(an old piece of coursework I found and realised is still actually quite good!)
According to Dorian Lynskey the ‘earliest confirmed protest song is the couplet, ‘when Adam delved and Eve span / Who was then the gentleman?’ which became popular during the 1381 Peasants Revolt.’ Used to express unrest within society, rally support or simply as an expression of deep emotions, protest songs have been seen as a powerful tool for social change; the 1960s providing some of the most widely known protest songs of recent times. But this ‘golden age’ of protest songs has passed and the idea that music should ‘engage with politics seems increasingly distant.’1 However, this seeming decline in protest music isn’t easily measurable and depends on the factors being considered. If a song’s success is measured in its ability to bring about social or political change, in its ability to challenge and overcome dominant ideologies, then it is debatable whether there are any protest songs in existence that can be accurately labelled successful. On the other hand, if one is to measure success not in change, but in the uniting of people behind a cause, be it social, political or personal, then there are arguably a whole variety of protest songs that reach that benchmark. It is clear that their success can be measured in a multitude of ways, and from Amazing Grace in 1772 to tracks such as Hell You Talmbout in 2015; each song will come out with different results. One could even go so far as to suggest that their success is subjective, but one thing is objectively clear; the idea that a protest song can really make a difference isn’t a simple one.
If ‘the best protest songs are not dead artefacts, pinned to a particular place and time, but living conundrums’1 then Amazing Grace fits the criteria. Written in 1772 by Reverend John Newton, the song speaks of one man’s journey to redemption through God’s grace; his forgiveness. Steve Earle, argues that the ‘original function of songwriting is to tell a story that might otherwise die’. ‘Amazing Grace’ tells a story that has longevity. Newton worked in the slave trade before finding God and becoming an Evangelical Christian Minister. He mentored William Wilberforce, publically joining Wilberforce’s fight to end the slave trade. While not overtly a song heralding social change, its context of production and later use by groups fighting for rights, demonstrates how it turned from a story of personal change to what it is today; a protest song.
Over time ‘Amazing Grace’ became a ‘standard hymn sung by all races’ and has now been covered by many different people from Elvis Presley to the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. It’s status as a modern protest song began in the 1960s as ‘a protest song associated with civil rights and with Martin Luther King.’ It was in this movement that the song’s potential began to show itself, playing its part in the subordinate group’s resistance in the hegemonic struggle. Dr King was able to gain support and rally the people through his effective use of rhetoric, skill for public speaking and Christian roots. All of these attributes could be seen in ‘Amazing Grace’. The civil rights movement ‘withheld their consent to the system’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ was a tool in this act; a song that epitomised their goals. The song’s Christian beginnings played a huge part as there are multiple Bible references within the text. One example of this is the line ‘Was blind, but now I see’, which refers to Christianity’s comparison of the illuminating light of God’s grace with the restoration of sight to the blind. For the Civil Rights movement this could also be used to express how they believed that the government was ‘blind’ to the discrimination they were experiencing but that they were hoping the American people would wake up and ‘see’. This metaphor became a powerful element in the song as it can be adapted to fit any kind of injustice. For the Civil Rights movement, it expressed their dissatisfaction whilst also to demonstrating their joy and peaceful agenda; to parts of the LGBT movement the song, with its links to slavery, reminds people that gay rights are civil rights. So while for both movements the song played a small role in social change its power lay in its ability to include and inspire.
Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe believe that ‘copies enhance a work of art’s duration and actually enhance its originality’ essentially supporting the idea that the more copies you make of something the more valuable the original becomes. By this standard ‘Amazing Grace’ is a valuable song. However, Simon Reynolds suggests that this causes ‘the original context or meaning’ to become ‘irrelevant and harder to recover’. The music has become a commodity, no longer something to be written and shared, it has become ‘material’ and some may even argue, shallow. It is with this Marxist argument that its success in challenging dominant ideologies becomes weaker. Adorno would even suggest that its musical success has led to it becoming popular art and that it is now ‘the mere exponent of society, rather than a catalyst for change’. By becoming available to purchase the song is no longer a challenge to society but an example of its power.
While some versions of the song can be accessed for free online, somewhat negating its commodity status, the frequent celebrity versions can be seen to lessen the importance of the meanings expressed as the song becomes part of popular culture. These cover versions of ‘Amazing Grace’ ‘inhabit a crucial space in popular music’ as they offer alternative readings. However, while they attempt to make these changes, ‘many people will already have preconceived ideas and emotions attached to certain songs’ which may interfere with the alternative readings suggested. Adorno says that ‘popular music constitutes the dregs of musical history’ and in the terms of protest music is does seem to be counterproductive to the song’s aim if it becomes part of this genre. If a song is challenging the dominant ideologies of society but then becomes a song sold to the population and broadcast by those in power in society, then the artist and the groups have lost control. The artists’ ‘aren’t free’ to create songs of protest, ‘they only think they are’.
