As I’ve written about previously, I’m presently conducting research on the 1990s as a unique phenomenon in the protest music genre. Usually, when we think of protest songs, we think of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, or Creedence Clearwater Revival singing “Fortunate Son.” These artists all came from the 1960s, a time of rebellion, revolution, and military conscription into the Vietnam War. Maybe we think of the punk anarchy movements of the 1970s and ’80s. We don’t usually think of the years between 1989’s crumbling of the Berlin Wall and 2001’s terror attacks in America as being protest-worthy. Yet, pop music was rife with protest songs. Apartheid, feminism, LGBT+, racism/police brutality, and environmentalism exploded in songs that stood as accusations against harmful behaviors. This interested me, and few have written about it.
I started this project literally from scratch. No one had a comprehensive database of protest music. There might be datasets with topic-specific songs (anti-war, for example) but no database that includes all songs of rage. So I got to work building one.
The first thing I did is grab as many anti-war songs I could find in pop music. I ended up with about 1,200 noteworthy songs initially. I had to exclude a lot of songs from independent musicians or songs that didn’t seem to exist at all. In order to make my list, the songs had to be noteworthy enough to chart, have a Wikipedia page dedicated to it, or to have appeared on television or in a movie, or to have found subsequent fame.
So I dumped all of these songs into Excel and made my little chart according to year and number of anti-war protest songs. And this is what I found with this initial list of songs.
The graph has more-or-less predictable peaks and valleys, which I’ve labeled. Popular music didn’t really exist before 1950, so I started there. It took about a decade to ramp up, but once Nixon was in office and the Vietnam War raged, so too raged musicians.
Once Nixon left office, things settled down (for a very short time). Anti-nuclear war/Cold War songs create the next major peak, especially during the Reagan years when the threat of nuclear war was higher than normal (at first, then it settled down as Reagan took disarmament surprisingly, or at least relatively, seriously).
We all know the tale. Strangely, the Cold War evaporated into thin air—practically overnight. And with the Cold War went the songs of war. Well, mostly.
In his song, “Right Here, Right Now” (1991), Jesus Jones ushered in the new era by proclaiming:
I was alive and I waited, waited I was alive and I waited for this Right here, right now there is no other place I want to be Right here, right now watching the world wake up from history
Let me repeat that last line: “watching the world wake up from history.” This song is singer Mike Edwards’ proclamation that he survived the Cold War, and he’s now witnessing the victory of peace over the threat of nuclear annihilation. Jesus Jones seems to, perhaps knowingly (?), capture the sentiment of so many Western political scientists at the time, especially Francis Fukuyama and his “End of History” hypothesis. Few sang about war anymore.
Sure, some musicians still sang about militarized violence in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and, of course, U2 and the Zombies (to name just two) were deeply troubled by the violence that plagued Ireland.
But according to the data I collected (which is, admittedly, incomplete at the present), anti-war songs had dropped from a peak of about 50 in the mid-1980s to an average of 10 per year during the Clinton Administration.
The 2001 terrorist attacks, however, reintroduced the musician to the war dead. And anti-war music came back for its third and highest peak yet. During the GW Bush Administration, lyricists, longing for a return to the End of History, disavowed the “Clash of Civilizations.” War between the West and Islam wasn’t the right answer.
But as soon as Bush was out of office, and despite Obama’s tendency to follow his predecessor’s lead in Libya (etc.), anti-war music fell to a low not seen since before the Vietnam War.
What this image doesn’t show are all of the other movements. While anti-war songs were rare during the Clinton years and at present, for example, anti-racism/police brutality-themed songs were and are peaking. Songs during the post-Rodney King era demonized cops and shamed racism. Even Billy Idol got involved in the 1990s anti-cop movement. In 2012, right when anti-war music had fallen to its lowest in generations, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in what many (rightfully) see as one of innumerable examples injustice towards Black Americans. This killing and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal, as well as countless similar incidents involving police shootings or police strangulations of Black people, sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. And, of course, “This Is America.”
While few felt the need to sing about war in the 1990s or feel the need to sing about it today, racial injustice, environmental degradation, the mistreatment of LGBT+, and gender inequities continue to enrage our musicians and lyricists, who then influence our youth by translating their rage into lyrics and melodies.
Anyway, I just wanted to share my thoughts on the graph I made above. As I stated, it follows a rather predictable pattern. It is pretty interesting, to me, at least, to see it displayed in visual form.