Protest Music, Metallica, and the Age of Apathy
  • WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 09, 2013

  • Posted by: Anton Barcelo

Nimrod Antal, the director of Metallica's recent three-dimensional concert-action crossover film, Through The Never, said he came up with its Occupy Wall Street-inspired theme because he sees Metallica as a band playing "fuck you-music," channeling some of what's "going on politically in the world." Or at least that's how he was paraphrased by Metallica's drummer Lars Ulrich. So it's pretty clear that he too thinks Metallica embodies the spirit of today's global, mercurial, youth protest movements.

Will Metallica write the protest music of this generation? We don't think so. This isn't only because they're a rare, living remnant from a time in which rock bands were treated as royalty, too old and too rich to be relevant, but it's because Metallica's lyrics are exclusively made up of cool-sounding phrases stacked upon each other (from their latest album, Death Magnetic: "Reign, legacy / Innocence corrode / Stain, rot away / Catatonic overload / Choke, asphyxia / Snuff reality." Another example, also from their latest album: "Dawn, death, fight, final breath / What don't kill you makes you more strong / They scratch me, they scrape me / They cut and rape me"). James Hetfield writes timeless poetry, for sure, but it's hardly socially relevant.

So if Metallica will not be our time's epitome of political music, what artist will? Political music has been associated with different styles, from the lone singer-songwriter to punk rockers, rappers and pop bands. Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan set the precedent of the protest folk singer during the second World War and the 1960s, respectively. They wrote some of the finest commentary music there is, they were what became known as "topical songs":

Woody Guthrie's war-themed "What Are We Waiting On" a.k.a. "Tear the Fascists Down," recorded in 1944:



Bob Dylan's "North Country Blues," a song about life in a poor mining community, performed live at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963:



In the 1970s, folk singers became rock band leaders, and punk bands like The Clash carried on the 1960s tradition of writing songs about the news. A string of ETA bombings in the Basque Country moved Joe Strummer to write "Spanish Bombs," a recollection of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. And The Clash named their fourth album, Sandinista! from 1980, after the the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the leaders of the ongoing Nicaraguan revolution.

The Clash's "Washington Bullets," from Sandinista!, is an ambitious review of some of the history of imperialism, commenting on both counter-revolution in the Americas and communist repression in Asia:



The political music scene of the 1980s was characterized by lofty ideals and super-productions like Live Aid and Band Aid. One of the most powerful performances at Bob Geldof's mega-charity concerts was given by The Style Council, led by Paul Weller in the role of retro soul singer. His call for internationalism and unity, and his insistence that "class war is real, not mythologized" was a fusion of the Bono-esque ethos of the day with the spirit of the punk scene in which Weller grew up.



The 1990s saw hip hop carrying on the protest. Hip hop was always political, from Grandmaster Flash's 1982 hit "The Message" and onward, but in the '90s, rappers' politics became more concrete. In 1990, a large collective of hip hop artists, including Afrika Bambaataa, Queen Latifah, and Grandmaster Melle Mel, put out the 12" single "Hip Hop Against Apartheid," which was promoted with this great music video:



While rap continues to be a vehicle of political message, the folk revival of the last decade also brought the protest singer back. Conor Oberst was going for an updated version of the protesting singer-songwriter back in 2005, when Bright Eyes was getting hot, America's two wars in the Middle East raged and George W. Bush was inaugurated for the second time. His performance of "When the President Talks to God" on the Tonight Show, remains a powerful number, and set a standard that other anti-war songs of the '00s never really lived up to, despite politico-musical comebacks from Neil Young (Living With War, 2006) and Bruce Springsteen (The Rising, 2002; Devils and Dust, 2005):


Bright Eyes, "When the President Talks to God" by Del_Marquis



If the topical songs of Dylan were inspired by reading newspaper articles, the topics of songs today seem to be inspired by mindlessly surfing the Internet. Maybe contemporary garage acts like FIDLAR or Mac DeMarco, and their songs about cigarettes, beer, and cocaine are what constitutes political popular culture right now: being apathetic, not giving a fuck, because, you know, young adulthood is pointless and the future is bleak. The Orwells, a Chicago-based punk band, wrote a song about refusing to pledge allegiance, join the army, and tote flags. It's like Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" for a generation that doesn't have to go war unless it chooses to:




We're in an era in which young people are economically marginalized in most parts of the world. We're talking a youth unemployment rate in the Euro zone of close to 14 percent, with over half of people under 25 in Spain and Greece out of work. Similar statistics in North Africa and the Middle East contributed to making several countries in the region ripe for violent revolution. Even in the United States, we have seen the first splashes of a protest wave: apart from being the inspiration for Metallica's latest cash cow, Occupy Wall Street was a show of force by youth so rarely seen in the U.S. that it had veterans of the 1960s political scene moved to both tears and action. So where is the modern American protest music?

Perhaps the problems facing youth in North America are too abstract, or too vast, to inspire a trend of political songwriting. Government surveillance, malicious bankers, student debt, and an increasingly militarized police force might be examples of problems that just make you want to tune out, rather than get organized and inspire others to take a stand.

Elsewhere, however, political music lives. Take for example the Syrian poet Ibrahim Qashoush, whose anthem "Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar" ("C'mon Bashar, Leave") was chanted by crowds across Syria in 2011. He was found in the Orontes River in his hometown of Hama, with his throat slit, in July of that year. The killers cut his vocal cords, as a message, according to the Times. This macabre symbolism has helped form a legend around Qashoush's fate reminiscent of that surrounding the tragic death of Victor Jara, a Chilean songwriter who allegedly had his fingers crushed before being executed during Augusto Pinochet's military coup of 1973.




A number of rap artists helped write the soundtrack for the Arab revolutions, events which in turn made their music famous internationally. The Tunisian rapper El General was arrested by security forces on Christmas Eve of 2010. The Tunisian revolution had just begun, and it was thought that the rapper's music might fan the flames of discontent. Predictably, his arrest only caused a bigger stir, and he was let go three days later. His song "Rais Lebled" ("To the President") is a haunting depiction of a life of poverty and powerlessness:



This is an example of how vibrant contemporary political music can be, and it could be done in the U.S., too. Unless we settle for apathy, let's hope that we will not look back on the next few years as a time when a 50-year-old, rich James Hetfield was the quintessential American protest singer.

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