Protest Songs Day Five: Pet Shop Boys, M.I.A., Billie Holliday, Nellie McKay, Public Enemy & Tracy Chapman

Protest songs come in many shapes and genres, as the last four days have so ably demonstrated.  Our correspondents have nominated variously punk, rap, soul, folk, trance, metal, folk, prog and reggae. I think this may be our first electro-pop track though:  ‘Integral’ from the Pet Shop Boys ‘Fundamental’ album. It’s exactly 10 years old,  but we still have not come to grips with any of the issues it raises. If anything, concerns around state surveillance and data tracking have become even more intense. Every terrorist atrocity pushes politicians to portray civil rights and privacy as liberal ‘niceties’ as opposed to blocks to dictatorship, the bedrock of the democracy terrorists want to undermine.

If you’ve done nothing wrong
You’ve got nothing to fear
If you’ve something to hide
You shouldn’t even be here
You’ve had your chance
Now we’ve got the mandate
If you’ve changed your mind
I’m afraid it’s too late

If you like your Pet Shop Boys political, then I’d also recommend ‘Indefinite Leave To Remain’, ‘The Dictator Decides’ and Springsteen’s cover of ‘The Last To Die’.

Over to Roy:

The majority of what we have been and will be posting for this theme is commentary by inspired, concerned, disillusioned, angry artists. My choice for today has inherited all these traits via personal experience. Her story is worth telling. When she was was six months old, her family moved to Tamil, northern Sri Lanka. There, her father became a founding member of the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS), a political group affiliated with the Tamil Tigers Liberation Movement. The first eleven years of her life were marked by displacement caused by the Sri Lankan Civil War. Her family went into hiding from the Sri Lankan army. During the civil war, soldiers would put guns through holes in the windows and shoot at the school, what she notes as “bullying exploitation.” Her classmates were trained to dive under the table or run next door to English-language schools that, according to her, “wouldn’t get shot. When her primary school was destroyed in a government raid, her Mother moved her children back to London where they were housed as refugees. Not by co-incidence did she sample The Clash on this single that went Top 10 in 7 countries.

Ian:

Day 5 – “Strange Fruit” By Billie Holiday

Sadly, I listened to this song for many years before hearing the lyrics. When I finally studied the story I was even more horrified to understand both the context and metaphor around which it was composed. While there are many versions, Holiday’s is still the most recognised (and to my mind) the most powerful. More than the performance, I love the fact it was written in the late 1930s by a New York Jew about the travails of another minority group at a different time.

Billie Holiday’s rendition, captured in 1939, is still as powerful today as it was then.

Anne:

It’s been a grim 6 months in the U.S., especially for women. That our country would elect that bombastic moron rather than a woman with 40 years of qualified service is a real punch in the gut, one that show just how deeply ingrained sexism really is in America. (Last fall I overheard one woman twang “We can’t have a woman pres-i-dent, we just had a black man!”) So in honor of the new Dr. Who (yay!) this is British-American singer/actress/comedian Nellie McKay performing “Mother of Pearl.”

Andy:

Great to hear “Paper Planes” again – the “stato’s” amongst you will remember I made it my number 1 single of 2008 (or maybe not!).

Moving on from my previous Public (Image Ltd) choice to today’s Public (Enemy) selection (I hope you’re impressed by the extent and the thought processes behind the sequencing of these songs?!), we arrive at probably the best-known song by arguably the most controversial and influential rap group to emerge from the 1980’s. Film director, Spike Lee, approached Public Enemy to write a song for one of his films about racial tension in the New York suburb of Brooklyn. Lee said “I wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic. I thought right away of Public Enemy”. In response, P.E’s Chuck D said that “this was not a song about fighting authority, it was about fighting the abuse of power”. Wise words, Mr D., wise words…

Gerard:

Understated but no less powerful is the best way to describe this next one.
As good as the studio version is, performing the song live takes it to another level entirely.
The performance makes me recall the time this lady sang it at another Amnesty International concert in front of a sellout crowd at the old Wembley stadium … and furthermore, unless the old memory is playing tricks on me, at one point during the proceedings, the great man himself, Nelson Mandela walked on stage just two months after his release.

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6 thoughts on “Protest Songs Day Five: Pet Shop Boys, M.I.A., Billie Holliday, Nellie McKay, Public Enemy & Tracy Chapman

  1. it’s been a grim 6 months in the U.S., especially for women. That our country would elect that bombastic moron rather than a woman with 40 years of qualified service is a real punch in the gut, one that show just how deeply ingrained sexism really is in America. (ILast fall I overheard one woman twang “We can’t have a woman pres-i-dent, we just had a black man!”) So in honor of the new Dr. Who (yay!) this is British-American singer/actress/comedian Nellie McKay performing “Mother of Pearl.”

  2. Great to hear “Paper Planes” again – the “stato’s” amongst you will remember I made it my number 1 single of 2008 (or maybe not!).

    Moving on from my previous Public (Image Ltd) choice to today’s Public (Enemy) selection (I hope you’re impressed by the extent and the thought processes behind the sequencing of these songs?!), we arrive at probably the best-known song by arguably the most controversial and influential rap group to emerge from the 1980’s. Film director, Spike Lee, approached Public Enemy to write a song for one of his films about racial tension in the New York suburb of Brooklyn. Lee said “I wanted it to be defiant, I wanted it to be angry, I wanted it to be very rhythmic. I thought right away of Public Enemy”. In response, P.E’s Chuck D said that “this was not a song about fighting authority, it was about fighting the abuse of power”. Wise words, Mr D., wise words…

    1. Well that pre-empts another of my choices, just as well I am playing a squad system here. I first heard the song seeing the aforementioned ‘Do The Right Thing’ on its release at a cinema in Manhattan. Before the film ran an ad for a credit card and a popular soft drink, both of which were loudly booed by the audience, so we knew we were in for quite an evening. I wonder if Prophets of Rage are doing it live at the moment?

  3. Strange Fruit is an incredible song and considering its cultural and historical context, perhaps the bravest protest song of them all. I had no idea about it until I heard the Banshees version which I didn’t even realise was a cover until I read an interview with Siouxsie. The educating properties of Punk, never to be underestimated.

  4. Understated but no less powerful is the best way to describe this next one.
    As good as the studio version is, performing the song live takes it to another level entirely.
    The performance makes me recall the time this lady sang it at another Amnesty International concert in front of a sellout crowd at the old Wembley stadium … and furthermore, unless the old memory is playing tricks on me, at one point during the proceedings, the great man himself, Nelson Mandela walked on stage just two months after his release.

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