The medium as the message in protest music

Paradigm Shift 4ZZZ fm102.1 Fridays at Noon 17 April 2020

Andy presents.

The medium is the message” declared Marshall McLuhan in 1964 – trying to understand how changing technology shaped society. McLuhan’s own recording career is an interesting if bizarre footnote to his theory, but over the years many political musicians have taken this idea to heart and thought, in different ways, that it’s not simply what you are singing about that makes your music political – the medium by which you communicate carries as much weight in representing the kind of world we want to create.

Pete Seeger sings We Shall Overcome

Folk music is the still the musical genre most associated with protest songs, and for more reasons than just the lyrics. Folk protest legend Pete Seeger believed that folk songs only truly reached their purpose when sung en masse – joining individuals into a collective force and turning spectators into participants. Seeger took this into account when writing his songs. After hearing a black church congregation singing a hymn called We Will Overcome, Seeger gave it a slight rewrite to make it easier for anyone to sing – “‘we shall’ opens the mouth wider – the ‘i’ in ‘will’ is not an easy vowel to sing”. The result is probably the most famous protest song of all. Seeger says about the song “it’s the genius of simplicity. Any damn fool can get complicated”.

Seeger’s commitment to the medium of acoustic singalong folk played out famously when Bob Dylan “went electric” at Newport folk festival. The crowd famously booed, and Seeger apparently threatened to cut the power cable with an axe. Rock’n’roll in its early stages certainly shook the establishment, though it mostly wasn’t consciously political. Of course its medium has something to do with this – the rise of rock’n’roll is inextricably tied to the rise of new media technologies television and the 45rpm record. It was a uniquely commodified and simulated artform.

In the mid-60’s though, rock’n’roll became a voice of the anti-Vietnam war movement and the youth counter-culture. Some bands addressed social issues in their lyrics, but just as often it was the loud raucous music and the fashion of the rock bands that brought to the surface feelings of a world in tumult and an unbridgable generation gap.

Still, the 60’s rock revolution was one easily co-opted by enterprising businessmen hoping to sell images of rebellion to a lucrative youth market. Peter Dogget, whose book There’s A Riot Going On is the most exhaustive history of the late 60’s rock counterculture, notes with resignation “the lesson of revolutionary rock is that the music, and its idealistic ideology, was compromised and sold in the very instant that it was made.

In response to this though, many musicians and activists tried to decommodify the music. The two biggest festivals on either side of the Atlantic, Woodstock and Isle of Wight, both saw activists tearing down the fences to allow people to enter for free. But more effective as a medium of change than this was the organising of free concerts and festivals. In the UK, this ranged from free concerts in Hyde Park to full on week long festivals (the original Glastonbury being an example, the “rent strike in the Queen’s backyard” Windsor Free Festival being another). The notion of “free” extended beyond the monetary price of entry to the expression of participants.

The Grateful Dead in San Franciso’s Haight-Ashbury

In the US, San Francisco hippies The Grateful Dead started organising free concerts in San Franciso’s Haight-Ashbury area, linking up with radicals who were providing free food, accommodation and health care. This developed into their own free festival circuit, developing an entire traveling culture of “Deadheads”. Rock journalist Lillian Roxon once wrote the Grateful Dead “performed more free concerts than any band in the history of music”.

In both these examples, the culture extended beyond that of fans to a full traveling lifestyle. While the politics of the free festival scene were not always entirely coherent, it led people out of traditional capitalist lifestyle and transformed them from passive consumers of a product to active participants in a subculture. A British festival flyer from 1980 declared “Free festivals are practical demonstrations of what society could be like all the time: miniature utopias of joy and communal awareness rising for a few days from a grey morass of mundane, inhibited, paranoid and repressive everyday existence.”

