“Where are all the protest songs?” (Part III)

The 1960s today

Bob Dylan hasn’t written a political folk song for decades and Pete Seeger passed away, aged 94, earlier this year. The 1960s protest song era has well and truly passed, but it has certainly not been forgotten.

In Part I of this series, I highlighted Neil Young’s derisive comments about the political engagement of contemporary musicians and I argued in Part II that these views are based on an exaggerated recollection of the political music of the 1960s. In this third and final part of the series, I’ll look in more detail at the ongoing impact of 1960s nostalgia on contemporary debates about political music.

1960s nostalgia is likely to feature prominently over the next few years as the 50th anniversaries of the major events of the era approach. While we often think of the 1960s as a decade (i.e. 1960-69), the events that feature most prominently generally took place within the period 1963 – 1972, so we are entering the peak period for nostalgia buffs.

Woodstock 40thIt has been reported that plans for the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival are already underway, despite the fact that the anniversary is more than five years away. Woodstock is a great example of the ongoing impact of 1960s nostalgia. The festival has been commemorated at regular intervals since 1969 and provides sample stock footage for the 1960s montages loved by television news editors around the world. Several books were released to mark the 40th anniversary of the festival and several more websites, like this one, also keep the Woodstock flame burning. Woodstock would have been amazing and I’m pretty jealous of anyone who can say that they were there to hear Hendrix reappropriate the Star Spangled Banner, or see other great musicians of the era like Janis Joplin at their peak. But the selective reminiscing about the festival has a dark side.

The selective memory that characterises many recollections of the 1960s is a distinctive feature of commentary about the Woodstock festival. It is typically recalled as an anti-commercial, utopian event. It is less frequently acknowledged that it was planned as a commercial, ticketed event. The gates were thrown open only when the organisers became completely overwhelmed by the massive crowds that descended on the festival site. It was poor planning and crowd exuberance, not utopian ideals, that made Woodstock a ‘free festival’. However, the festival is still used to reinforce the idea that the 1960s was a uniquely political and radical period for music. This in turn feeds the arguments that musicians are not as political now as they were then.

The creation of the ‘rock canon’ by music journalists is another example of the enduring effect of the 1960s on music commentary. Canons are usually used in relation to the ‘high arts’ – classical music, art or literature. A canon consists of the works that are generally considered to be the greatest in their field, anointing selected works as masterpieces that are worthy of ongoing acclaim. The canon is presented as an objective judgement of the best of a particular art form, but of course these selections are the result of a series of value judgements by commentators who occupy a privileged position in cultural debates.

Music journalists first began to use artistic language to describe popular music in the 1960s, employing the validating criteria of the high arts to distinguish their favoured type of music (i.e. blues-based rock music) from others that they saw as less significant. This approach to music criticism has been adopted widely in the decades since the founding of Rolling Stone and its contemporaries.

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums

The publication of ‘greatest of all time’ lists has played a central role in establishing the rock canon. The Rolling Stone ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time’ list, published in 2003, is the exemplar of the rock canon. Nine of the top ten albums, including numbers one to five, were released in the period 1965 – 1972. Rolling Stone is perhaps the most obvious offender, but they are not alone (see the Best Ever Albums website for some more examples).

The mid-sixties to early seventies was a great period for music (and I have to admit, I own all of the top ten albums in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest) but it is ludicrous to suggest that 90 per cent of the best popular music albums ever were made within an eight year period. This music is wildly over represented in music journalism because the memories of the 1960s as the ultimate period for popular music and for politics have been so dominant for so long.

The problem with all of this is not the celebration of the 1960s itself, it’s the fact that one era is consistently celebrated at the expense of all subsequent eras. The over the top recollections of Woodstock and the promotion of 1960s music ahead of anything that followed it feeds into the broader argument that this was the ultimate era for music and for political music.

I’ve focused on the impact of nostalgic recollections of the 1960s because these are the most common. However, nostalgia for previous eras is not entirely confined to memories of the 1960s. In Australia, a similar phenomenon is evident in relation to the ‘pub rock’ era of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A recent example of this was seen in James Rose’s article in Australian arts and culture magazine The Daily Review. As I argued in my response to this article, bands associated with the pub rock era in Australia receive a disproportionate amount of attention in the Australian press because a lot of the most prominent Australian music journalists grew up listening to these bands.

And so we arrive, at some length, back where we started. The argument that contemporary musicians are basically apolitical is based on a comparison with an imagined past. It’s entirely understandable that music critics have fond memories of the music of their youth – these are probably the bands that first caught their attention and led them into their careers. But I think music journalists and scholars have an obligation to open their ears and listen to things other than the familiar sounds of their youth. It’s important to consider contemporary music in its own right, and that is one of the main goals of this blog.

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