The Revolution Will Not Be Available on iTunes

Article excerpt


The millennium could have started better for Americans. We saw the nation voluntarily enter two wars costly in terms both monetary and human. An ineffective government response exacerbated one environmental disaster, while private cupidity and stupidity caused another. Promises of universal home ownership crashed down around us, aided by slick financial creations misunderstood by everyone. At times, 10 percent of the nation stared unemployment in the face, and for the most part, it stared right back. War, environmental misdeeds, and economic hardship, the last decade has been a perfect breeding ground for protest music that would move the nation and set its hearts ablaze with a thirst for change.

Except none came.

Instead, in a time of great social unrest, people looking for protest music had to go farther afield than at any other time in the past century. While there were a few commercially successful songs with social impact, popular music in the United States was dominated by boy bands, female solo artists, and an enchanting but innocuous dance-based hip-hop. Protest music played very little part in the largest social movements, even as musicians expressed their solidarity through other means. When the next generation makes a movie about this time in America (and it will), the film will lack a meaningful soundtrack.

Many will be inclined to ask, "So what?" But protest music has always played an important role in American society, especially in the cultivation of a social conscience. It serves two communicative purposes, one primary and one secondary. Overwhelmingly, protest music coordinates and strengthens a movement by appealing to the movement's members. However, as a side benefit, it may also serve to persuade outsiders to join the fray.

We should care, then, why protest music has largely disappeared from our radio stations. There are many reasons for the decline that are endemic to the music industry itself, and we should strive to understand those first. After all, the landscape in which music is created and sold has certainly changed since the days of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Chuck D, and Johnny Rotten. However, as discussed below, these environmental differences cannot fully explain the recent draught of commercially successful but socially conscious music. We must look outside the industry and consider plausible reasons for this cultural phenomenon. Could it be that the new media so helpful in organizing the Tea Party and the Occupy movements has played a detrimental role, marginalizing its low-tech predecessor? If so, what future exists for this once widely prevalent form of political speech?


Perhaps the most important difference between then and now is the audience. A shrinking industry has become ever more monopolistic, as independent labels are swallowed up into a limited number of multinational corporations, and radio stations both large and small fall under the ownership of Clear Channel or a select few other big fish. This consolidation and its resultant economic realities have altered the landscape in a new and unique way: audiences have become "target demographics" with a lowest common denominator fit for mass appeal. Such target demographics are likely to be very young and largely apolitical. In the view of the ever profit-maximizing corporation, newly pubescent minds are easier to shape and predict than an older audience and far more likely to support alternative revenue streams like television shows, movies, and country-wide tours. From the industry standpoint, political messages are best avoided, even when aimed at adults, since they unnecessarily split an already too narrow market.

The best-selling artists of the 1970s include Elton John, Peter Frampton, Neil Young, and Fleetwood Mac--all artists who appealed to a wide range of ages and politics. In contrast, the 2000s were dominated commercially by Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Beyonce, Usher, Eminem, and the enterprising youth behind the High School Musical soundtracks--artists with a far more narrow audience comprised mostly of the young. …