In the late 70’s punk emerged as another musical counter-culture. The rough and raw sounds of the music energised people who felt mainstream 70’s rock had gotten bloated and lost its radical edge. The simplicity of the music inspired many to form bands – punk groups sprung up across the world like weeds after rain, disrupting the manicured lawn of the music industry. One of the iconic images is a page from Mark Perry’s Sniffin’ Glue punk fanzine of three guitar chord shapes; “Now form a band” it read. This is a perfect example of the medium as the message – the simplicity of the music was an invitation for others to join. Zines like Sniffin’ Glue were a response, but they in turn manifested McLuhan’s words – the fact that the music press was as simple as laying out pages by hand and putting them through a photocopier inspired others to write.

Punk was a movement that instinctively believed in the medium as the message. Another way it did so was by using independent record labels. Historically, recording artists had relied on a company to get their music recorded on tape and pressed on vinyl. But as part of punk’s emancipatory DIY message, punk bands in many cases did so independently, taking any profits out of the hands of big corporations and enabling them to release music regardless of the dictates of commercial record companies.

The first in the UK to do so was Manchester band The Buzzcocks with their New Hormones label. Soon after, enough bands around the country were doing the same that independent record store Rough Trade set up a distribution network to help independent bands get their music into stores around the country. Anarchist band Crass not only put out their own music, but released records and compilations of other bands, allowing a small anarcho-punk scene to develop. Crass, like Sniffin’ Glue editor Mark Perry, were quite critical of bands like The Clash, who sang of radical politics but did so backed by the coffers of major record labels “CBS promoted the Clash,” they snarled, “not for revolution just for cash”.

Many independent bands thought of their records as an overt call for others to create their own. Hence the fact that oddball punk poet Dan Treacy put the expenses chart for his debut single as Television Personalities on the sleeve of the record. That act was later repeated by Marxist-intellectual popsters Scritti Politti on their debut single Skank Bloc Bologna.

These origins of punk were never forgotten as the style developed into an established subculture. Few styles of art have ever been quite as conscious of the role of the medium as the message. Not only did zines and independent labels continue to be a part of punk, many in the scene would reject the punk credentials of publications or music that weren’t independently produced, regardless of what it sounded like.

The band who most embody the independent ethic of punk are Fugazi. Their records were all released on their independent label Dischord Records, and always sold for a maximum of $10. Gigs around their hometown of Washington DC would usually be fundraisers, working with a group called Positive Force to take political music off the stage and into the everyday reality of activism and social causes.

When they toured, which they did constantly, all their gigs were limited to a $5 door charge, with a stipulation they had to be open to all ages and not just those over 18. In the press, they would do interviews with independent publications but not those owned by large corporations. They stuck to these ideals even when offered huge financial advances from major record labels, or large payments to be featured in Rolling Stone magazine. Even as the band’s popularity increased they continued to book the tours themselves and load their own gear. They even carried envelopes with $5 notes inside ready to refund the tickets and kick out audience members who were violent in the crowd.

Their vision of the medium as the message was wide-ranging. After writing a song in the perspective of a woman living in rape culture, Fugazi ultimately decided having a group of men onstage performing it sent its own message. So from then on, a woman was always invited on stage to sing Suggestion.

Friends of Fugazi who also believed in the importance of women on stage were Bikini Kill. They were women who looked at punk and saw a subculture that preached freedom but in practice was dominated by men in prominent positions and macho rituals that shut out the participation of women. Bikini Kill called for “revolution girl style now!” Again zines were a key medium – home-made literature enabling the lives and stories of women to finally be told. There were a number of zines linked with this new movement, in fact the title of one – Riot Grrrl – gave the movement its name. They contained content that had rarely been included in mainstream culture before, like firsthand accounts of rape or eating disorders. But the fact of these bands and zines’ existence carried its own message – that these stories could be told and no longer need be shut away like the housewives of old.

Bikini Kill reshaped the way music was experienced live too – they were women on stage, making a loud and aggressive racket that broke through traditional notions of feminine etiquette and in its joyful amateurishness confronted notions of musicianship that had made inexperienced women afraid to step on stage. But they also changed the experience of the audience – like Fugazi they would call out incidences of violence in their audience and eject those who perpetrated them. They turned this into a philosophy and practice of “girls to the front”, enabling women to experience the faces of the band without having to brave the macho aggressive dancing that traditionally dominated that space.

