Protest music is a really slippery slope. Sure, you’re opening yourself up to bigger, more important messages than the typical re-hashed emotional angst that popular music tends to stick to, but man alive do you sound stupid when you get it wrong.
The song, “We are the World”, originally a Michael Jackson song (cue haters in 3, 2, 1…), was used to raise money for the Haiti disaster. Sadly, it is a good example of how not to write a protest song. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but the song is unfocused, the lyrics are clichéd and horribly simplistic, and the tune is overwrought with self-importance and excessive, forced emotion. Remove yourself from the good intentions of the song, and you can’t deny it. It sacrifices good writing for the sake of a grand message, and that is the wrong way to do it.
Rise Against, a punk band famous for their anti-war writing, do it the way I think it should be done. Their ideas are not ham-handedly thrust upon us with nebulous, over-used lines like, “When the world must come together as one” and “Love is all we need” like the Haiti song does. They write their songs first and weave the messages into it them, accompanying them with a gritty, urgent style of punk rock that uses its roughness to make a point as much as the words. That intelligent kind of musicianship elevates the writing first and the message second, and that therefore makes us listeners take the songs more seriously. It’s not pretty ballad-type stuff with a flimsy message about uniting against something. It’s straight-up telling you, “this is wrong”, but it’s doing it in a way that you can actually appreciate.
Even when analysing one of the songs that I don’t like that much, I find myself praising it for its ideas, even if the execution is not quite there. “Hero of War” is one of Rise Against’s more direct anti-war songs. It follows an army recruit reminiscing about the propaganda that got him to join the army, as well as what he did as a soldier. The song becomes particularly poignant when the recruit talks about shooting what appears to be a charging insurgent, but turns out to be a civilian with a flag of surrender clutched in her hand. As frontman Tim McIlrath belts out “A hero of war. Yeah, that’s what I’ll be!” in the final chorus, every word drips in bitter irony as it becomes clear that he no longer believes in the delusions of grandeur he is singing about.
The song manages to make its point that the lies we are fed about the army life are precisely that: lies. The heavy sarcasm and brutal images of wartime actions both signal to us, without being trite and manipulative, that the band thinks war is a bad, bad thing. Why don’t I like it then? Musically, the acoustic guitar that accompanies the lyrics shows glimpses of the soppiness I dislike so much, and the lyrics themselves are sometimes rudimentary in terms of their depth. Just look at the opening verse:
“He said, ‘Son, have you seen the world?
Well, what would you say if I said that you could?
Just carry this gun, you’ll even get paid’
I said, ‘That sounds pretty good’”.
Really Tim? You couldn’t think of a better line than, “That sounds pretty good”? I don’t care what your cause is, that’s just bloody lazy.
The song that I prefer is “Audience of One”. Taking on a very pop-punk feel and incorporating lyrics that are actually open to interpretation, it is a much better and more interesting song than “Hero of War”. The funny thing is, it doesn’t seem to be about much at first. The song has an incredibly ambiguous writing style to it, and it’s hard to pin down an exact interpretation, but I’d like to attempt one.
McIlrath uses three motifs throughout the song: things that we associate with permanence being in a state of fluidity and uncertainty, things being incomplete, and things reversing roles unnaturally. Things like, “years of wet cement”, days blurring into each other, identities adopting people, and cars running at half speed. These ideas are consistent with an apocalyptic scenario, in my opinion, as once a cataclysm strikes, everything we would have known at that time would instantly be thrown into flux. We wouldn’t know what to do or what to think, and we certainly would not have any concept of time. McIlrath makes further mention of time anomalies when he writes, “synchronising watches to the seconds that we lost”, indicating that something happened that caused the people of the song to actually lose time. This sort of experience is almost always associated with trauma and sudden tragedy.
In the chorus, he says that people are running, but does not seem to know what from. He uses the image of vampires running from “a thousand burning suns”, which I am sure was not just something he just thought sounded cool, given that a nuclear bomb was described by its creator, J. Robert Oppenheimer, as having the same amount of energy as “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky”. Hmmm.
So is McIlrath describing a world post-nuclear war? Could be, but the delight of the song is that we cannot know for sure. The song itself is very up-beat, which seems to be contradicting the dark tone of its lyrics, but that might also be deliberate on the band’s part. Your interpretation is as good as mine.
The point that I am making is this: A song of protest does not have to barge into the room with an obscenely large banner reading, “Protest-song and proud.” It should rather file in with everyone else and sit quietly, only divulging its beliefs when someone is curious enough to ask about them. That’s how poetry behaves, and I believe that even the slightest ambiguity in a song can make it a worthwhile experience for anyone. That’s why I like these gruff rockers from Chicago. They don’t make things pretty, but they make them well. Isn’t that what music is all about?