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A noisy political climate, but protest songs are silent

Photo illustration/Nicole Vas

It was a time of political strife, partisan battles and wars of emotions, but protest songs — the sounds so common in the 1960s and early 1970s — are noticeably absent from today’s airwaves. 

Songwriters and musicians such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young gave voice to a generation, as Vietnam sparked violence at home and Watergate toppled a president, by capturing the angst and pain of a tumultuous political climate. 

But despite countless Hollywood entertainers using interviews to rail against President Trump and Washington politics, there is virtually no music to match that anger.

{mosads}John Legend, a fierce critic of Trump, says there’s a reason there hasn’t been a “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Fortunate Son” or “Ohio”-esque hit for this generation.


 “We’ve seen other eras when there was a lot of political music. I always argue that during the ’60s and ’70s, a big reason why you saw more artists talking about the Vietnam War was because there was a draft,” Legend says. 

The 38-year-old performer, who in 2008 released “If You’re Out There,” a song inspired by former President Obama’s White House bid, tells ITK “there were so many people whose life and death was tied up in politics” back then.

“I mean, and they felt a bit more urgency about what was going on. So even now, even though there are a lot of people concerned about what’s happening in Washington, I think there was even more urgency back in the ’60s and ’70s, and you saw that reflected in the art.”

The “All of Me” singer contends there are “plenty of artists that are really engaging in this moment” in “all kinds of ways.”

But music analyst Bob Lefsetz says protest songs from big names are truly missing these days.

“You have people who are into it for the fame, who are told what to do, are extending their brand, and are afraid of doing anything that might alienate anybody,” Lefsetz says of the current crop of top artists. “Ergo, no protest music that gains any traction.”

“The only people who seem to want to make protest music are the people who want to use it to gain recognition,” says Lefsetz, who’s penned his “Lefsetz Letter” music newsletter for more than 25 years. “They’re the irrelevant people. People who have accolades and recognition, they’re either fearful or uneducated on the issues.”

ITK spoke with Lefsetz before Eminem made headlines when he freestyled an anti-Trump rap at October’s BET Hip Hop Awards. During the performance, the rapper dubbed Trump a “kamikaze that will probably cause a nuclear holocaust” and lobbed other expletive-filled insults toward the commander in chief.

Pitchfork’s Matthew Strauss called the freestyle “not primarily about Trump’s various ills” but one that “speaks to our collective anger that we let this happen, that there are people who can’t see what’s wrong.”

Trump, famously quick with his Twitter trigger finger, never made mention of the diss track to his more than 44 million followers.

“I can’t stand that motherf—–,” Eminem said of Trump in an interview last month. “I feel like he’s not paying attention to me. I was kind of waiting for him to say something, and for some reason he didn’t say anything.”

“It is very hard to gain traction in today’s music business,” Lefsetz says. “Things are over in a day. And then if you gain some traction, it’s a slow climb to success, and it’s even harder to get to ubiquity.”

The scattered pop culture scene could also be playing a role in any protest music failing to make a dent in the public conversation.

“Prior to the internet, you know we had radio that was dominant, MTV that was dominant, and if something gained traction, everybody would know it,” Lefsetz explains. “Whereas now there’s songs in the top 10 where a great percentage of the public does not know.”

Emilio Estefan cites another reason for today’s music not necessarily reflecting the contentious political times.

“The media changed,” says the Grammy Award-winning producer. In 2015, Estefan enlisted a slew of high-profile performers — including Carlos Santana, Pitbull, Thalía his wife, Gloria Estefan, among others — to record a track, “We’re All Mexican,” to combat controversial remarks that Trump made when announcing his presidential bid.

“Now you get the internet, so people protest, but protest in their own way now because they have the new technology,” Estefan, 64, says of the difference between the Vietnam era and now. “So that’s good in a way, because I think you’re able to express yourself.”

But for Gloria Estefan, music often provides a shelter from the political storm.

“I don’t think politics inspires songwriting. My music was an escape from politics,” the 60-year-old “Turn the Beat Around” Cuban-American singer tells ITK. “My dad went to Bay of Pigs, was a political prisoner, then he was in Vietnam. So music, for me, has been a way to get away from the difficulties and the tough things in life.”

Other artists have used their microphones to focus on policy and current events, rather than specifically targeting Trump.

“Hamilton’s” Lin-Manuel Miranda, who’s criticized the president before, released “Almost Like Praying,” a single to benefit hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico, in October.

Kendrick Lamar, whose past albums touched heavily on the Black Lives Matter movement, said he intentionally avoided directly taking on Trump on his latest record, “Damn.”

“I mean, it’s like beating a dead horse. We already know what it is,” the rapper told Rolling Stone about Trump. “Are we gonna keep talking about it or are we gonna take action? You just get to a point where you’re tired of talking about it.”

Lefsetz, a former entertainment business attorney, says many big-time artists are simply fearful of alienating fans by getting political.

“If Taylor Swift took a stand, it would impact her listeners,” he says of the famously apolitical chart-topper.

Katy Perry was vocally for Hillary, but she released stiff records,” says Lefsetz. 

“Roar” singer Perry was an outspoken supporter of Hillary Clinton, hitting the campaign trail for the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee and performing at last year’s Democratic National Convention. Her 2017 album, “Witness,” which Perry described as politically charged, “purposeful pop,” took the top spot on Billboard’s Top 200 chart when it was released, but album sales quickly nosedived.

“People would say it was her outspokenness that hurt her career. I would say, no, it’s she put out a stiff record,” says Lefsetz. “If it was a hit record she’d have had success. But everybody’s afraid of being Dixie Chick-ed.”

It’s been nearly 15 years since country music sensations the Dixie Chicks faced a furious backlash after the group’s lead singer, Natalie Maines, criticized then-President George W. Bush during a London concert. “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas,” Maines said just days ahead of the United States invasion of Iraq.

Country music radio stations across the U.S. canned the Dixie Chicks from their playlists. Station managers told CNN at the time that the decision was prompted by “calls from irate listeners who thought criticism of the president was unpatriotic.”

The controversy, Lefsetz says, still stings for many musicians today.

Yet the mentality among artists has also changed.

 “Whenever you go around, everybody just wants to talk about Trump. But the musicians just want to talk about their sponsorship deals, and you know how they can get on a playlist on Spotify, and the most money they can make from touring,” he says.

 “What people forget is that in addition to the income inequality, is that music drove the culture in the ’60s and ’70s, arguably in the ’80s with MTV,” says Lefsetz. The irony, the music criticism vet says, is musicians have “a decent amount of power,” judging by massive social media followings.

But today, he says, “music does not drive the culture.”

“There’s not a tradition of this,” he says of current protest music, “and what drives the culture is television and politics.”

But protest songs could still make a comeback.

On Tuesday, David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, which hasn’t released a new album since 1999, tweeted a Variety article from April.

The headline: “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young Could Reunite — Because They Hate Trump More Than Each Other.”

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Music political protest
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