Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Too Many Protest Singers, Not Enough Protest Songs

Today we buried one of the most politically important Prime Ministers this country has ever seen. That, I’m afraid, is the last good thing I can find to say about her. Like many people who were left high and dry by her policies, I had little time for Thatcher, her cabinet, or her legacy. While I agree that it’s distasteful to publicly celebrate her demise, I was secretly pleased to observe that her detractors marked the occasion with a uniquely British and increasingly popular form of protest – inflating the sales of a particular song to register their protest through the UK Top 40 chart.

In a post-Blair society where a million people can march on Westminster and be utterly ignored, it seems the nature of protest has changed. The UK pop charts, formerly the record of an important yet ephemeral cultural progression, have become the battleground for all manner of political and personal rebellion.

For years, music has been an indicator of politics, ideology and cultural identity. Now it’s become a means of registering dissent in a public arena in a manner totally removed from its previous efforts. Gone, perhaps, are the protest songs of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan; here instead are Cowell-baiting online campaigns featuring Rage Against The Machine, inspired and perpetrated by web-savvy millennials who have identified the potential that rapidly advancing technology can provide.

A disenfranchised public, seemingly aware that placards and chanting no longer carry as much weight as before, can now convey their anger and disapproval by purchasing a 79p download from iTunes. Surely even the most broadminded futurologists would have failed to envision such a development in technologically-enabled civil disobedience.

It’s not a flawless system by any means – on this most recent occasion, the BBC declined to broadcast the entire song, and their track record for banning controversial songs has been a matter of discussion for decades. Fortunately for those trying to make a point, the nation’s news media have not been reluctant to publicise the campaign; even as they condemn it for its disrespect, they provide the oxygen of publicity.

Of course, the nature of the legal download system – the only way to perform the act of protest is to purchase the track from a recognised provider – means that to register our dissent we must indulge in a singularly undemocratic act; we pay to protest. But contrast this with the alternatives and the recommendations of the new process become clear – rather than travelling to London, marching and chanting, and risking arrest if the protest degenerates into violence, the objector can make their point simply by clicking the button marked “buy”.

Should we be shocked that political dissent has now been rendered marketable, and that profit can be derived? Maybe, but we should be more grateful still that individuals still want to protest.

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