Rock music has long been used and continues to be used today as a platform for social protest. Rock music protest topics have evolved from Slavery, War, Injustices, to Presidents and other political leaders. Modernity has unquestionably been the most politically polarized decade in music’s history. Musicians have used their platform to share their political perspectives in means of forwarding these beliefs to their fans (Covach & Flory, 2018). As long as people feel inequalities and injustices, disagree with the status quo, and feel disconnected from society then social issues will still exist then people will continue to sing about it. Music serves as a great platform for protest because music inspires human reaction and emotion which invokes a desire to act upon those emotions. Protest songs can be divided into two different categories, complaints against the government and songs about socially marginalized groups of people. Music, just like everything else, has always been political but the sound of activism is starting to sound louder as personal life and political ideology is starting to become more polarized.
Important musicians from the past such as Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye helped transform rock music activism into what it is today. Bob Dylan’s musical protest can be categorized as activism against a marginalized group of people. Dylan’s music played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was a staple in encouraging men, women, and politicians to join the movement and fight for racial equality (Henwood, 2017). Marvin Gaye’s release of “What’s Going On” in 1971 rock music can be categorized as criticism against the government. Gaye’s lyrics in “What’s Happening Brother” focused on our involvement in the Vietnam War (Covach & Flory, 2018). These songs carried powerful social messages that changed the course of history.
More recently, the band Green Day has used their music to protest and advocate for a change in American politics. In 2004, Green Day released “American Idiot” this album contains themes of political discontent post 9/11 and its success can be contributed to the desire for change. Green Day’s lyrics in “Holiday” is anti-war themed and focuses on the American government during the Iraqi War and distaste for religious justification in war. The album is named after the song, “American Idiot” which contains frustration with the media, state of American’s thought process, and President George Bush’s redneck agenda. Green Day’s lead singer, Billie Armstrong, wrote “Wake Me Up When September Ends” about the lost of his father but the song came to mean more to the American public than Armstrong expected. This song reflected the American public’s mood after the attacks on September 11th. American’s have personally connected to this album because it has validated their own feelings of confusion, distaste, and frustration with the post 9/11 world they are living in (Songfacts, 2019).
Topics of modern day rock music activism include LGBTQ+ identities, feminism, and the Black Lives Matter movement. In Lady Gaga’s 2011 “Born This Way” she advocated for queer acceptance and urges members of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color to embrace what makes them unique. Lady Gaga also addresses the sexual assult and rape epidemic with her Oscar-nominated song “Til It Happens To You” to raise awareness about campus rape and sexual violence. Beyoncé has brought feminism to the mainstream musical conversation with her 2014 song “Flawless.”
Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” became the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement, Janelle Monáe’s song “Americans,” is probably the most recent example of a protest song. It really does not fall into the two previously discussed categories. What it advocates for is that the promises of this country is still something to get excited about and still something to fight for ('The new sounds of protest', 2018). These are just a few examples of modern protest songs. Modern music is political and modern musical artists are eager to use their platforms for their voice to be heard.
A successful musician can quickly and sometimes even by accident (due to technology) become an A-list celebrity overnight. In today’s society we are obsessed with celebrities and look to them as role models. These musical artist turned celebrities are placed on a pedal stool and extra attention is paid to what they are doing, eating, wearing, and thinking. So much so that it influences what the public is doing, eating, wearing, and thinking. Because of this, an artist does not even have to write a song to inspire advocacy and/or protest an social issue. During the most recent presidential election, many musicians spoke out against Donald Trump at their concerts and on social media which heavily influenced what their large followings of fans thought of Donald Trump. These music artists celebrities live their life so publicly that the lines between their career, personal life, and political ideology are blurred.
Music has always been used as a platform to address social issues. Today’s music just sounds differently than it used to because artists have a larger more public platform than they used too. The sound of today's activism is louder as personal life and political ideology is starting to become more polarized. Music is being used as an avenue to start conversation about discontent that might not otherwise be discussed. Rock music is intertwined with social, political, and cultural issues. As long as people feel the inequalities and injustices, disagree with the status quo, and feel disconnected from society then social issues will still exist and artist will continue to sing about it.
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