Are Postmodern Aesthetics Suffocating The Protest Song?

In 2010–12 the Arab Spring movement generated renewed hope that pluralist and democratic values might offset the tide of militant Islamic fundamentalism. Observers of world music celebrated the outpouring of musical creativity accompanying the movement, from Egyptian rappers Arabian Knightz to Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi.

Sadly, as of 2017 the movement has foundered, with Libya, Syria, and Iraq laid waste by civil war, and a military dictatorship tenuously ruling Egypt, and it has become clear that in overthrowing secular dictatorships the movement unwittingly helped unleash the most savage, virulent, and globally menacing form of Islamic tribalism ever seen.

Hence the earnest rhymes of Libyan rappers like Ibn Thabit and others have been drowned out by bomb-blasts and Wahhabi sermons, and increasingly seem like quaint and forlorn mementos of an ephemeral idealistic moment. Far more numerous and popular on the internet today is the anthemic anasheed whose regressive utopianism—to be achieved by beheadings, destruction of antiquities, and enslavement of captive women—is defiantly antithetical to Enlightenment values.

In response to the depressing litany presented here, commentators of more optimistic dispositions would no doubt enumerate many counter-examples, such as (in the USA) the assorted socially-conscious songs of Steve Earl, Common, Lupe Fiasco, KRS-1, Green Day, Alicia Keys, and Immortal Technique.

On the international level, scholars and journalists have called attention to the various European rock and rap songs protesting economic austerity policies, the ongoing strains of Palestinian resistance songs (McDonald 2013), or Japanese anti-nuclear protest music (Manabe 2015), all of which, like most New Social Movements (NSMs), focus on a particular issue.

On the whole, however, in place of the transcendent vision of an earlier generation, contemporary progressive politics has largely devolved to a cultural sensibility and a congeries of micro-movements, few of which have inspired “a thousand militant voices” to burst into song. NSMs, from gender rights to environmental causes, however worthy they may be, have not lent themselves to expression in song, except in the most marginal, oblique, ephemeral, or contradictory forms.

Protest music is even less likely to emerge from developed-world sophisticates steeped in the ironic detachment of postmodern aesthetics.

For Fukuyama, it was the very success of the neoliberal democratic project that served to undermine progressive art linked to heroic struggles for justice. In his hyperbolic but provocative assessment:

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.

In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed.

Whether or not history has ended, Fukuyama was astute in noting the broad tectonic shift that has taken place in global political and economic culture, with accompanying transformations in the arts.

What his thesis missed was the other half of the global scene, in which tribal militants of all stripes rage, rage, against the dying of the light of history. Hence despite the spread of democracies and neoliberalism, the world has moved to a situation in which, in Yeats’ terms, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity—with that intensity often expressed in music.

— Excerpted from ‘World Music and Activism Since the End of History’ by Peter Manuel, Music & Politics

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