Where have all the protest songs gone?

There was a time when we didn't recoil when the music got political.

I recently got back from End of the Road festival, a fairly small, boutique-y gathering of beardy Guardian readers down in Dorset. One night in the comedy tent, something quite surprising happened.

Comedian Robin Ince welcome on to the stage Grace Petrie, a guitar-wielding 20-something. I'm generally not a fan of musical comedy, but I decided to give her a chance. Only to be told, by the singer herself, "I'm not funny". Oh how right she was. Petrie launched into a succession of painfully earnest protest songs. Although not entirely devoid of humour (one song was dedicated to a loveable old banger she used to drive), most of her material was so sickeningly worthy that I nearly choked on my falafel burger.

The thing is, I agreed with pretty much everything she was singing. She sang about the harsh sentencing of student-protester-cum-fire-extinguisher-flinger Edward Woollard, and various other left-leaning causes-célèbres. So why did her warblings leaving me so cold?

Maybe it was the lack of humour. Maybe it was the fact that I happened not to like the sound of her voice. But my overwhelming feeling is that the whole performance seemed to cling for its life to another era - one in which we didn't recoil when the music got political.

Can you remember the last time a protest album, or even a protest song, went mainstream? The 80s were full of them: The Specials' "Ghost Town", I'm sure, provided a perfect soundtrack to Thatcherite desolation. It spent three weeks at number one in the UK charts. Then Bruce Springsteen sang about the suffering of Vietnam War veterans in "Born in the USA", another chart-topper.

Even in the early Nineties, protest songs were hot. Rage Against the Machine's eponymous 1992 album positively roared at the establishment. And can anything recent really match the power of Leonard Cohen's song "Democracy", from the same year? Cohen laments the political state of America: "From the wars against disorder/from the sirens night and day/ from the fires of the homeless/ from the ashes of the gay:/ Democracy is coming to the USA."

But then songs with a social conscience faded from the airwaves. Virgin desperately tried to sell the Spice Girls' 1996 debut single, "Wannabe" as some kind of neo-feminist battle cry. It sounded hollow compared to past girl power anthems, like Lesley Gore's 1963 hit "You Don't Own Me". While Gore sang, "don't tell me what to do/ and don't tell me what to say/ and please, when I go out with you/ don't put me on display", the Spice Girls merely demanded something called a "Zigazig ha".

Of course, protest songs didn't entirely disappear during the Bush-Blair years. Neil Young, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, REM., Pink, the Beastie Boys and many others released songs opposing the west's endless warmongering. But ask someone on the street today to hum one, and all you'll hear is silence.

Over the past year, political tracks have made a comeback of sorts. Lady Gaga's number one single "Born This Way" was a strident call for the acceptance of all sexualities: "No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track baby, I was born to survive." And PJ Harvey's Mercury Prize winning album Let England Shake offers up a brutal and unromantic take on the horrors of war. The fourth track on the album, "", contains these particularly brutal lyrics: "I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat/blown and shot out beyond belief/ Arms and legs were in the trees".

So will the popularity of PJ Harvey's latest album lead to a resurgence of protest songs? Or is it she a single (although loud) voice in the void?

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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SRSLY #49: The Great British Sewing Bee, The Essex Serpent, The Lady Vanishes

On the pop culture podcast this week, we watch The Great British Sewing Bee, read new novel The Essex Serpent and revisit 2013's The Lady Vanishes.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

...or subscribe in iTunes. We’re also on StitcherRSS and SoundCloud – but if you use a podcast app that we’re not appearing in, let us know.

SRSLY is usually hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

The Great British Sewing Bee

The latest series on iPlayer.

Some facts about the judges.

Caroline's favourite sewing instagram account.

The Essex Serpent

The book itself.

An interesting review by M John Harrison.

Sarah Perry on Twitter.

The Lady Vanishes

The trailer.

A good piece about the Hitchcock background to this adaptation.

For next time

Caroline is reading The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm.

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]gmail.com.

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we’d love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

We love reading out your emails. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we’ve discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at]gmail.com, or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.

Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 

See you next week!

PS If you missed #48, check it out here.