The Evolution of Political Music and the Protest Song

Music is a form of expression that has the potential to speak to people on a deeper level. In “The Medium is the Massage,” McLuhan discusses the evolution of communication. Though he says that media is “pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences,” he mentions sound as being the original sense, and how man used to live in an “acoustic space”. This connection to humanity’s roots is why music has been used throughout history to attempt to influence thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Music allows the artist to exert their influence and belief over society in a different way, yet still in a manner that is easily accessible. The “protest song” is one distinctive method through which artists transmit their personal beliefs to a large audience, but this method may take several forms. Despite a statement from Phil Ochs that the protest song is “a song that’s so specific that you cannot mistake it for shit,” the protest song has in fact taken several forms throughout its evolution over the last centuries, shaping both the society that the artist wishes to influence and the political commentary being made.

McLuhan discusses how different forms of media are separate extensions, and the different ways that protest message is delivered is an extension of the direct protest song. This forces us to think about what we are hearing, and to interpret and derive the truth from our initial perceptions. Political messages through music can be transmitted in several ways. Some messages may be forthright, with a direct message that is unmistakable. For example, Edwin Starr sang “War, huh, yeah/What is it good for/Absolutely Nothing.” Messages such as this one are clear and easily identify the song as a form of protest. However, other protest songs may be more metaphorical, using different situations to convey a message. Matt Kearney has a song, “Girl America” that uses a story of a girl to talk about the plight of the United States. Some songs may be considered protest songs purely based on their situational use. The civil rights movement’s most famous song was “We Shall Overcome”, a form of an anthem for the movement. However, the song was not written specifically for civil rights, rather, it has roots in much older spirituals. Finally, it is possible to find protest songs written in code.  This was often done as a way to reach the people without putting the message’s deliverer at risk. The coded message has been employed many times throughout history, one example can be found from the Carnation Revolution in Portugal, with the song “Grândola Vila Morena” being used as a signal to start the coup.

The origin of the protest song is difficult to pinpoint. Examples can be found in nearly every society, as most societies have gone through times of unrest throughout their history. One of the earliest examples of a protest song was from the opera Nabucco, by Verdi, in which one of the choruses was used as a rallying cry for the Italians to break free from Austrian and French domination. Political music has also been visible throughout the beginnings of the United States. In fact, the United States’ national anthem was written as a response to a battle that occurred during the war of 1812, and was used throughout newspapers at the time. (Though it wasn’t officially set to music for several years.) Later on, songs were seen in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. However, despite the continuing prevalence of political music, the tue heyday for the protest song came quite some time later in the United States, during the 1960s and 70s.

“When these ratios [of the senses] change, men change.” (McLuhan, 41) The 1960s and 70s brought a lot of change in the United States, with changing communication dynamics and globalization, as well as civil unrest. There was a semi-rebellion from the traditional values that were prevalent in the 1950s, and the Vietnam War, a war which many considered unnecessary and illegal, stirred up many emotions. The 1960s heralded the beginning of the “hippies”, and peace and anti-war sentiment was strong. For this reason, the protest song really began to catch on. Perhaps one of the most famous songs that advocates peace was released during this time, “Imagine”, by John Lennon. This song included lyrics explicitly promoting peaceful togetherness, such as “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.” There were also several popular anti-war songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan, with lyrics like “How many times must the cannonballs fly/ Before they’re forever banned?” Some of the most famous anti-war songs come from the 1960s and 70s, yet they are still relevant to many situations unfolding in the world today, which may be a result of our Western background, our tendency to view our environment as continuous. (McLuhan, 45)

