Songs of Protest and Selfie Anthems

Posted on October 15, 2016

Christopher Schlect

This is my fight song

Take back my life song

Prove I’m alright song

My power’s turned on

Starting right now I’ll be strong

I’ll play my fight song

And I don’t really care if nobody else believes

‘Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.

–Rachel Platten, “Fight Song” (2015)


I began to sense the shift a few years ago, and the change appears to be gaining traction. The messaging of social-conscience Rock and Roll is not what it used to be.


Young activists harnessed the power of Rock music in 1965. The genre had been around for a decade, supplying the soundtrack for hormone-driven youthful reveries, when Bob Dylan infused it with social commentary. Dylan emerged from the folk music scene where Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger delivered countercultural salvos in the form of acoustic sing-alongs. Once Dylan mastered the craft, he shocked his fans when he plugged in an electric guitar to accompany his message songs. The world was never the same after that. The school of prophets following in Dylan’s wake secured Rock and Roll as a medium for protest and activism. They never displaced the bacchanal element in Rock (all potent movements have a wild-party aspect to them), but they empowered the genre with a new capacity for driving social change.


Ever since folk music crossed over into Rock, the popular genre has been a vane pointing to values that young people chase after. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” Dylan chanted in a pioneering display of beat poetry gone electric. To see which way the wind blows, you need only watch the shifting gusts of Rock and Roll.


Recent music points to one of these shifts. Back in Dylan’s heyday, Rock’s prophets rallied young people to causes that were higher and greater than any one individual. Some causes were noble, some naïve, and others foolhardy. What they all shared was a call for hearers to care about something beyond themselves. Today’s prophets take the opposite tack. They write anthems that rally young people to see themselves as the most important cause there is. Their program for social change looks like this: “I am who I am, I need not change, but others must accommodate themselves to me.”


Even a cursory survey of Rock’s social causes reveals this change over time. Just before he turned electric, Bob Dylan composed an anthem that set his generation afire.

Come writers and critics

Who prophesize with your pen

And keep your eyes wide

The chance won’t come again

And don’t speak too soon

For the wheel’s still in spin

And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’

For the loser now will be later to win

For the times they are a-changin’

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway

Don’t block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’

It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin’

—Bob Dylan,The Times They are A’ Changin” (1964)


As Dylan carried the message-bearing capacity of folk music into Rock and Roll, he motivated a generation of young people to change the world. They sang against the war in Vietnam. They protested the draft. They sang against racial segregation. They sang to elevate women. They even sang protest songs against curfews. These songs, for all their variety, shared in common the notion that ideals exist outside of ourselves, ideals we all should live up to.


Today’s socially-conscious Rock locates its ideals elsewhere. No longer do musical prophets rally youth to causes greater than themselves; nowadays each individual is his own cause to fight for. Whoever you are, whatever you may think or do, you are the ideal. Your personal sensibilities are the index of right and wrong. Anthems of social change have become musical selfies.


Selfie songs are not new, but lately they have saturated the message-charged Rock that Bob Dylan pioneered. In 1985, Whitney Houston was a sign of things to come when she sang about the transformative power of self-love in her soaring ballad,Greatest Love of All.” Later, Mariah Carey sang self-empowerment to the top of the charts: “Look inside you and be strong / And you’ll finally see the truth / That a hero lies in you” (Hero,” 1993). Such early selfie hits appeared alongside the more familiar look-beyond-yourself themes of message-Rock (for example, Sting’s “Russians” in 1985 and Midnight Oil’s Beds are Burning in 1987), but by the 1990s such themes drifted away from the mainstream; they were taken up by alternative bands like Rage Against the Machine and Sonic Youth.


In 2010, the rising tide of selfie music reached flood level when Katy Perry and Pink made self-as-cause the preeminent message of social-action music. Pink waged war against anyone who denies that you are the standard of perfection (F**king Perfect), and Katy Perry rallied you to a social movement that is all about you: “‘Cause there’s a spark in you / You just gotta ignite the light / And let it shine” (Firework). Nowadays, selfie messages no longer show up here and there, they are pervasive. Here is a small sampling of the cause-songs that have enjoyed mainstream success in recent years.

‘Cause we are

We are shining stars

We are invincible

We are who we are

On our darkest day

When we’re miles away

So we’ll come, we will find our way home

If you’re lost and alone

Or you’re sinking like a stone

Carry on

May your past be the sound of your feet upon the ground and

Carry on

Fun, “Carry On” (2013)


I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath

Scared to rock the boat and make a mess

So I sat quietly, agreed politely

I guess that I forgot I had a choice

I let you push me past the breaking point

I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything

You held me down, but I got up (hey!)

Already brushing off the dust

You hear my voice, you hear that sound

Like thunder, gonna shake your ground

You held me down, but I got up

Get ready ‘cause I’ve had enough

I see it all, I see it now

I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter

Dancing through the fire

‘Cause I am the champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar

Louder, louder than a lion

‘Cause I am a champion, and you’re gonna hear me roar!

Katy Perry, “Roar” (2013)

(One of Rock’s best-selling artists today, Perry built much of her career on selfie songs, including her latest big hit.)


You can be amazing

You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug

You can be the outcast

Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love

Or you can start speaking up

Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do

And they settle ‘neath your skin

Kept on the inside and no sunlight

Sometimes a shadow wins

But I wonder what would happen if you

Say what you wanna say

And let the words fall out

Honestly I wanna see you be brave.

Sara Bareilles, “Brave” (2013); see Bareilles’s very impressive unembellished performance of the song here


You don’t have to try so hard

You don’t have to, give it all away

You just have to get up, get up, get up, get up

You don’t have to change a single thing

You don’t have to try so hard

You don’t have to bend until you break

You just have to get up, get up, get up, get up

You don’t have to change a single thing

You don’t have to try, try, try, try, (etc.)

“Try,” Colby Callait (2014)


Popular message music is a useful index of what young people believe is wrong with the world, and what they think should be done to right it. We who are called to interpret the signs of the times would do well to notice (Matt. 16:3). Whereas the social-conscience songs of the 1960s lashed out against racism, sexism, class privilege and U.S. foreign policy, today’s lyrical prophets go to battle on behalf of the self. Indeed, the times they are a-changin. Today’s protest music rallies you to action: you are the standard; you are the cause. Meghan Trainor's latest offering captures it well:

I thank God every day

That I woke up feelin’ this way

And I can’t help lovin’ myself

And I don’t need nobody else, nuh uh.

If I was you I’d wanna be me too

I’d wanna be me too (etc.)

Meghan Trainor, “Me Too” (2016)

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