Stuart Hall says that ‘culture depends on its participants interpreting meaningfully what is happening around them, and ‘making sense’ of the world, in broadly similar ways.’ ‘Amazing Grace’ utilises the power of song in order to do this, its lyrics and deeper meanings uniting people of varying backgrounds behind everything from single specific causes to bigger philosophical ideas. Jacques Derrida argued that language is endlessly signifying and thus one can never be sure what a text means. This ambiguity and relativity allows the lyrics of ‘Amazing Grace’ to be appropriated by different groups and causes. It is perhaps this ambiguity that plays a part in the song’s success over others such as ‘Hell You Talmbout’ who’s antagonistic and blunt lyrics discourage some of the population. In his idea of ‘trace’ Derrida takes the ambiguity of language further by suggesting that the reality behind the words is quickly lost and that all remains are its many associations; Amazing Grace ceases to be about one man’s journey and instead becomes a song that is open to the world. Valentin Voloshinov believed that meaning in art could be reclaimed by the audience if they can ‘understand’ it and songs are ripe for this re-appropriation; Amazing Grace in particular, a song which operated for over 50 years without the strict melody accompaniment that we know of today, is the perfect tool to be moulded for individual use. It has even moved away from its Christian background, the hymn now seen as piece that can be sung by all if they believe in what they are singing. It has even been used as a song to unite LGBT groups; at the 30th Anniversary of the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sung Amazing Grace in remembrance. Some of these groups embrace its religious meanings while others utilise the ambiguity the lyrics present. In the former, the line ‘The Lord has promised good to me’, signifies the groups belief that homosexuality and religion don’t act in contrast. Whereas to the latter the fifth verse’s words on ‘A life of joy and peace’, presents the concept that despite all the hardships they may face in their ‘mortal life’ there will be a silver lining. This latter usage can be seen in the TV show ‘I Am Cait’, where ‘Amazing Grace’ was sung ‘accompanied by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles’; the song representing the struggle Cait had faced to become herself. However, this usage of the song by this group of people could be seen in a cynical light, as they were perhaps using the song to put on performance for fans and not to express their true struggles and joy. Regardless, these are only two of the many meanings that can be garnered from the lyrics in Amazing Grace; a practical example of how versatile language is and how powerful it can be when used in the medium of song.
Through the song’s wide reach and ability to inspire and unite it has achieved high levels of usage and notoriety, thus arguably success. However, the deep involvement inspired by this song is counterfeit, another example of how contemporary culture distracts us from real problems; it is simulacra. By investing emotionally in the song and its meanings people are buying into something that doesn’t exist. In contemporary society many people chose to live vicariously through various media platforms; songs cultural objects that can provide an escape from reality. Through listening to or singing ‘Amazing Grace’ people are able to imagine a different life and sometimes even feel as if they are experiencing it. But this is all false. Instead of searching for and bringing about change, people are content to experience the possibility through a song; it distracts the masses from the real change that the song was originally trying to promote. But the fact that a protest song can be adapted and used by numerous groups who all take different meanings from it and can envision a different, improved life, can be seen as less of failure and more of a success. Yet in this unity it can be seen to have become less of a protest song and more of a song about hope. The unity that the lyrics allow, fake or not, presents less of a challenge to society and more of rallying point for acceptance and belief. In this way while ‘Amazing Grace’ is successful not in challenging ideologies but in uniting groups. Perhaps protest songs are a thing of the past and its songs that project hope and the desire for a better future that have more power when it comes to contemporary change.
As the name suggests protest songs are all about challenging society and the dominant ideology; about protest. If the point of Amazing Grace is to incite change then it has failed, even when the movements behind them have seen some success. The challenges the song has made have been small and the impact on the success that the movements behind them have achieved, minimal. It is only through the support of the song and the beliefs of the man who wrote it and groups that sing it that Amazing Grace has morphed into something more. People have attributed more to the song than actually exists. Protest songs are just songs.
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 Dorian Lynskey, 2010, 33 Revolutions Per Minute
 Ian Peddie, 2006, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest
 Greg Kot, 2009, Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music
 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21143345 [Last accessed: 14/12/15]
 John Fiske, 2011 ,Television Culture
 There are multiple instances in the Bible where the power of God has restored sight to those previously blinded. For instance in the Gospel of Mark Jesus heals a blind man: ‘”Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.’
 http://www.contempaesthetics.org/newvolume/pages/article.php?articleID=708 [Last accessed: 04/01/16]
 Simon Reynolds, 2011, Retromania
 Theodor W Adorno, 2007, Philosophy of Modern Music
 Doyle Greene, 2014, The Rock Cover Song: Culture, History, Politics
 http://www.professionalsecurity.co.uk/news/interviews/what-a-voice-says-about-your-company/ [Last accessed: 17/03/16]
 Moya K. Mason, Theodor Adorno’s Theory of Music and its Social Implications
 Hans Bertens, 2005, Literary Theory: The Basics
 Stuart Hall, 2003, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices
 Far from a hymn, Janelle Monae’s ‘Hell You Talmbout’ is a song written and released in 2015 that translates to mean ‘what the hell are you talking about’; the title itself a protest against contemporary society. In August of 2015 Monae and others lead Black Lives Matter marches in America, where at the end the crowd would join in with a rendition of ‘Hell You Talmbout’.
 John Roberts, 1990, Postmodernism Politics and Art
 When it was first written Amazing Grace was accompanied by different music depending on the location in which it was performed. It was not until 1835, 62 years after it was written, that it became the song that we know today; when composer William Walker put Newton’s hymn with the familiar tune ‘New Britain’.
 It is interesting to note that on the comments section where a video has been uploaded to YouTube there are some entries by those who find the idea of these men singing the hymn inappropriate. When Newton wrote the song he was involved with the struggle to free slaves, something that was strongly objectionable to most people of the time. Many of the people who owned slaves or merely supported the practice used the Bible to justify what they were doing. Now the song is being used in remembrance of a gay rights activist and there are people who are using the Bible to justify their opinion that some people’s chosen sexual identities and preferences are morally and religiously wrong. It is interesting to wonder what Newton would have thought about this.
 ‘I Am Cait’ is a TV show chronicling the life a transgender woman as she transitions from male to female. Amazing Grace was sung on the show’s season finale during a ceremony celebrating her official name change.
http://www.mimichatter.com/kris-and-caitlyn-jenner-finale-i-am-cait-1346545904.html [Last accessed: 12/03/16]