However, as the Vietnam War drew to a close and American society began to focus on different issues, the protest song in the United States changed as well. We have experienced a “step-by step linear departmentalizing process”, to borrow from McLuhan’s description of our reaction to the alphabet. (McLuhan, 45) Today we see many different viewpoints, instead of the more liberal tone that previous songs have taken. The pro-patriotism and pro-military viewpoint is mostly seen today in country music, in songs such as “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” by Toby Keith, in which the artist includes pro-war lyrics such as “This big dog will fight/ When you rattle his cage/ And you’ll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A./ ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass/ It’s the American way.” American protest songs have also been more responsive to single events, rather than ongoing situations. For example, after Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, a number of songs were released that gave support or commented on the situation. Finally, social issues tend to be promoted more often. For example, a large issue seen in protests songs in the last decade has been marriage equality, with songs written both in support and against it. “Same Love” by Macklemore specifically came out in support of gay marriage, saying “A certificate on paper isn’t gonna solve it all/ But it’s a damn good place to start.” In contrast, many other hip-hop songs have contained anti-gay slurs, with Eminem receiving a lot of criticism. However, with protest songs, as society changes their prevalence changes as well. They may fall in and out of vogue as different issues take center stage. In the United States, it may even be possible to say that the true protest song no longer exists. However, this decline domestically does not translate to a decline internationally. One center of political turmoil throughout the past century has been Latin America.

The Latin American protest song has roots as deep as they are diverse, as does the protest song in the United States. However, one key difference is its continuity, without so much compartmentalization that has occurred in the United States. NPR has discussed this prevalence of political music in Latin American culture, and how it has been an art.The songs have taken new forms over the past few decades, changing themes from the civil wars and brutal dictators, to the need for more education, the prevalence of drug violence, and political status of different countries.

The deeper roots for Latin American protest music is based in the 1950s and 60s, similar to the United States. Much of the music came from Cuba and Mexico, protesting brutal regimes, and the need for revolution. In Cuba, Fidel and Guevara’s revolution didn’t end the music, rather, it helped the music to continue. With the United States’ help through initiatives such as the “War on Drugs”, civil unrest has been prolonged in those regions, and has spread to many others. Many bands today carry on the tradition of protest music; one in particular is Calle 13. A puerto rican duo, they sing about a vast variety of issues, those from the past and the present. In “Latinoamérica”, they discuss the need for unity among the South and Central American countries, and how it will be necessary to be powerful in the future. They also comment on newer problems faced in Latin America, such as the prevalence of drugs. Additionally, they sing about world issues, such as poverty and violence, as seen in their song “La Bala” (“The Bullet”) when they say “Hay poco dinero pero hay muchas balas” (“There is little money but there are a lot of bullets”). They also talk about the problems in society in general, as the talk about in “Los Idiotas”, saying “Pa’ separarnos con la arrogancia de que en el mundo somos el centro, mejor unificarnos con el idiota que todos llevamos dentro” (“In order to separate ourselves from the arrogance of that we are the center of the world, it is better to unite ourselves with the idiot we all carry inside”). Other artists attempt to appeal to the United States to deliver their messages, with Ricardo Arjona asking what life would be like if the Southern Hemisphere switched places with the United States. (Although, he comes to the conclusion that life might be pretty much the same.)

Ultimately, the protest song has been present throughout all of history, a “vagabundo”, following the changes. Wherever society is shifting, for better or worse, the protest song is present. Its presence can be explained by its primitive nature, despite its evolution. Our ears are the original sense, and those that use music as a form of politics speak to that sense, allowing us to connect with something from long ago, and adding another aspect of sensation and perception to our immediate environments.


Works Cited

Dylan, Bob. Blowin in the Wind. Columbia, 1962. MP3.

Garsd, Jasmine. “Es Un Monstruo Grande Y Pisa Fuerte: 12 Latin American Protest Songs.” NPR. NPR, 21 Dec. 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <;.

Keith, Toby. Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue the Angry American. DreamWorks Records Nashville, 2002. MP3.

Lennon, John. Imagine. Capitol, 1971. MP3.

Macklemore, and Mary Lambert. Same Love. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. 2012. MP3.

McLuhan, Marshall, Quentin Fiore, and Jerome Agel. The Medium Is the Massage. New York: Bantam, 1967. Print.

Perez Joglar, René. Latinoamérica. Calle 13. 2010. MP3.

Peréz Joglar, René. La Bala. Calle 13. 2010. MP3.

Peréz Joglar, René. Los Idiotas. Calle 13. 2014. MP3.

“Revolutionary Freedom Song Interrupts Parliamentary Debate.” The Portugal News. N.p., 16 Feb. 2013. Web. 04 Mar. 2015. <>.

Starr, Edwin. War. Brilliant/Digimode Entertainment, 1973. MP3.


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