By Olivia Gehrke
Morrissey once sang “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar, then it meant that you were a protest singer,” in The Smiths’ 1985 hit “Shakespeare’s Sister.” Though this could have been true for Bob Dylan as he sang “The Times They are A-Changin’,” making waves with his quivering voice, the statement perhaps doesn’t hold as true today.
With the times a-changing once again in light of the recent presidential election, musicians are raising their voices to force political change as if on cue. But this time around, all that is needed is a computer, a determined DIY, grassroots ethic, and some creativity.
“[In the past] if you wanted to protest something, you had to be a band as big as Rage Against the Machine and you literally had to light a flag on fire to get your message across,” said Nick Regan, the founder of Deep Shred, a DIY collective Regan books shows under around Boston. It’s also described as being an “inclusive, virtual show space” that hosts online, livestreamed concerts.
“But now it’s as easy as organizing and clicking and typing. You don’t even need to light a flag on fire at Woodstock. It’s a lot easier now,” he said.
Under Deep Shred, Regan put together an extensive two-tape, 40-track compilation album titled Smooches. It features 39 local, national, and international artists, and all the proceeds from the tapes go directly to the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, National Immigration Law Center, and the Human Rights Campaign.
“Back in November when shit hit the fan politically, I was like ‘Wow, this sucks,’ and then I had a couple friends that weren’t too involved with Deep Shred reach out about being interested in releasing a kind of cassette,” said Regan. And Smooches was born.
Over the course of the next month, Regan and his friends reached out to countless bands, decided on charities, and put in orders for physical copies of the album.
The compilation was supposed to be released on cassette tapes by Trump’s inauguration, but due to a few “hiccups” in the tape orders, the release date was pushed back. However, because of the availability of the digital streaming platform for music like Bandcamp, Deep Shred was able to release the compilation immediately online and have it available for February 3, when Bandcamp donated their 25% profit from bands’ music to the ACLU.
“Before this fall, before this current presidency, I can’t really remember a time when anybody was really doing stuff like that. It kind of sucks that this is what it had to take for people to smarten up and be like ‘Yeah, yeah giving money to the ACLU is good,’” said Regan.
While some bands donated songs to put on compilations like Smooches, other took advantage of the online platforms to personally spread their thoughts on the current political climate. The Prefab Messiahs, a garage psych pop band formed in Mass. in 1981, released a kind of a protest song called “The Man Who Killed Reality” in March of this year. It’s accompanied by a cartoon animation of Trump, created by singer Xeth Feinberg.
Kris Thompson, the band’s bassist, said the band had “always grouched together about the state of things” and offered “social criticism” in the past, but was never that pointed or “specific” with their songs until they wrote “The Man Who Killed Reality.” Feinberg had started writing the song and finished it with the entire band, then animated the video that went along with it, which has since collected over 4,500 plays just on YouTube.
“[The music video] definitely helps [spread the message] because in the case of this song specifically, Trump isn’t named at all,” said Kris Thompson, the band’s bassist. “Probably someone could hear it any number of times and not necessarily suspect it’s about him. But when you hear the song as part of the video, there’s no question because it’s just lampooning him the whole way through.”
The grassroots activist music, especially in DIY scenes in Boston and other cities like NYC and Providence, is seemingly placing their roots in the digital domain. After Shea Stadium, an iconic DIY venue that supports independent musicians, was shut down, the venue raised just over $99,000 via an online fundraising campaign to help them get the proper permits to be a venue. Additionally, Deep Shred hosts online benefit shows, where a concert is livestreamed over the internet, and people can tune in and donate just as if they were at a live concert. Regan has raised money for the Dakota Access Pipeline protestors at Sacred Stone and also Ladyfest Boston, a music festival that took place in mid-April benefiting Rosie’s Place and Girls Rock Campaign Boston.
Even if the modern musical activism has taken a digital tangent, the premise remains much the same as it did decades ago.
Ruth Perry, an MIT humanities professor, recently held a protest song singing session during MIT’s Day of Action. She, being a folk musician and activist herself, is particularly interested in traditional folk songs of which protest songs are “a very large and serious component.”
“Genuine traditional folk music is not music that has been composed and produced in order to make money,” said Perry. “It’s the musical expression of people themselves…it comes out of people’s need to make music on these themes.”
And it’s this common philosophy of doing good out of internal necessity and a conscious mind that remains a theme in politically active music no matter the era or the scale of the platform, whether it’s to the millions who tuned in to hear Dylan on the radio, or the few hundred livestreaming a benefit show on their laptop.
“Using the platform that you’re on to spread good is the next best thing to do. When I wake up, I’m not like ‘It’s time to make some money! Let’s make some fans!’…You should wake up and be like ‘I’m going to do the next best thing. Oh, I can’t do that? I’m going to do the next best thing,’” said Regan. “It’s just paying it forward.”
Protest Song Timeline