Protest Songs I

In my last blogpost, I asked where the protest songs were.  That post, “No Pasaràn,” was posted on Saturday January 21, and on that very date that a fine protest song (rehearsed online and performed for the first time at one of the Women’s Marches) saw the light of day.  I speak of “Quiet,” by Milck, here performed on the January 25 Full Frontal With Samantha Bee (on the link, it starts at 4:25 or so).  What I like about it is that—like many of the best protest songs—it gently straddles the personal and political; it’s musically strong (already rare enough) and has a personal message that is still sufficiently universal that one can imagine throngs of women singing along with it.

A day or two ago, Fiona Apple released “Tiny Hands” (Link found in this Washington Post article—“We don’t want your tiny hands/anywhere near our underpants”—that’s it), a chant intended for marches.  To my ear, the flaccidity of this release cannot be overstated.  Of course, the coverage (probably by her publicist) called it a “strong statement.”  No, it was a lame-as-hell statement.  Instead of actually saying anything that a wide swath of women might want to join in with, there’s a kind of elementary-school transgression (“She said ‘underpants’!”), coupled with a sort of premeditated confrontation.  In my world, at least, nothing is more boring than premeditated confrontation, and this example is informed (in the broadest, most charitable sense) by a sort of paleo-aesthetic of the mid-60s.  I—being of a certain age—have friends that can’t bring themselves to put on a pussy hat, however much they support the whole enterprise; it doesn’t look nice, it’s distasteful, really, must we be on this level?  Whether I agree or not, I’m in no position to judge the sentiment, and the wider question is raised: how wide a cross-section of women would really chant this kind of thing at a march, or after the moment has passed?  Is this barely existent—ah, “release”—really what is called for?  (Consider the clear concern, by the current occupant of the White House, of the size of a particular part of his anatomy.  “There’s nothing to worry about, believe me.”  Really.  Actually, pal, I hadn’t asked, and had not been inclined to think much about it.  I don’t think anyone else asked, either.  That you are inclined to talk about it redefines the entire idea of “distasteful.”)

Never mind that.  Another really good one is Alicia Keys’s “Holy War,” another of those deeply personal takes on a universal sentiment.  This one is also musically strong, and touches a deeply personal note—how is it that war (=bloodbath, fractured lives, unending grief) is noble while sex is obscene?  Is sex not a universal, or nigh-universal, experience and need?  How has this Land-of-Upside-Down worldview become a respected (or even tolerated) aspect of our national culture?  “Maybe we should love somebody/Maybe we could care a little more” is not a radical idea to a family-type guy like yours truly, or to many other familiar American types, but it’s actually a justified protest—since the 1980s, I think, Rush Limbaugh and other sub-insects have been making blame, resentment, contempt, and loathing utterly normal.  In such a culture, it is far too easy to forget that the baseline human experiences are lying down next to someone one cares about, rocking a baby one loves, wanting to veritably melt into the food-and-drink-and-hugs-and-family that is the clan-gathering of one’s own.  These songs remind us, at this most precarious of times, that the human default is connection (even for introverts!), and that if you care about, or have cared about, one other person, then it is no more than an extrapolation to care about the rest of your fellow-creatures.  It you’ve either found The One or would like to, the well-being of others (from other countries and cultures, from different classes) becomes a requirement for existence.  This is essentially indistinguishable from Bernie Sanders’s “If you hurt, I hurt” worldview: everyone should have love, medical care, education, opportunity, enough to eat, a safe place to live…the rest, we can argue about at our leisure.  But those are non-negotiables.  So Ms. Keys’s question is an old one: how is it that sex is obscene and war (agony, bloodshed etc.) is somehow OK?  What the hell is wrong with us?  To whom have we been listening, to our shame and detriment?

Now: these songs are all by women.  No one with even half a functioning synapse would say that women don’t have good reason to be infuriated by the current occupant of the White House.  Still, gentlemen, have we not had sufficient motivation ourselves?  I think of “Strange Fruit,” “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Eve of Destruction”—an infinite number of angles, tones, approaches.  When will our county be heard from?  Bring it, guys.  This isn’t just Vietnam or Civil Rights, it’s everything, all that and more: gutting of the rights of citizens, abuse of those seeking to be productive citizens in the American experiment (a long way from over, so don’t even think about it), the abuse of religious and ethnic minorities of all descriptions, gender equality of various kinds, tolerance of religious fascism to buy political approval…the whole shootin’ match.  Where are our songs?  I like Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own”; but does that really answer the red-alert call of the present?

Everyone: get your guitars out.  All hands on deck.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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One Response to Protest Songs I

  1. Tina DF Dinitz says:

    To quote Tom Lehrer, “Ready! Aim! Sing!” Spot-on article, as usual.

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