Whose Protest? What Popular Music? What Media?
What does “social protest” mean within the context of this research? In Theories of Political Protest and Social Movements, Karl-Dieter Opp defines protest as "joint (i.e. collective) action of individuals aimed at achieving their goal or goals by influencing decisions of a target” (Opp 2009). A ‘social movement,’ then, is any large, organized group of protestors with shared goals and a desire to influence a target (Opp 2009). Opp’s definitions apply to the Stono Rebellion of 1739 in which a group of enslaved Africans in South Carolina staged a revolt and began killing white slaveowners and freeing other enslaved people (Wood 1974). As Opp describes, these individuals assembled under a shared goal of emancipation and began using violence to achieve their target of liberation. While the Stono Rebellion is more violent than any other protest examined in this study, it illustrates Opp’s definition and what is meant by the term within this essay.
What then is a “medium?” As the Stono Rebellion grew in numbers, grew in numbers, some began to play drums, dance, and sing, using vestiges of their African culture to rally more members to their cause (Brown, Jr. 2015). For the purposes of this essay, musical instruments like the drum used in the rebellion will be examined as media for social protest. In his work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan writes that “it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan 1964). To illustrate this point, he considers a lightbulb. Whatever the bulb illuminates is its content, since none of it could be occurring without the bulb itself. The ‘content’ then brings one’s attention back to the ‘medium,’ or that which shapes our relationships to our surroundings and our actions within them (McLuhan 1964). Within this definition, the drum was the medium that shaped the surroundings of the rebellion and they way people interacted as members of it. The dancing and singing during the Stono Rebellion is the content produced by the medium, which draws attention back upon itself. Within the context of enforced cultural repression of enslaved people, the drum is a radical message of social protest and a reclamation of lost cultural heritage.
To illustrate this point further, consider the Gourd Banjo. When West Africans were enslaved and transported to the United States, they maintained, revised, and adapted many aspects of their past cultural lives in response to their new surroundings. One such cultural relic they brought with them is the banjo. Even though the history and culture of enslaved people was repressed in order to maintain their subjugation, many enslaved Africans still managed to recreate the banjo using objects they had around them. A gourd was used as the sound chamber so that when it was covered with animal skin, the vibrations of the skin would be amplified within the gourd. A fretless, wooden neck was connected to the sound chamber and the animal skin, and any number between one and six strings made out of cat gut or vine were strung across the instrument. Enslaved Africans played by thumping, or striking the top string with the right hand and playing the rest in a downward sawing motion (Conway 1995). To the enslaved Africans, the gourd banjo was a means of cultural rebellion because of its illicit status in the United States because its design, sound, and the technique for playing it—though altered by displacement—connect the instrument and the player to West African history and cultural heritage. Like the drum in the Stone Rebellion, the gourd banjo is the protest.
For another example, consider Jimi Hendrix’s performance of the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock in 1969. The social protest itself was the gathering of a mass of people with the shared goal of peace, love, and music during the counterculture ‘60s. At 8:30am, Hendrix began his arrangement of the National Anthem. His distortion effects and playing technique produced a soundscape simulating the horrors of war; the sounds of bombs exploding, guns blazing, and people wailing filled the air (Liu 2014) (Lynskey 2010). Like the light emanating from McLuhan’s lightbulb, Hendrix’s song is the content illuminated by the medium: his Fender electric guitar. How did Hendrix’s guitar “shape and [control] the scale and form of human association and action” (McLuhan 1964) within the context of the anti-war movement?
First, the Fender Stratocaster itself is a symbol of American progress through capitalist commercialization (Tolinski 2016). Hendrix holds the symbol of capitalist America, an instrument built for right-handed players, like a guitar for left-handed players, and he runs it through a myriad for psychedelic distortion effects. As he plays the flipped symbol of American progress, the voice of American nationalism is reinterpreted and given new voice thanks to his effects pedals, amp, and playing style. The flipped psychedelic Stratocaster reinterpreting the national anthem is the protest, and the song itself refers back to the medium as it impacts the crowd.
The answer to the question “What does American popular music mean” in this context is the protest song itself as the content that points back to the message in the medium. What makes a protest song a popular song is worth exploring further. In her book 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day, Dorian Lynskey states that both protest music and popular music are “living conundrums” thriving on “contradictions and tensions” between the musician’s intent for the music, the audience’s reception, the political motivations of the song, and the limitations of appealing to a large audience (Lynskey 2010).
If protest music is popular music, then what does the word popular mean in this context? In his essay, Popular Culture, John Fiske defines the term in two ways: first, as a statistical term meant to describe that which appeals to the most people, and second, as “that which serves the interests of ‘the people’” (Fiske 1995). Further, he distinguishes between “mass culture,” or what capitalist societies produce, and “popular culture,” how ‘the people’ manipulate mass culture for their own purposes (Fiske 2011). Therefore, protest music is the result of a manipulation of both the form and content of mass culture towards the shared goal(s) of convincing a target about social change, as defined by the interests of the members of the social movement.
In this way, the artist as a member of the collective body creates meaning in the mass culture musical instrument as she manipulates it towards the shared goal of the social movement. The product and content of this manipulation is the protest song which serves the interests of the people by drawing them in to the manipulation of the medium and the message it conveys. According the McLuahn, the content of a medium is like a piece of meat that the burglar uses to distract a guard dog (McLuhan 1964). The protest song guides the listener to understand the musical instrument as the message for social protest and as the means of challenging and reinterpreting the social hierarchies, human behaviors, and cultural ideas implicit in society.
If McLuhan and Fiske are correct, then Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner serves the people by drawing them to the properties of his electric guitar, and challenging their understandings of culture, music, war, and patriotism, ultimately influencing and rearranging their thoughts bout society and human behavior within it. But if the song serves the people by bringing them to the message in the medium, who constitutes ‘the people?’
'The people’ according to Fiske, is not a specific group of individuals, but rather an ever changing set of collective interests as defined by their relationship to the dominant forces in society, culture, and politics (Fiske 1995). For an example, when N.W.A. released their hit protest song, Fuck tha Police, they were attempting to serve people of color by speaking out against the forces of police brutality in their communities (Winterson 2015). The song eventually served a larger audience by drawing listeners in to their media—their drum machines, turntables, use of samples, and rapping styles—and through both form and content inspired social movements against police brutality and redefined the art and role of the hip-hop artist with the creation of the sub-genre of gangsta rap (Winterson 2015).
For the purposes of this study, ‘the people’ are an always incomplete, ever changing set of collective interests formed in response and in association with dominating cultural, social, and political forces. The social protest forms out of a social movement, which is a collective body of members with shared interests and goals working to enact them to engage in, persuade, and overthrow some target. American popular music is the content of the media which intrigues and attracts listeners, drawing them in to their source, and the changing media are the different musical instruments that people have wrested from their place as mass culture products and made meaning out of through protest. They are the source of the message of protest, and it is imperative to know what they mean.