Sting and the Protest Song

I am presenting a paper relating to my Sting book in Limerick this month at a conference on music and protest. Here is an early draft of what I will be speaking about


This paper will provide an overview of Sting’s interface with protest song from the perspective of his live performance and recorded output. It considers the relationship between what actually defines his protest songs, the creative strategies he employs when framing them, and the resonances they have with specific parts of the world. The paper will also consider the inherent tensions between protest song and factors such as the entertainment industry, star presence, and the criticisms that come with being in the public eye.

Whilst Sting’s early recordings tended to focus mainly on autobiographical personal subject matters, Sting’s protest song stance began to gradually emerge while he was still with The Police, with songs such as ‘Driven to Tears’, ‘Spirits in the Material World’, ’Rehuminize Yourself’ and ‘One World (Not Three)’ commenting on the world’s lack of awareness of “the images of horror”, its need for higher (spiritual) awareness, local news that concerned him and Third World concerns respectively. Although the final album by The Police, Synchronicity, like its predecessor Ghosts in the Machine was heavily influenced by the writings of Arthur Koestler, it did not continue with any overt protest content, tending to be more intellectual, reflective and philosophical. However, a moral imperative to use his celebratory status to ‘educate the world’ still appeared to be looming large. Having wrote the album in the luxurious surroundings at ‘Golden Eye’, James Bond creator Ian Fleming’s old house, just outside the small town of Oracabessa on Jamaica’s north coast, he commented

Britain had gone to war with Argentina over the Falklands. Young men were dying in the freezing waters of the South Atlantic, while I was gazing at sunspots on a cliff top overlooking the Caribbean.

Although omitted from the vinyl version of Synchronicity, the song ‘Murder by Numbers’, the b-side of ‘Every Breath You Take’ and included in later CD versions of the album, did include overt political comment. Although a mid-tempo jazz influenced piece on the surface, its cutting lyrics come to their pinnacle toward the end, with Sting commenting on how “you can reach the top of your profession”, by becoming the “leader of the land”, and how “murder is the sport of the elected” although “you don’t need to lift a finger of your hand”. Although no one is mentioned by name, the ‘you’ of the song is clearly aimed at politicians, with Sting’s earlier comments regarding the ‘young men of war’ possibly being an inspiration.

Live Performance

We will return to Sting’s solo career protest based recordings later, but I would initially like to focus on live performances. Leading on from his role as part of the 1984 Band Aid recording ‘Do They Know it is Christmas’ and the subsequent Live Aid concert the following year at Wembley Stadium, in 1986, alongside U2, Peter Gabriel, Joan Baez, The Neville Brothers and Brian Adams, Sting participated in a tour, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Amnesty International. Entitled ‘Participation of Hope’, its aim was not only to raise funds, but awareness of human rights issues. The six date tour became the first of what was to be known collectively as ‘The Human Rights Concerts’ – a total of 28 performances featuring numerous artists, taking place between 1986 and 1998. Organised by the US division of Amnesty International, the performances were in fact influenced by what became known as The Secret Policeman’s Ball, a series of comedy events that started in 1976 in the UK.

Sting, who had been an ambassador or Amnesty International since 1981, performed in all six concerts on the ‘Participation of Hope Tour’ – the first three with his own band and the last three with The Police – who reformed especially for the performances – cumulating at a concert at Giants Stadium in New Jersey on 15th June 1986.

A review of the six concerts, highlight the seeming importance of entertainment value to the audiences and the lack of original protest material. The reviewer described the first concert at the Cow Palace in San Francisco as featuring “more than five hours of luminescent, socially aware rock and roll”, with “No new anthems been written to celebrate the cause”. He continued “none is needed. These are performers who have already spoken through their music….”. Although many of the performers had written protest related content in the past, Bob Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’ was the key song re-appropriated for this new context. Despite the commendable intensions of the tour, the reviewer highlighted arguably the main dichotomy inherent in concerts of this nature.

To suggest that anyone is here to further their own careers would be the worst form of cynicism. But by the time this tour is over, Gabriel should be a major star – these performances will expose him to the masses he has yet failed to reach, and his musical loquaciousness and fiery performance will gain him scores of new fans.

When Sting was questioned about the tour, he placed some light on this, stating that “without freedom of expression we [the musicians] can’t do our jobs” […].It’s [the concerts] for us as well as the people who are being tortured”. Describing Amnesty International as “probably the most civilized organization in the history of the world”, he continued to highlight the importance of ensuring future concerts were unique – possibly hinting at the value of original composition

There’s no sense in repeating things year after year. If we had done Live Aid again this year we would have gotten diminishing returns. If musicians and artists are going to be involved in human rights and causes, then each time we do it we have to be creative, innovative, because people get bored. It’s our responsibility to make them interested, constantly excited by what’s happening.

