music, often has a message that is very specific and directly related to immediate events. Any factor which inhibits the access of listeners to that message directly impacts on the ability of the music to perform its function and copyright does this in every way possible.

By placing monetary gain ahead of reception, and by being automatic in its application, the law serves to prevent the very purpose of this form of expression – after the life of the author and seventy years when the song enters the public domain there is arguably very little contribution the song can make to events it seeks to address. The Internet is a very valuable instrument in ensuring that protest music not only thrives in terms of its production but also in terms of the access listeners have to it and therefore its effectiveness as a genre on the whole. If a blanket licensing scheme were introduced for file sharing, this would provide more equitable access to financial support and therefore encourage more artists to be socially involved. I would suggest that a blanket licensing scheme is proportionally more important for protest music than for other forms of music - dance music and love songs have never been restricted as a genre, although arguably they have been constricted in terms of quality, but even so, perhaps a loss of quality is easier to bare than a loss of meaning altogether.

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