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COMMENTARY: Are protest songs about to come back? The conditions are right

In a May 4, 1970 file photo, a group of students cluster around a wounded person as Ohio National Guardsmen, wearing gas masks, hold their weapons in the background, on Kent State University campus in Kent, Ohio. AP Photo/Douglas Moore.
In a May 4, 1970 file photo, a group of students cluster around a wounded person as Ohio National Guardsmen, wearing gas masks, hold their weapons in the background, on Kent State University campus in Kent, Ohio. AP Photo/Douglas Moore. AP Photo/Douglas Moore

The late ’60s and early ’70s were a time of almost constant protest. People took to the streets across the globe to demand an end to the Vietnam War, which had overflowed into neighbouring countries. They marched for civil rights. Student activism was at an all-time high. There were even assassinations. It felt like the world was burning.

On Monday, May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard shouldered their rifles and opened fire on a student antiwar protest on the campus of Kent State. Somewhere between 61 and 67 shots were fired at the students in 13 seconds. Four students were killed and another nine were injured. (Chrissie Hynde, the future leader The Pretenders and Jerry Casale, soon to be part of Devo, were in the crowd but not injured.)

READ MORE: Neil Young calls for ‘new rules for policing,’ shares ‘Southern Man’ performance

The shootings rocked America, revealing again the sharp divide between left and right and between the generations. And after Kent State, the Nixon administration began its downward spiral, first into the Watergate scandal and ultimately with the resignation of Richard Nixon. It also resulted in one of the great protest songs of all time.

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While Kent State was all over the news that week, it wasn’t until Life magazine published an 11-page photo special later in the month that Neil Young really understood what had happened.

It was the morning of May 19, 1970. He and bandmate David Crosby were at the home of their road manager when Young saw the copy of Life. He grabbed a guitar and left the room.

The lyrics about “tin soldiers” came quickly, perhaps inspired by the use of the phrase in several earlier songs (Donavan’s The Little Tin Soldier from 1965, The Small Faces’ Tin Soldier from 1967, and 1968’s One Tin Soldier by The Original Caste). It took Young all of 15 minutes to come up with the words. Crosby started with the harmonies as Young was writing. (Another story has the two of them in northern California with Neil disappearing into the woods for about an hour to write the song.)

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On May 21, the entire band rolled into the Record Plant in Hollywood after rehearsing all day. A few takes and Ohio was in the can, as was the B-side, Find the Cost of Freedom. The master tape was flown to New York with Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records. Within a few days, a test pressing was on the radio across the continent. Ten days after the recording session, the single was in stores.

Given the era, that’s insanely fast. But as Graham Nash put it in an interview: “We were angry now. The kids were angry now. We wanted to speak and scream about this now.”

And it worked. Ohio helped ratchet up the political pressure on the Nixon administration and three years later, Nixon was out.

Fast-forward to today. First came the election of Donald Trump with his divisive America First policies, followed by Robert Mueller, impeachment by the House, fumbling of the COVID-19 crisis, an economic crash resulting in 42 million unemployed America, and widespread protests against racism and police brutality, along with violence, looting, tear-gassing of peaceful protestors in order to make way for an ill-advised photo op, and threats to use the U.S. military against American citizens.

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Throw in Russian interference in elections and the aggressive ascendance of China (not to mention locusts in Africa and murder hornets in North America) and you have one a tense planet.

Powerful memorial held for George Floyd in Minneapolis
Powerful memorial held for George Floyd in Minneapolis

This begs the question: Shouldn’t popular music reflect this? Will we soon get a modern Ohio? Where is the new Springsteen, Dylan, Baez, Sainte-Marie, Guthrie, Seeger?

Maybe right around the corner.

While protest music has never gone away, very little of it has risen to mainstream status over the last couple of decades. There’s certainly been nothing anthemic on the level of an Ohio in … forever. But the conditions are certainly right. Consider:

  • Anger continues to build regarding the Trump administration.
  • The world (the U.S. especially) is being torn apart by racism, social injustice, police brutality, and insane divisions between the left and right. Cities are burning.
  • There are more unemployed Americans than there are people in Canada (42 million vs. 38 million).
  • The fears and problems caused by the coronavirus are not going away anytime soon.
  • People have been in a COVID-19 lockdown for months with nothing to do but watch TV and surf social media.
  • The current crises aren’t confined to America. The whole world is reeling.
  • People are as mad as hell and don’t seem to want to take it anymore.
  • Millennials and gen Z, a huge portion of the population, have always been prone to activism and global thinking.

Music is always downstream from what’s happening in society. And with all this going on, you can bet that musicians are working right now to find ways to express their anger, frustration, and fear. Strong emotions are being channelled into music.

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Here are a few examples from just the past week.

Bob Mould (ex-Sugar and Husker Du)

This song from an upcoming album starts with an anguished scream and stays with that intensity.

Courtney Jaye’s Bunker Boy

Remember how Trump was hustled by the Secret Service into the bunker below the White House last week? He says he was “inspecting it.” With Melania and Barron.

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Run the Jewels RTJ4

The album was finished long before the protests began, but most of it sounds like it could have been written this week. RTJ’s Killer Mike has become a voice of the protests through his press conferences. And the band released the album this week two days early — and for free. (Watch for language on this one.)

I was sent this from some Humber College students

More angry rock.

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This came to my attention from Terence Penny

Protest music from the streets of Toronto.

And check out 10-year-old Nandi Bushnell

Wow.

Meanwhile, older angry songs have seen their streaming numbers explode.

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N.W.A.’s F*** Tha Police from 1988’s Straight Outta Compton had seen streams increase by almost 300 per cent. (Anonymous, the hacktivist group, found a way to get the song on Chicago police radios).

Other songs picking up steam include Childish Gambino’s This is Not America (now big on TikTok), and YG’s 2016 track, FDT. (The “DT” stands for “Donald Trump.” You can probably fill in the “F.”)

READ MORE: N.W.A’s ‘F–k tha Police’ nearly quadruples in streams amid George Floyd protests

Add in Public Enemy’s Fight the Power (streaming up 89 per cent) and Beyonce’s Freedom (+70 per cent) and you have the foundation of a pretty powerful playlist.

When Donald Trump first got elected and when Britain fell into Brexit chaos, I predicted that there’d be an increase in angry protest music. I was dead wrong because it never happened.

But now? Like I said, all the elements are there. Do you hear the drumming this summer? Let’s see what happens.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play