Soundtracking the Resistance - Reflecting on Some of 2017’s Best Protest Songs

States of Mind

Jan 05, 2018 By Stephen Mayne Bookmark and Share


It would be inaccurate to say a lot of us started 2017 with optimism overflowing, but there was a certain relief at having put 2016 to bed. While the misery of a Trump White House still lay ahead, some comfort came from sweeping away the detritus of that car crash of an election.

On top of political woes (and for those of a more British bent, there was the little matter of Brexit), it was also the year intent on taking all our celebrities. In that regard at least, 2017 couldn't come quickly enough.

I say this now as we've just waved goodbye to 2017, a year many are glad to see the back of. What does it mean for 2018 though? Whether it gets better no one can say at this point, and it all depends on what counts as better anyway. But here's one thing we can be reasonably confident of-the coming year will bring an awful lot of good, politically motivated music.

Even before he'd been elected, Trump was inspiring musical responses. This only intensified as abstract fears became frustrated reality. There were funny songs and angry songs, lengthy ones and short chants. We covered much of it last year, and we'll continue to do so in 2018. For now, though, let's move from the specifically anti-Trump songs to other state of the nation music.

2017 brought more than just those pointed anti-Trump diatribes. It also offered an awful lot of social commentary in general, musical artists using their craft to tackle everything from political inequities to equality, discrimination, and health epidemics. Some of these we also featured, including in this column. Before we get going on 2018, let's take a minute to look back at a selection of the best 2017 offered in this area.

If you're looking for defiant, angry, and assertive politics in musical form, Algiers had that on just about every second of their sophomore record, The Underside of Power. Any track could be picked as a suitable stand-in, but for sheer brio, the title track is the one to go with. Complete with a storming video, singer Franklin James Fisher tears the house down with the opening of the chorus, hurling out "I've seen the underside of power/It's a game that can't go on."

North of the American border, critically acclaimed Canadian collective Broken Social Scene put out a new record for the first time in years. In amongst the usual collection of pop and rock experimentation, they threw in an energetic track playing around with the concept of protest songs. As the succinctly titled "Protest Song" has it, "We're just the latest in the longest rank and file that's ever to exist/In the history of the protest song."

Not everyone wants to play around on the edge of the political field, or in Algiers' case underneath it with the aim of undermining the whole edifice. There were other songs taking more specific aim. Erika M. Anderson-EMA when she performs-chose to tread the difficult line between sympathy for left behind and disenfranchised Americans, and a plea to find a better way beyond the hatred and violence consuming them. The provocatively titled "Aryan Nation" did just that, focusing on some of the people in the Midwest she hails from.

There was another plea for something better on the new Gorillaz album Humanz. On a record full of political imagery, "Let Me Out," a track featuring Pusha T and Mavis Staples excelled. With the album version obscuring the names of Obama and Trump early on, Pusha T is left to declare "Tell me there's a chance for me to make it off the streets/Tell me that I won't die at the hands of the police." It's been a question asked more than once.

British band Little Cub were no less pointed on "Hypnotise" from their debut album, Still Life. After setting out a dream of a world in which the capitalist order is tipped upside down, the chorus rolls out a lament at the ability the ruling class has to make those they trample on think they don't deserve better. "We've seen it in your eyes/You've got us hypnotised/Nothing in this world should come for free."

Karin Dreijer, half of mysterious electro pioneers The Knife looked inwards even more for her second effort recorded under the name Fever Ray, Plunge. "This Country" updates the love trumps hate cliché for a more cynical age with lines that go from "Every time we fuck we win" to "This country makes it hard to fuck." Dreijer's unique delivery makes it all the harder to ignore.

At the other end of the comfort scale, at least sonically, Annie Clark gave us another St. Vincent album, and as ever it was brilliant. MASSEDUCTION came third in our Top 100 Albums of 2017 list, and while her fifth record saw less use of electric guitar than usual, Clark brings it out for the peppy "Pills." Critiquing a society that turns to pharmaceuticals as a crutch to manage any situation, the chorus begins "Pills to wake, pills to sleep/Pills, pills, pills every day of the week" and comes in a year when the Opioid epidemic can no longer be ignored.

We also saw a trio of indie stalwarts return in 2017, all grappling with the difficulty and frustrations of modern life. Arcade Fire were first up, with "Creature Comfort" off Everything Now. Belying its upbeat synth heavy backing, Win Butler and Régine Chassagne tell of anxiety, fear, dreams of fame, and the ugly reality of what can happen when dreams can't be met. They trade lines together singing "It goes on and on, I don't know what I want/On and on, I don't know if I want it."

Then September saw LCD Soundsystem and The National put out records within a week of each other. The former was never meant to happen after James Murphy's band supposedly ended for good back in 2011. The title track off American Dream finds a middle-aged Murphy looking back and wondering if that great founding dream that America has it all for those that try is nothing more than an unachievable myth gradually turning to dust as his years pass.

Meanwhile The National were busy building failed relationships and abstract musings into an attack on Trump-led America on their latest album Sleep Well Beast. "The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness" keeps the mournful lyrics delivered to a hypnotic rhythm section and jagged guitar pattern that's served them so well over the years. Searching lines are also thrown into the mix, none better than the inclusion of the song title itself. The members of The National have always been outspokenly political, and their music has consistently been steeped in loneliness. Now the two combine perfectly.

Let's give the last word to Father John Misty, because he so often gets it anyway. Pure Comedy saw him subduing the music and ratcheting up the virulence of his lyrics. Where others commented sadly on the state of the modern world, or railed against deficiencies, Josh Tillman used his title track to critique our entire species. In a line of backhanded hope, he concludes "I hate to say it but each other's all we got." So I guess we're all stuck together for better and often worse. If nothing else, 2017 has been a reminder of that, leaving people of all views face-to-face for the first time in years.

There we are then: this is not an exhaustive list, rather a sample of some of the best 2017 had to offer when it came to summing up the state of the world around us. The plus side of the ongoing turmoil-even if seeking plus sides is a sign of desperation in itself-is that 2018 will likely come with its own excellent soundtrack. Now we can head out and start looking for it.

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Kurt White
January 10th 2018
12:48pm

Really likable collection.

The National has been a favorite of mine, and their latest ‘Sleep Well Beast’ is indeed a beasty album!

jack
January 16th 2018
1:58am

good luck i always check your blog .

Gio
February 21st 2018
9:39am

good article, I like St. Vincent’s album more than other.

Subreel
March 26th 2018
1:48pm

I love that Arcade Fire track, creature comforts but the album was a big pile of meh!

imaaan
March 28th 2018
5:14am

thanks this post

Mario
April 13th 2018
2:57am

I like this collection, thanks for sharing.

Pawan Sharma
September 11th 2018
4:28am

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