Let's be honest, most music is garbage. Yet of all the filth rotting away in the stinking heap, nothing stinks more than bad protest music. Which like music in general, is not only awful, but insultingly and obnoxiously bad. Until recently perhaps the most tasteless example of bad protest music is John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s 1972 album “Some Time In New York City” and to a smaller extent the non-album single “Power To The People.”
The album clocking at about ninety minutes is so meandering that even its good songs fall victim to needless repetition. Its critiques are as hollow as Rick Astley’s voice is soulful, particular on the track “Luck Of The Irish” which manages to be only slightly worse than McCartney’s “Give Ireland Back To The Irish.” Lennon is not the only person in the world to make awful political music, that’s a given. However, Lennon remains one of the greatest songwriters of all time, how and more specifically why would someone of such talent willing write such awful songs?
The ugliness and corruption of the Democratic National Committee in 1968 and 1972 matched only by Richard Nixon is at least partly to blame. In the early 1960s there was a distinct rise in protest music, but when the root source of Greenwich Village fell apart so did that variety of song. Then the demonstrations lost their mass appeal, and in quick succession turned into deadly affairs. In the aftermath of this many awful songs were written to fill void, such as Dylan’s return to protest music “George Jackson” or Phil Ochs’ reinterpretation of “Here’s To The State Of Mississippi” where he substituted in Richard Nixon for Mississippi. Admittedly not all the songs are bad, some are excellent. However it is certain that in all cases what provoked the quality had less to do with the specific subject than with the passion the singer had for the subject. I will never know why Lennon wrote such horrible songs though I would guess it had something to do with him putting the “issues” ahead of the songs.
Flash forward to 2017, decades of bad political music have piled up in the stinking heap. Now the hulking mass of garbage would make even the North Pacific Gyre appear minut. The politics and specifically the politicians may be awful, feral creatures however that doesn’t excuse for bad music. Whether it’s “30 Days, 50 Songs” or Fiona Apple’s “Tiny Hands” not much has been offered in terms of stirring music. Not even the old standby, Neil Young, has made a decent political song since “Let’s Impeach The President” which besides being ten years old is not even a great song.
Yet fear not, it’s not all garbage there exists some artistry even in these trying times. Recently at least, Charles Lloyd released a cover of Dylan’s “Masters Of War” featuring a punching vocal by Lucinda Williams (as well as excellent guitar work by Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz.) The song drags along with suspension for eight minutes. Lloyd, a master of his craft brings the saxophone to life and the listener to tears with his moving playing towards the tracks end. In a way it's unessential, but it is also human beyond compare. Lloyd some months back released a studio version of the track with no vocals.
Yet, even more striking is the Arcade Fire collaboration with Mavis Staples, “I Give You Power.” The track broods like the dark cousin of a 1970s Staples Singers classic. The song picks up when Staples begins to scream about two minutes into the track. It serves as the band’s first new song since the release of their album, “Reflektor” and is reminiscent of the dance grooves they’ve been exploring since then.
Both of these tracks are actually quite good, worthy of listening or buying. Are they perfect? Are they the perfect artistic statements? No, but neither is Bob Dylan’s “classic protest” work. Anywhere we are here, Donald Trump is president and instead of listening to some choir from Missouri I’ll be listening to the first Woody Guthrie album and perhaps some Roland Kirk as well. Either way, in the age of Trump which is now upon us, I will not be bogged down by awful music and you do not have to either. Trump may be a new type of golem on the political landscape of America, awful protest songs are not. “Sensual Pants Anthem” was not a revolutionary statement, just an awful song. Too often recently have we been blinded by politics of nothing, voting for someone because at least they aren’t x,y, or z. It’s just nonsense here and a ever growing heap of garbage that will outlive us all. So I will say it again, Trump is president and some people find that laughable, but bad music is inexcusable. We can do better than that, we have done better that, and I hope we can continue to do better.