The greatest protest song ever to reach the top
Bob Dylan in the protest period.
The first requirement of a news story is that it reveals something somebody does not want published, and the first requirement of a protest song is that it expresses opinions somebody will object to. Same Love passes that test, writes David Dale ...
IT SOUNDS more like a sermon than a song. Sister Mary Lambert trills a sweet gospel melody: “I can’t change, even if I wanted to“ and pastor Ben Haggarty pleads for equality: “It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference, live on and be yourself.”
Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) and his producer Ryan Lewis Photo: Steven Dewall
Lord be praised, it’s a protest song, the like of which we haven’t heard for decades.
It’s called Same Love, and it has been number one on ARIA's Australian hit parade for the past two weeks, selling 70,000 downloads so far. The accompanying video shows a black boy falling in love with a white boy, marrying him and living happily until they farewell each other as octogenarians. It will drive half of America into a fury.
Haggerty is better known as the rapper Macklemore, whose previous hit, Thrift Shop, satirised dedicated followers of retro fashion. Singlehandedly Macklemore has brought meaning back to pop music, after a decade of lyrics notable for sexism, homophobia and inanity.
John Lennon in the protest period Photo: Getty Images
Macklemore attacks the language of recent hits in the second verse of Same Love: “If I was gay, I would think hip-hop hates me. Have you read the YouTube comments lately? ‘Man, that’s gay’ gets dropped on a daily … A culture founded from oppression, Yet we don’t have acceptance for them, Call each other faggots behind the keys of a message board. A word rooted in hate, yet our genre still ignores it.”
The last time a protest song reached number one in Australia was 1992, when Julian Lennon offered a mild environmental message: “We climb the highest mountain, we’ll make the desert bloom, we’re so ingenious, we can walk on the moon. But when I hear of how the forests have died, Salt water wells in my eyes.” (Saltwater)
Two decades earlier, Julian’s father John reached number one with a blast at fundamentalism: “Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too.” (That was more controversial than his Give Peace a Chance, which had reached number 4 on the Australian charts 1n 1969.)
John Farnham in the You're The Voice period
Between those Lennonist landmarks, Midnight Oil had a number one hit in 1985 with an EP called Species Deceases, on which Peter Garrett declared: “A tree that can grow no longer, a beach that has got no sand, I would pay out a king's ransom, if we could just understand. Got your last meal, filled up with pesticide. Hamburger chain third world infanticide.”
In 1983, Redgum made the case for Vietnam veterans in I Was Only 19: “Can you tell me, doctor, why I still can't get to sleep? And why the Channel Seven chopper chills me to my feet? And what's this rash that comes and goes, can you tell me what it means?”
And in 1986, John Farnham promised “We’re not going to sit in silence, we’re not going to live with fear” in You’re The Voice, but was less than specific on what we were supposed to be making a noise about.
Peter Garrett in the protest period
The decade most associated with protest is the 60s, but the songs were rarely commercial hits. The one that started it all was Little Boxes, an attack on conformism written by Malvina Reynolds and sung by Pete Seeger, which reached number 28 in 1964: "And they're doctors and they're lawyers and business executives, And they all play on the golf course and they all drink their martini dry … And they all get put in boxes and they all come out the same."
The following year Donovan reached 17 on the chart with Buffy Saint Marie's dissection of individual responsibility in the military: “He's the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war, and without him all this killing can't go on. He's the universal soldier and he really is to blame, his orders come from far way no more.”
The name most associated with protest songs is Bob Dylan, but he’s never had a hit with one. Dylan's biggest single was Like A Rolling Stone, which reached number 5 in 1965, but nothing in those lyrics would make anybody angry. Stevie Wonder released a version of Blowin' In The Wind in 1966, and that reached number 35 on the Australian chart.
The Dylan protest that came closest to commercial success (reaching number 13 in 1975) was Hurricane, co-written by Jacques Levy. It was part of a campaign to free the imprisoned boxer Rubin Carter: “Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise, While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell, An innocent man in a living hell.”
If uncompromising lyrics that drive some listeners into a rage (as opposed to lyrics vaguely endorsing peace and love) are the test of a good protest song, then Hurricane scores pretty well.
But on the toughness scale, Same Love is far head of the pack. No doubt that’s why Australia was the first country in the world to make it number one. Unless it was Sister Mary’s beautiful chorus.
Go to Comments to discuss what makes a great protest song. I'm indebted to David Kent's Australian Chart Book for the details on how the singles performed.
This column first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald on February 5, 2013. David Dale teaches communications at UTS, Sydney. He is the author of The Little Book of Australia -- A snapshot of who we are (Allen and Unwin). For daily updates on Australian attitudes, bookmark The Tribal Mind.