Songs of Social Protest Conference: University of Limerick, Ireland.

Day 1 – April 29th 2015

After the long trip from South Wales to Limerick, the first thing that struck me with the University of Limerick is its size and beauty. I was at the university to give a paper around 5 years back – but somehow missed out on this. So here are some pics to prove the point!


After the formal introductions were out of the way, the first panel was entitled 'Punks Not Dead', featuring papers ranging from Pussy Riot, to counter hegemonic Yiddish music in Israel, to the invisibility of punk music in Portugal.

Using the band Oy Division as a case study, paper 1 proposed how singing in Yiddish can have a punk rock aesthetic in Israel – the language itself essentially being considered a form of protest. This was an interesting paper, but as I don't understand a great deal about the political backdrop – it was difficult to see some of the connections the presenter outlined. I will have to explore this at some point in the future. The Pussy Riot phenomena was described initially as 'performing punkness' – which includes not only the music, but also factors such as the performances, videos and publicity – all of which inform the world of the realities of 'Russia'. This formulates an interesting question regarding how UK bands actually perform this music? The protest performance Pussy Riot put on at the cathedral in Russia represents the power of the subversion of place in protest – a phenomena I would like to engage with more in my own work.


It is also interesting how the Pussy Riot 'brand' has become a symbol of protest – a mass media product that in many ways continues the universal struggle against state sanctioned violence. It is also interesting how the band have been adopted in America to portray its own 'anti Putin' ideology. Regarding the 'punk in Portugal' paper, the paradox of punk often having a paradoxical relationship with the media – simultaneously disagreeing with the dominant ideology, while also relying on it to a certain extent. As with the early days in the UK in particular, the paper continued to give examples of the negative press the genre receives in the Portugese press, in addition to outlining some of the dominant subjects matters. It is also interesting to note the importance of protest artists linking in with the past. With my own recent work regarding the Amnesty International 'Participation of Hope' tour for example – the artists performing Bob Dylan's 'I Will be Released' was important in terms of resonating with Dylan's protest stance. In a similar manner, current Amnesty International events tend to link current artists with the likes of Sting, Peter Gabriel and Bono. I was surprised to hear that the Portuguese media have seemingly 'banned' punk – begging the question if this takes place in the UK under the radar?


The First paper of Panel 2 (which included my paper on Sting and the Protest Song) focused on singing protest in post war Italy – the history of the Canzone d'autore. The presenter discussed how this a problematic term, but from the mid 60s became considered as a songwriter who used 'refined' lyrics – sort of an intellectual poet. By the 70s the genre was expected to Include political and social content – hence its inclusion in this conference. The presenter then proceeded to analyse 'La Demenica dele Salme' – a song which was seen as overtly political regarding its lyrical denotation. Interestingly, the presenter argues that the intellectual complex codes presented in the lyrics – actually Has the potential to weaken the song's political impact – as some people may simply not understand its complex narrative. This reminded me initially of Frank Zappa – whose protest stance I am only just beginning to understand, although I think the multi-lauded political codes make it more political – not less. He then proceeded to suggest that more connative symbolism is more important than denotive lyrics – which is a fascinating area I agree with – but don't have time to elaborate on here.

An analysis of Juice Aleem's 'Straight Outta B.C' was also included in panel 3 – taking place after the lunch break. After (re)introducing the concepts of essentialism/anti essentialism – the paper proceeded to present an analysis of the song – picking up on factors such as double entendres, use of metaphor and quotes from the bible (listen to the track 'The Fallen').



Paper 2 commenced with a brief discussion of how humour can in fact act as a form of protest – once again resonating with Frank Zappa. The presenter examined two You Tube videos ( on of which was 'The kabab Shop') that basically (on the surface) stereotyped the operation of a kabab shop – with the presenter outlining how to some, the dish may be considered presentable, but not the people behind it are not. In situations like this, humour was considered a way of expressing these racist realities.


Paper 3 give an Interesting overview of the stage musical by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim on the life of Imelda Markos – 'Here Lies Love'. Apparently, Markos was a great lover of disco – the stylistic reason why Byrne wanted to work with Fatboy Slim. The text of the production was noted to include actual archival footage from the time – giving the text a sense of authenticity – essentially attempting to re write the history books regarding this period in phillapheno history. Although I have never seen (or heard of) the show, I thought the audience participation element was interesting – with the audience having to cheer some of Markos' decision making!

The day finished with a keynote by Melissa Hidalgo – who presented a fascinating on the ways in which Morrissey Fandom can be regarded as a form of resistance. This is an area I have written about when discussing the German based Zappa festival Zappanale a few years ago. Hodalgo's paper focused on the Los Angeles based alternative band Ozamata, and the song 'Gay Vetas in Love' (which references Morrissey via the following phrase: 'The more I hear Morrissey, the more I feel alright') – which was wrote in protest to Proposition A'.


Hidalgo outlined how the sounds of the song are influenced by Chicano Soul, a style of mixed Mexican decent that has an inherent protest narrative, and acts as a perfect underlying feel to the numerous references in the lyrics which act as a narrative map to 'queer LA'. The paper then discussed Mexican icon Juan Gabriel, who was critically compared to Morrissey. She discussed how Morrissey often writes songs from the position of disenfranchised social groups – who consequently hear something special in his music – becoming fans. She then suggested that his music is an instance of audiotopia – where music engrains a sense of belonging, transforming space and often bringing together otherwise desperate factors – in this instance the gay community and Morrissey. What I was not aware of was that Morrissey seems to have a significant relationship with Los Angeles – with the term 'Mos Angeles' being coined to describe it!

That's it for now – time to sample a piece of Ireland…….





About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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