Arts Feature : Pussy Riot and the Rejuvenation of Protest Music

By Tara McEvoy @tara_mcevoy

 

Is protest music dead? For many years, it certainly seemed to have slipped out of favour. Maybe this was just a view pedalled by the same grumbling naysayers who periodically gripe about the decline of pop music, the downfall of the charts. But undeniably, it appeared that many musical minds had given up on using their work as a forum for political discussion – perhaps indicative of a wider apathy in our society. If the lyrics of this generation’s most popular songs mirrored the concerns of the purchasing public, then sex and drug abuse must outstrip civil rights, and efforts towards peace, as the pressing concerns of the nation’s collective psyche. Where Dylan, Joplin, and Baez had once sold millions of albums tackling hot-button topics such as the Vietnam war, feminism and environmentalism, now all the public have to cheer on is Rihanna and co.’s identikit lyrical content. The stars of today are media-trained beyond repair. And all this despite the fact that unjust wars continue; civil liberties are still under attack; and in some cases, governmental oppression is actually escalating.

But will it all change in 2012 with a story that has ignited a global conversation on democracy, and which has highlighted above all else the question of artistic freedom?

The case to which I’m referring is the imprisonment of Pussy Riot. Sure, a few fledgling voices of dissent have arisen, fuelled by a global economic meltdown. Troubadours such as Frank Turner have bemoaned our politicians; Radiohead showed their support at Occupy camps.  But not until now has a band managed to capture the imagination of the youth in the same way that their predecessors did almost half a century earlier.

Of course, this is largely due to the element of danger inherent in Pussy Riot’s campaign. In taking on the Kremlin, they place their liberty (and, some argue, even their lives) in jeopardy, in the defence of their freedom of speech. It is this risk which has inspired a media frenzy.

In the UK, short of being banned by the Beeb, bands don’t normally expect any major repercussions to arise from their work. Which may explain why so few fail to cause a splash like that in Russia this year. Yet does that mean that we too shouldn’t use music and art to challenge the social injustices of our time? Our ancestors fought hard to win the degree of freedom which we have. Now is the time to avail of it. With risk of imprisonment (hopefully) at a minimum, let’s put our creative freedom on use to choruses consisting of a little more substance than ‘Bom bom bom’. The right to speak out is one for which we have battled over hundreds of year. Yet as evidenced by the incarceration of Pussy Riot members, it’s still a radical act.

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