Adam Met of AJR on What Makes an Effective Modern Protest Song (Guest Column)

Denelle & Tom Ellis


It is rather chic in 2020 to have musical compositions adopt political stances. The primarily liberal music industry has consistently leaned full-tilt into lyrics about social freedom and inclusivity. It is now more important than ever for art to emulate, critique and respond to the world around it.

There is a unique power in words that inherently, and sophisticatedly, take a stand especially when they fully align with the perspective of the artist that sings them. Music has an ability to bridge gaps where traditional rhetoric may fail. Elevating (and continuing to produce) these successful modes of activism is vital to a more inclusive and progressive society.

The most widely recognized and lauded political song of the last few years is, without question, Childish Gambino’s "This is America." Taking home four Grammy awards (in every category for which it was nominated), the song and video represent the ethos of the entertainment industry, and an amplified version of young Americans' gaze on their own country. There is little doubt as to the genuine nature of the song’s message. Gambino’s physical movements and cinematic choices in the video further emphasize the seriousness of the ongoing struggle for Black Americans.

The numbers don’t lie. The over one billion streams worldwide proves the song's resonance, above and beyond the industry accolades. Gambino’s music surpassed this notion of taking on a cause. With lyrics such as “You just a black man in this world, You just a barcode," the song became a cause, in and of itself. It resonates now more than ever in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement.

To alleviate the risk of dealing in absolutes, one of the most well documented shades-of-grey examples is Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 anthem, "Born in the U.S.A." The verses illustrate the story of a Vietnam War veteran who fails to find sanctuary in a country that sent him off to fight. Ironically, the song’s choruses have been coopted by nationalists (politicians and the public alike), honoring the repetitive refrain as a stamp of glory. The Boss himself altered his performances of the song through the 1990s and 2000s to focus on the storytelling verses, emphasizing its critical nature.

Last year, The Killers released a song paralleling the structure of Springsteen’s composition. Standing on its own, the chorus to "Land of the Free" would make it seem a patriotic anthem, celebrating the (un)realized ideals of freedom in this country. But the verses are explicit condemnations of the current administration, actively calling out issues of gun violence, immigration, and racism. “So how many daughters, tell me, how many sons, Do we have to have to put in the ground, Before we just break down and face it, We got a problem with guns?” Brandon Flowers’ songwriting does not leave any room for doubt as to the message behind the ironic chorus. In this day and age, I don’t see the potential for a Springsteen-style political misuse of Flowers’ chorus, in spite of the song’s original intention.

Also in 2019, Taylor Swift’s "You Need to Calm Down" flawlessly created a narrative for her fans and haters to follow. The song clearly introduced her message of equality while the video took it a few steps further. By incorporating myriad LGBTQIA+ faces in the video, and staying true to the history of the movement, she cemented the song as something more than an anthem whining for change. Including imagery of the Stonewall Inn and an Edie Windsor (an early LGBT rights activist) lookalike proved Swift’s clear devotion to the cause. The end-card for the video, having fans sign her petition for the Senate support of the Equality Act, was just the cherry on top.

My band, AJR, released an unintentionally political song in 2018 that was then picked up by the students from March For Our Lives. "Burn the House Down" was not written about the House of Representatives, nor was it written as an instruction manual for protest movements. It was written as an observation of our generation. We have watched social media transform the organizational capability of millennials and Gen Z-ers, turning ideas into real change. When the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas took up the song after the horrific school shooting, we were conflicted. We did not see AJR as a band that would lead the way towards a more progressive sunset. We saw this song as a way for us to question our own political responsibilities. “Should I hang my head low, should I bite my tongue? Or should I march with every stranger from Twitter to get s--t done?”

Without actively marketing the song as a political anthem, once it was out there, it transformed into something more than its original intention. Our fans took up the mantle, embodying everything the song stands for. We then acted on their example, partnering with March For Our Lives to register voters at our concerts and educate our fans about ending gun violence.

This idea of an artist throwing themselves head-first into something that they believe in has produced some of the best music of the last few years: Kendrick Lamar’s "Alright," King Princess’ "1950," Janelle Monáe’s "Americans," and both of Beyonce’s visual albums Lemonade and Black Is King all achieve this goal adeptly and without question as to their motives. However, it is painfully clear to an audience when a “socially aware” sticker is put on a piece of art in order to pretend that it should be considered important. Art has the best chance of living up to its full potential when it stands on its own two legs.

Now, more than ever, artists are attempting to have their art reflect the turbulent climate. These attempts only come across as genuine if the song itself is a genuine representation of artists’ attitudes. “Socially aware” music deserves honesty, thoughtfulness, and integrity. This was never more evident than in the protest songs of the 1960s and has never been more important than right now.

Adam Met is a 6x Certified Platinum member of the band AJR and host of the new podcast, Planet Reimagined. He is also the Executive Director of Sustainable Partners, Inc. an interdisciplinary nonprofit that creates engagement around sustainability through media, research, and incentive based initiatives.

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