Another band in the early 90’s who were challenging traditional audience roles was industrial/rap/rock group Consolidated. Consolidated’s music and lyrics wasn’t especially nuanced and to be honest it hasn’t dated all that well. But the one very notable thing about Consolidated is a practice they did to try to break down that performer/audience dichotomy. They would pause their show to pass the mic around the crowd and ask people to discuss the issues they were singing about. Often these discussions would be recorded and clips from them included in their albums. Heavy music is full of bands that sing their political songs to an audience of uncaring hedonists – those Consolidated recordings are an example of bringing to the surface that tension, as well as inviting different perspectives to be shared and for people to see political ideas as something you personally engage in rather than have shouted at you from the stage.

It was musically quite different from traditional punk rock, but a similar spirit of DIY emboldened the beginnings of another musical movement. Electronic music from its beginnings played with the political message implicit in its medium – exploring how rapidly developing new technology affected human life. This took different forms, from the futurism of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, to the alienation of Gary Numan’s Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

Throbbing Gristle coined a new genre term in their attempts to represent the relationship between human and machine. In the documentary Synth Brittanica, Cosey Fanni Tutti from the band said “We were trying to reflect the sounds around us. The studio was in an industrial area and we were trying to reflect all these sounds and how they came together.” From this came both the name of their record label and their self-described style – “industrial music for industrial people”.

As it developed though, electronic music began to not just represent the alienation of machines, but some of the utopian possibilities of new technology. From the nightclubs of Detorit and Manchester to the beaches of Goa, electronic music came to represent a communal ideal. In the UK, the old free festival scene inspired a culture of impromptu dance parties in rural locations. That, often entirely hedonistic, scene met with political activism in a few ways – there were the times it intersected with the still surviving old free festival culture, there was the fact the conservative government literally made the dance parties illegal with the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, and the techno scene linked up with a developing campaign of direct action blockades stopping the construction of new highways.

The specific medium of electronic music brought its own radical possibilities. The simplicity of making the music all on one synth in your home gave it new DIY potential. The ability to perform without lots of gear made unconventional music venues possible, repurposing space like rural fields and city streets (the anti-roads campaign led to impromptu street parties called Reclaim The Streets). And the musical events themselves, with no live band or stage focusing the audience’s attention, offered new opportunities for communal musical experience and active participation.

In Do It Ourselves, the documentary about the links between electronic music and protest in Australia, pioneering trance DJ Ray Castle talks about parties he organised in the early 90’s in Goa: “It wasn’t geared around artists standing on stage like in the rock days. The focus was not up on the stage looking at personalities or artists on stage doing the show. The focus and the feeling was in the centre of the dancefloor.”

The ways bands can creatively use the medium of expression to make a political point are endless – the list I have just given is just a few examples, there are plenty of others.

Negativland were critical of intellectual property laws. They could have written a song about it, but instead they made songs constructed entirely from samples of other songs and films. Russian political punks Pussy Riot took gigs out of concert halls – like the musical equivalent of graffiti art, they chose to perform only in public places – at parliament, or infamously in a Russian Orthodox cathedral.

The internet meanwhile has been a revolutionary development in media. And while it has unquestionably radically altered the way we experience music, not that many artists have creatively explored the new possibilities of internet communication to point to new forms of social relations. Some bands like Metallica famously resisted the internet’s changing way of experiencing music, others like Radiohead embraced it – in 2007 becoming the first high profile band to release their music online for free with listeners asked to pay as they feel.

In our society, music is experienced constantly and in many different ways. Many of these media reinforce the dynamics of the capitalist system – commodified with a price tag; featuring a hierarchy of performers, tastemakers and consumers. Even music with radical content can subtly and unconsciously speak for the status quo. In a time when more of life is mediated than ever, radical art that takes on the idea of the medium as the message has a potential to contribute powerfully to that greatest of artworks – the creation of a better world.

Pete Seeger – We Shall Overcome
The Grateful Dead –
Crass –

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