Sting also took part in the Human Rights Now! concerts two years later, which took place over a six week period between September 2nd – October 15th 1988, travelling the world alongside Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Youssou N’Dour, and Tracy Chapman, once again on behalf of Amnesty International. As with the previous tour, the mission concerned the raising awareness of the continuing abuse of human rights by some governments, although this time not focusing on fund raising. The reason for this was because unlike the previous tour, many of the concerts also took place in Third World and oppressed countries – with all ticket prices being subsidised. In order to make up what would have been a financial deficit, The Reebok Human Rights Foundation acted as tour sponsors. Examination of concert footage from the final concert of the tour at River Plate Stadium in Beunos Aires Stadium, feature Sting performing an extended version of ‘Don’t Stand So Close to Me’, closely followed by ‘They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)’ – with the latter, an original protest based composition, being sung and introduced in Spanish. Originally recorded on Nothing Like The Sun, the song was inspired by the women who perform the traditional Chilean courting dance, the Cueca, alone with pictures of their dead husbands, fathers and sons pinned to their chest.

Unlike the comment made from the journalist earlier regarding the lack of songs specifically written for the new context, ‘They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)’ is an overt protest to Augusto Pinochet (1915 – 2006), and was also played live at the Embrace of Hope concert at the National Stadium, Santiago, Chile in 1990. Although it was not possible to visit the country in 1988, the Embrace of Hope concert celebrated the end of the Pinochet dictatorship, taking place only days after Pinochet was arrested on the 10th October 1990.

As with the previous concert, numerous Chilean women appeared on stage with Sting and Peter Gabriel with photographs of their dead or missing loved ones pinned to their chests. Both concerts also feature Sting and Peter Gabriel dancing with the women in turn, with the up tempo Latin tempo changing the feel from sombre to joyful. Despite its emotional beginning, the symbolic message at this point in both arrangements is unquestionably optimistic: the women are no longer dancing alone. It is however important to point out that the two performances have some key differences. Aside from the earlier concert featuring Sting playing guitar and generally looking more ‘groomed’, the second performance, appears far less staged – essentially appearing more authentic. This may partially be due to the fact that the National Stadium was in fact the very location “where so many had been imprisoned, tortured and killed”, being one of the “few venues in the world that is still used though it was a prison of brutality”.

Solo Recordings

In terms of his solo recordings, Sting can be seen to be engaging with an overt protest narrative immediately, with The Dream of the Blue Turtles featuring a number of songs that would be worthy of our attention. However, time restrictions allow me to consider one as an indicative example – ‘We Work The Black Seam’.

Sting recorded ‘We Work the Black Seam’ around the time of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, and it is interesting to point out how he firmly positions himself as ‘one of the community of miners in the song’s narrative, with repeated use of possessive pronouns such as “us”, “we” and “our”, which are clearly positioned against an oppositional perspective of the conservative government via words such as “ they”, “your” and “you”. Throughout the song, Sting alludes to how the minors “blood has stained the coal”, how the government’s “economic policy makes no sense”, and how in a future nuclear age the government will understand the miners’ rage. Although the verses of the song are clearly addressing the conservative government, the chorus, through lines such as “One day in a nuclear age, they may understand our rage”, appear to be delivered to the minors in private – accentuating the protagonist of the song being positioned as one ‘one of the people’ – as opposed to one of ‘them’.

A small section of the song’s lyrics are clearly influenced by William Blake’s poem ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’ (1804), which juxtapositions the concept of a ‘New Jerusalem’ against those ‘dark satanic mills’ – essentially the beauty of heaven against historically contested metaphors such as the industrial revolution, the orthodox churches of the establishment and the Albion Floor Mills, one of the first factories in London. Sting’s incorporation of the phrase “your dark Satanic Mills” in verse 2 is obviously derived from Blake, only extending Blake’s original meaning to that of the impact of nuclear technologies on both the work force and the coal mining tradition.

Sting would likely have studied the Blake poem at Grammar School, and appears to have made a clear connection between ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’ and the impact of government policy and technological development on contemporary local communities. In addition to the use of ‘dark satanic mills’, he also alludes more subtly to other parts of the poem with phrases such as “We walk through ancient forest lands” (verse 2) and “the turning world will sing the world to sleep” (verse 4) being similar to “and did those feet in ancient time” and “nor shall my sword sleep in my hand”. Aside from the lyrical content, Sting also incorporates techniques in order to ensure the musical background accentuates the subject matter. For example, the opening repeated keyboard/percussion figure which continues throughout the song, appears to be deliberately ‘industrial’, automated, with a mechanised avoidance of feeling. This is intersected by the incorporation of a brass band in the choruses – an ensemble closely associated by tradition with many coal mines in England and Wales, and previously used by artists such as Peter Skellern to  depict images of ‘northerness’.


Sting has suffered a great deal of criticism for his political activism over the years, almost being in a position that despite the authenticity of his efforts – it always seems to result in negative press. In a 1993 article in The Times, the author reflects on the response of the national press to Sting’s political activism

Sting’s announcement that he was setting up a foundation to raise public awareness of the devastation of Brazil’s rain forests, in particular the Xingu Park, an area of native land the size of Switzerland, gave them [the press] the impetus to wound. He was a do-gooder, a dilettante; worst of all, a bore… “What a career move,” cynics hissed, as he introduced heads of state and chat-show hosts to Chief Raoni, leader of the Kayapo tribe, whom they would remember more for the plate that distended his bottom lip than for the dignity of his pleas for the protection of his people and their environment”.

