Protest music has always been around us, mostly because there have always been things to protest. Joni Mitchell did it, so did Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young. In the 1960s and 1970s, protest music tended to be most concentrated in folk music, such as that by the artists previously mentioned.
For example, let’s take “Big Yellow Taxi”, written by Joni Mitchell and released in 1974. Its primary focus is on urbanization (They paved paradise and put up a parking lot / with a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swinging hot spot) and environmental protection (They took all the trees, put ‘em in a tree museum / … / Hey farmer farmer put away that DDT now). These topics are clearly still of great concern to us, but they are not nearly as prominent in music as they once were.
I think, on the whole, that the focus of today’s protest songs has moved more into anti–Bush or just general anti–government content. Now let’s look at “Red, White, and Brainwashed” by Anti–Flag, released in 1996. There’s a very obvious difference between these songs, starting with the style. Had I not looked up the lyrics to this song, I probably wouldn’t have caught them at all. I’m not well–versed enough in this style of music to categorize its genre myself, but I’ve been informed by someone who is that it would fall under “political street punk”. I don’t think I need to tell you that this is a world away from Joni’s acoustic folk music style.
The second difference between these songs is the content, because instead of urbanization and environmental protection, the band is taking a stab at the government of the United States. This is shown in phrases like “they use the flag to control us brainwash us” and “the only difference from the Nazis is that someone tried to stop them”. However, despite their differences, protest music has always had some core similarities over the years.
First of all, and most apparent, the music is protesting something the writer/artist believes is wrong, unjust, unfair, immoral, and so on. Secondly, the writer/artist is trying to inform their audience of these issues in hopes of encouraging them to make a change, or at least spread the word.
Protest music has come in a lot of different colours over time, but when it comes down to it, they’re all saying the same thing:
“Get off your ass, listen, & act!”