Leftovers: Every protest movement has its soundtrack

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Most of us have heard about it by now. 

When it came to dispersing protesters and preventing violence, police in New Zealand employed unusually cruel tactics: They blasted the masses with sappy Barry Manilow music, along with the fingernails-on-the-chalkboard dance tune “Macarena.”

Natalie LaddThe protesters, who set up camp outside the New Zealand Parliament building to protest COVID-19 vaccination and mask mandates, answered loudly with Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” 

Music has long been used to express discontent and bring attention to troubled times. From slave spirituals to 1960s Bob Dylan ballads to Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin,” the songs become something more than music to absentmindedly sing in the shower. So prominent is the musical-communication genre in our culture that major universities have incorporated the topics into coursework: Columbia University has Popular Music and Protest Movements, Texas A&M University teaches The Protest Song in America, and at our own University of Maine, Music and Politics in the American Context is one of the first courses to fill up each time it is offered. 

I’m told by a student who took the class that he learned a great deal.

“I expected it to be a blow-off class,” said Mark Garland, now a 26-year old electrical engineer. “It was harder than any of the other liberal arts classes and required a great deal of memory concentration.”

After I pointed out that the class was also listed as a requirement for political science majors and those bound for law school, we debated the course intent. 

"Bringing It All Back Home" by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan’s fifth studio album, “Bringing It All Back Home,” included “Maggie’s Farm,” which one critic called a “counterculture war cry,” plus “Outlaw Blues” and “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

“One of the first things I learned that really made sense is that protest songs mostly come from the left, or center-left,” Garland said. “They’re either about some form of civil rights or a political stance people want to take. The right or right-center political songs are usually done by country singers and mostly talk about veterans of war or how great America is.”

All of this brings me around to Sunday’s Superbowl LVI game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams. Although exciting, it wasn’t the game itself that got me thinking about protesters and their music. It wasn’t the parade of celebrities in commercials, even though songstresses Dolly Parton and her goddaughter, Miley Cyrus, made one together. And, don’t get me wrong, I love Snoop D.O. Double G, but it wasn’t even the actual music of the OG rappers at the awesome half-time show.

It was Slim Shady, who instead of standing up, knelt down. Also known as Eminem, the 50-year-old white rapper took a knee at the end of his song “Lose Yourself” to show support for former NFL player Colin Kaepernick and what Kaepernick dearly believes.

In 2016, Kaepernick knelt during the National Anthem in protest of police brutality and racial inequality. Drawing both applause and criticism, he was condemned by the NFL (and goaded relentlessly by then-President Donald Trump) and became unable to find work.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell later said in August 2020, he “wished we had listened earlier to what Colin Kaepernick was protesting.” But most see Goodell’s back-peddling as a whitewashing attempt, especially since the NFL had supposedly mandated a no-kneel policy prior to this year’s halftime show. 

Even if the medium is the message, the messages are mixed. It’s not clear if Eminem told the NFL to pound sand or if he nodded politely, then took the opportunity to kneel and do what he saw as the right thing anyway. We don’t know if there was a breach of contract on his part, or if this action will be hailed as heroic. Or, maybe it’s both. One thing I do know is that, unlike Kaepernick, Eminem will not be out of work. 

Eminem’s rap-anthems are a far cry from Barry Manilow and “Macarena.” And SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles is 2,281 miles away from Detriot’s Ambassador Bridge, which was blocked by Canada’s Freedom Convoy. But as different as these protests may seem, they both have become material for songwriters and artists who help us make sense of life through music. 

As Tay Money, another American rapper might say to protesters and the students at Columbia, Texas A&M, and UMaine: “I understood the assignment.”

Natalie Ladd is an award-winning columnist, freelance writer, and Portland restaurant veteran. She loves Boston sports, California cabernets, and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. Reach her at [email protected].