I recently reviewed Dorian Lynskey's workmanlike survey of popular protest music, 33 Revolutions per Minute, for the Wall Street Journal. Here's a passage that I left out of the piece because it wandered away from reviewing the actual book.
Protest music usually centers around slogans and literal sentiments: "This Land Is Your Land," "Fight the Power," "Give Peace a Chance." But words aren't the only way to change hearts and minds; there's also the implicit, galvanizing power of music itself. Post-punk bands like the Minutemen and Gang of Four wrote protest songs galore, and many of them were inspiring, but the real protest was built into the music itself — raw and idiosyncratic, it aimed to be challenging and provocative in ways that lyrics can never be. Fugazi was like that too, embedding the idea of challenging preconceptions right into the music itself, and while the politically oriented Australian band Midnight Oil was a bit more conventional-sounding, their music was never less than galvanic, even in their quietest moments.
As Lynskey remarks about mind-blowing sound scientists Public Enemy, "Don't just call for a riot, sound like a riot." Of the Prodigy's "Their Law," he notes, "the sternum-cracking kickdrum is probably more articulate than any of the lyrics." (Although it must be noted that that would hardly be a difficult feat.) But those groups were hardly the first to exemplify that phenomenon — the Rolling Stones' 1968 "Street Fighting Man," writes Lynskey, "sounded like revolution and that's what mattered."
Similarly, Bob Dylan may well have revolutionized more minds through his later, more gnomic imagery than with the literal messages he conveyed in his early protest songs, exemplifying John Lennon's exhortation to "free your mind instead." Out of that, all kinds of things would happen, like ostensibly apolitical but formally radical rock musicians such as the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa inspiring Vaclav Havel to help foment revolution in the former Czechoslovakia.
Music isn't just entertainment. It is encoded thought, transmitted through rapidly fluttering puffs of air. We receive it and decode it, and if it's good, it makes us think. And thinking is the germ of progress.