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9 September 2011

Where have all the protest songs gone?

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

By Eleanor Margolis

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.

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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.

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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?