The article continued to describe his work with the Rainforest Foundation as being perceived as “a self-aggrandising global photo-opportunity”

the one-time rock hero was now Eco-Sting, a cartoon-like caped crusader flying around in loincloth and body paint, hellbent on saving the planet from destruction. We British, preferring our environmentalists to look like Attenborough or Bellamy, chortled with ill-concealed delight.

In the same year (1993), an article in The Independent, attempting to summarize the ‘issues’ associated with Sting, commenced

Few of us take kindly to being reminded of our inadequacies and ill-formed attitudes. We enjoy the process still less when the hectoring voice belongs to someone who, although a contemporary in age, is far richer, far more celebrated, and infinitely more glamorous than ourselves. That, one supposes, is why so many people in Britain have come to think of Sting as smug, pretentious, a bit of a clever-dick. And, if we examine our consciences, we will admit that there are few things we Britons like less.

The ‘issues’ outlined are related to his political activism as opposed to his actual protest music, but it seems that the two can be inextricably linked. In a later 2000 article for the Sunday Times, the author traces the protest song as commencing with Bob Dylan’s 1963 album Freewhelin’: “he provided the impetus for everyone with an afghan coat to pick up a guitar and start moaning”. After describing how an unnamed Donovan song had waxed lyrical about the “American Bombing raids over Hanoi”,  the article then makes the assertion that “the protest song seems to have gone away”. Although letting rap music and Bruce Springsteen off the hook, the author gets around to criticizing environmentalism, leading eventually to who he describes as “poor old Sting”:

The trouble is, though, since Sting decided to promote his new CD by sewing it into the bottom lip of an Amazonian tribesman, singing about trees has been seen as a bit uncool.

When reviewing Sacred Love the same year, a Daily Mirror article takes a long time to get around to discussing his music, opening up with the description of a ‘condition’ that “every music lover at one time or another” has experienced. Describing it as “SAS (Sting Allergic Syndrome)”, with ‘symptoms’ including “involuntary shudders of jealousy and/or revulsion towards the man formerly known as Gordon Sumner”. The reasons for this troubled relationship to the general public is seen to range from pomposity, filming the birth of his Children, attempting to copyright his stage name and his charity work with the Rainforest Foundation and Amnesty International, which was regarded as been “seen as evidence of a holier than thou stance”.

When considering what he describes as “cultural collusion and collision”, George Lipsitz asks an important question that is so important for artists such as Sting: “which kinds of cross-cultural identification advance emancipator ends and which ones reinforce existing structures of power and domination[?]”.He goes on to discuss how Sting’s close friend, Paul Simon, received critical and commercial success with his 1986 album Graceland. Its sophisticated musicianship, post-modern combination of styles, use of jazz musicians, and inter-cultural cooperation introduced many listeners to the sounds of South Africa for the first time, even including “revenues from the album’s promotional tour to support charitable projects in Africa and in African-American communities”. Despite these honourable intensions, Simon, and by default the album received criticism for complying with hegemonic western power relations. Concisely speaking, Simon and his representatives still had the controlling power in terms of who had access to factors such as marketing, finance, technology and intellectual property. Like Simon, Sting can be regarded as taking indigenous influences and sounds, and re-appropriating them for his own artistic ends. This ranges from his use of the Northumbrian pipes, to the inclusion of Chilian women dancing the aforementioned courting dance, the Cueca, to his incorporation of Rai influences on the Track ‘Desert Rose’, featuring Cheb Mami on vocals.

This begs the question, do songs such as ‘They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)’ de contextualise the music and traditions of oppressed countries?  ‘Borrowing’ of course has become a common trait in the post-modern world, and from an artistic perspective is expected. However, what is still problematic is the inescapable outcome of the resultant music having the potential to still be considered ‘western’, or to put it more crudely – ‘white European’. This of course is a long standing issue that continues to re emerge many years after the appropriations of Little Richard by Pat Boone, or Chuck Berry by The Beatles. Indeed can the sanitized reggae influences of Bob Marley by The Police also be indicative of this process?

Songs such as ‘They Dance Alone (Cueca Solo)’ may result in a new form of music – but does it do justice to the musicians and their countries of origin? Or is it more important to consider it as an opportunity for a minority national music being given a global presence? Alternatively, does the music provide a symbolic act of solidarity with the countries or localities that Sting is attempting to represent?

Whatever the answers to these questions are, Lipsitz argues that these type of artistic collaborations have to be carried out with a self-conscious understanding of unequal power relations, of the privileges available to Anglo-American recording stars because of the economic power of the countries from which they come.


About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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1 Response to Sting and the Protest Song

  1. Pingback: Untitled | Paul Carr

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