Listen to this track by singer-songwriter-satirist with a highly developed social conscience matched by a sense of humour, Jill Sobule. It’s “When They Say We Want Our America Back (What The F#%k Do They Mean?)”, a single as taken from her involvement in the recent My Song Is My Weapon project, and its accompanying album Monster Protest Jams, Vol. 1. The album is a compilation of new protest songs that includes the work of artists like Tom Morello, Todd Rundgren, Amanda Palmer, Wayne Kramer, Wendy & Lisa, and many others.
The project, co-founded by Sobule, is based around the idea that the grand tradition of artistic protest in America needs an online forum. Through Pledge Music, we can help make that a reality particularly during a time when it is very difficult to tell satirical headlines from the actual news. More to the point, it’s a time when also-ran politicians and would-be world leaders seem to deal mostly in ambiguity and emotional button pushing instead of real data, specifically around the nebulous concept of the good ol’ days when America Was Great. No one can quite remember this era in exact detail, but many feel as though they need to replicate it in our modern age by electing repressive and out and out dangerous demagogues.
So, what is the role of the protest song in a socio-political environment such as ours? Does is have the same effect as it once did in the idealistic sixties or even in the jaded seventies? In this age of technological networks, maybe the answer is less about the song, and more about the listeners.
This song’s title was in direct response to right-wing libertarian and one-time presidential hopeful Rand Paul who vociferously stated the given phrase upon his announcement that he would run for President of the United States. This happened way, way back in 2015. Talk about the good ol’ days! Since then, Rand Paul has drifted out of the picture, although this idea of getting America back to which he gave voice has persisted and then some without him. The movement to promote this idea of a mythical and lost America as embodied by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has grown like an expanse of black mould, getting nastier and more noxious with each passing day.
A big part of the rhetoric he uses to frame the dangerously fanciful and culturally divisive idea of “Making America Great Again” is centered around the curtailment of immigration, prejudiced notions of religious freedom and identity, the position that minorities of all kinds must know their place, the demonization of whole sectors of people in a bid to explain away a nation’s pains, and even (incredibly) a literal wall to guard its borders against them. These sentiments in turn are sprinkled with a strategic dusting of amnesia around how the United States became a country in the first place, and indeed what its motto has been since its inception; e pluribus unum, or “out of many, one”. The political climate over this past year has put that motto to the test by way of vicious public statements punctuated by out and out racism, sexism, and even physical violence. No pundit could have foreseen any of this in the mainstream even a year ago.
When Donald Trump began his campaign, even the press thought it was a joke. It was supposed to be just a crass and self-promoting vanity project for a known reality TV show shill with a flare for personal branding. Yet, as we’ve found, Trump and his ilk aren’t much for jokes, because jokes always require even a slight modicum of self-analysis and awareness of one’s surroundings. Maybe that’s why the protest song is all the more important today in combating Trump’s fear-based, fact-free, and otherwise dangerously unmeasured assertions. In addition to an educated and informed electorate, protest songs infused with humour and empathy have always been an anti-toxin to this kind of reactionary, willfully manipulative, podium-pounding demagoguery.
With these political realities in place and the oppressive trends that fuel them, who better to start an artistic movement against them than someone like Jill Sobule, who is certainly no stranger to using humour in her songwriting to fight the banality and humourlessness of all manner of social evils? Her long career is noted for her sometimes very personal explorations of body image, the shallowness of celebrity culture, redefined gender roles, and of challenging sexual politics, often with tongue firmly in cheek yet without trivializing the issues themselves. In this, Sobule follows in the traditions of Randy Newman and Loudon Wainwright III if not those of Mark Twain. Her peers seem to agree, with more and more of her fellow artists joining her in this new musical protest movement that seeks to cast light into the shadowy corners of modern political discourse by using artistry and wit, not to mention four-letter word style candour, as its source of illumination.
In light of that, what is the role of the protest song in 2016? As with any era, the equation for its success is only half accomplished when songwriters put their work out into the world for us to hear. The other half is about us. How will the music affect us? Will we be inspired by a song like this one to think more critically of the status quo? Will we be less fearful of the world, and know that our fear has been used against us? Will we be inspired to learn more about our political systems, and about how to check facts against the spurious conclusions that candidates and their minions draw about race, religion, sexual identity, and the role of a free press? Will we then write to our elected representatives to make sure that they defend our values in our country’s halls of governance? Will an eloquent, funny, well-observed protest song spur us on to take to the streets alongside those who are directly oppressed by the Donald Trumps of the world, even if we ourselves have the luxury of staying home instead? At very least, will a protest song get us out to the voting booth to exercise our duty as citizens?
The greatest protest song ever written can only do so much. As responsible citizens, the rest is up to us.
To find our more about Jill Sobule, visit jillsobule.com.
To learn more about My Song Is My Weapon, there’s a handy website right here that will lead you to a series of links to social pages where you can get involved. And should you wish to donate to the development of the platform and get the new compilation album Monster Protest Jamz, Vol. 1, get to clicking right here, good people.
Finally, if you’re scratching your head wondering how many protest songs in the past have affected citizens enough to motivate them to bring about real change in the world, here’s a pretty compelling list of 15 of them.