Rock music has been at the forefront of advocating for social change. Since its early inception in the 1940s and 1950s, rock music has expressed the anger of its generation and vocalised their disenchantment with political establishments and outmoded traditions. It is this militant approach that caused a backlash against the music and its proponents. It’s been dubbed “Satan’s Music” and linked to demonic possession. It has also been linked to political dissent and the fall of communism.
In the 1960s artists such as Bob Dylan and John Lennon, among others, expressed their disapproval of the Vietnam conflict, calling on the establishment to put an end to the war. In “Give Peace a Chance” Lennon’s lyrics addressed the UN directly and lamented its bureaucratic practices :
Ev’rybody’s talking about …
… regulations, integrations,
Mediations, United Nations,
At Woodstock in 1969, Jimi Hendrix played a distorted version of the American National Anthem which incorporated war sounds of gunfire and explosions. Michael Lang, the concert promoter recalls that when Hendrix “played the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, it was shocking to everybody.” In fact, there was a great deal of social disapproval of the “unorthodox” approach to the national anthem which included hate mail sent to the Dick Cavett Show to coincide with an interview with Hendrix. Since then, numerous critical interpretations of Hendrix’s intervention have been published each focussing on an aspect of his performance [see for example recent online articles: The Many Sides of ‘the Star Spangled Banner (2009) The And of One (2009), Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ The Epitome of the Countercultural Experience (2014)] but all agreeing that his artistic interpretation encapsulated the spirit of the anti-war movement.
In the following decades, rock songs of protest continued to address politics and social injustice with bands such as Scorpions, Black Sabbath and Neil Young (to name a few) tackling topical problems ranging from the fall of the Soviet Block, to poverty and racism.
The Wind of change
Blows straight into the face of time
Like a stormwind that will ring the
For peace of mind
Let your balalaika sing
What my guitar wants to say
I grew up in the 1980s listening to this music. Often, many of its references were too obscure or too foreign but I identified with its sentiment and the rawness of the emotions it depicted. In addition to its political and social concerns, rock music turned my attention to the environment we live in, and challenged me to engage with the ways in which our behaviours impact it. This form of art has continually re-invented itself and renewed its mission; it reflects back to us our hypocritical, selfish and self-serving behaviours. The rawness of its lyrics, which often include offensive and controversial expressions, may shock us, disturb us and challenge our sensibility; the powerful sounds of electric guitars and the driving rhythms of drums compel us to raise the volume and share its message as widely as possible.
Nowadays I am still moved by the mission of rock music and I still identify with its calls for social change. As a form of artistic expression, rock music’s haunting sounds and seemingly chaotic rhythms have the power to move us emotionally and physically. With great fervour and zealous commitment to the cause of sustainability, bands such as Disturbed and System of a Down warn us about the state of the planet, the consequences of our addiction to materialism and the inevitable demise of humanity if we continue to ignore the destruction and devastation that we cause.
In one of their most recognised songs, “Another Way to die”, Disturbed lament the state of the world, observing that
The indulgence of our lives
Has cast a shadow on our world
Our devotion to our appetites
Betrayed us all
An apocalyptic plight
More destruction will unfold
Mother Earth will show her darker side
And take her toll
It’s just another way to die
There can be no other reason why
You know we should have seen it coming.
Consequences we cannot deny
Will be revealed in time
Glaciers melt as we pollute the sky
A sign of devastation coming
We don’t need another way to die
Will we repent in time?
The time bomb is ticking
And no one is listening.
Our future is fading
Is there any hope we’ll survive?
Still, we ravage the world that we love
And the millions cry out to be saved
Our endless maniacal appetite
Left us with another way to die…
Their message coincides with that of System of a Down whose songs “Aerials”, “Chop Suey!”, and “Toxicity” and “Science” compel us to confront the reality of the disorder and destruction that surrounds us. In contrast to Disturbed whose provocative question “will we repent in time?” suggests the possibility of redemption and reconstruction, System of a Down see little hope for humanity to recuperate its pre-Industrial Revolution stasis. In “Toxicity”, They bemoan the dominance of computers in our lives and the ways in which they mediate our perception of reality :
Conversion, software version 7.0
Looking at life through the eyes of a tired hub
The toxicity of our city, our city
You, what do you own the world?
How do you own disorder, disorder
Elsewhere in “Chop Suey” they reflect on our spiritual decline, “I cry when angels deserve to die” at the cost of our absorption with the routine of everyday :
Wake up (wake up)
Grab a brush and put a little make-up
Hide the scars to fade away the shake-up
Why’d you leave the keys upon the table?
Here you go create another fable
Rock musicians’ protests are expressed in their songs as well as in the covers and titles of their albums.
The cover of Ten Thousand Fists reflects Disturbed’s hope that humanity will unite, “fists raised in unison, as symbol of unity, strength and defiance”. The hope that underlies this image is not shared in the album covers of System of a Down where apocalyptic visions of the Earth’s doom dominate.
Whatever our attitude to the social, economic and environmental state of the planet we cannot but be moved by the sobering message that rock music has been conveying to us for the past 8 decades. Growing social injustice, escalating political turmoil, intensifying natural destruction and the global disregard of our duty to be stewards of the world around us have all contributed to a dangerous state of instability and insecurity. We cannot surrender to pessimism. Conscientious, intentional and purposeful interventions are needed, and these can only be accomplished through sustained and strategic rejection of the existing inefficient, crooked and social, economic and environmental systems. We can start by educating a generation of young people to see through the façade of existing bureaucracies and enabling them to create alternative systems that seek to address this disordered world. I belong to the generation that inherited a fraught post-war world and did not know what to do with it. If anything, my generation sang along to the music, rocked and rolled at concerts, but refused to acknowledge the music’s warnings. Kurt Cobain mocked us in his haunting refrain to “In Bloom” :
He’s the one
Who likes all our pretty songs
And he likes to sing along
And he likes to shoot his gun
But he knows not what it means
Don’t know what it means…