SOPA song shows times a-changin' for would-be Dylans

In an era when Peter, Paul, and Mary aren't topping the charts with "Blowin' in the Wind," the protest song still seems to be finding a way to make itself heard.

Edward Moyer Senior Editor
Edward Moyer is a senior editor at CNET and a many-year veteran of the writing and editing world. He enjoys taking sentences apart and putting them back together. He also likes making them from scratch. ¶ For nearly a quarter of a century, he's edited and written stories about various aspects of the technology world, from the US National Security Agency's controversial spying techniques to historic NASA space missions to 3D-printed works of fine art. Before that, he wrote about movies, musicians, artists and subcultures.
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Edward Moyer
3 min read

The times are indeed a-changin' -- even when it comes to folk anthems.

This generation's Bob Dylans, Joan Baezes, and Ramblin' Jack Elliotts aren't gathering in locales like New York's legendary Washington Square Park to swap chords and licks. They're busily congregating in the gigantic public park that is the Internet, via social media.

And, as a recent video makes clear, YouTube, Facebook, and other such sites seem also to be taking the place of street corners or truck beds when it comes to providing a stage for budding protest singers and their songs.

Forest Gibson and Zachary Cohn's "The Day the LOLcats Died" (embedded below) is certainly not the first Internet protest song, or even the first anti-SOPA tune to wend its way across the Web. ("Firewall" and "SOPA Cabana" are but two other anti-antipiracy screeds that have come before -- with "Cabana" even suggesting Dylan and his "Subterranean Homesick Blues" via handwritten lyrics on cards).

Enlarge Image
Protesting, then and now: (clockwise from top left) "Subterranean Homesick Blues" from D.A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back," Dan Bull's "SOPA Cabana," Suzie Automatic's vinyl-sticker take on Woody Guthrie, Guthrie's slogan-bearing acoustic "machine." Dylan and Guthrie: Wikipedia; Bull: screenshot by CNET; Suzie: Suzie Automatic/Amazon

But the presentation and form of "LOLCats" call to mind, in a way these other tunes don't, the stereotypical image of the protest singer: a lone soul busily killing fascists with his or her acoustic machine.

Of course, part of the fun -- and probably the effectiveness -- of "LOLcats" is that it's a concoction by humorists who are obviously lampooning this stereotypical folk singer at the same time they're using the cliche to get across their message. But that lampooning doesn't mean the dissemination of protest songs via social media is some kind of joke.

As The Times of India recently reported, protest singer-songwriters in Pakistan have used YouTube to good effect. And as blog RT points out, computers and the Internet were important tools for protest singers during the Arab Spring. (One such performer told the blog that Net-posted rap was a key form of protest, with anyone being able to back his or her protest rhymes with a beat easily assembled on a PC.)

Indeed, though both the New York and Los Angeles Times recently lamented the lack these days of protest songs by top artists, in the era of YouTube, Facebook, and other social-media outlets, such a lack may not matter as much as it once might have.

"The music that's being released by the major recording labels is [less political], sure," Robeson Taj P. Frazier, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, told the LA Times. "They're focused on a profit incentive; which in some ways forces them to take on a narrow outlook. [But] that's not representative of all the music that people who are organizing now are listening to and what's impacting their consciousness. Youth engagement and interaction through social media allows [consumers] to have access to music that's not limited to being produced and distributed by major record labels."

In other words, the street corner prophet can now reach the masses without a record deal.

Recent U.S.-based examples of attempts at such nonmainstream, under-the-radar engagement include not only YouTube-posted vids like "LOLcats," but also the Web-fueled collaborative project "Occupy this Song," which lets musicians work together remotely on creating protest songs for the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the "Occupy Wall Street Protest Songs" Facebook page, which showcases the work of various politically engaged performers.

Getting back to "LOLcats" -- though a project like "Occupy this Song" seems geared toward creating original material, the project's name could easily be applied to Gibson and Cohn's effort. Humorous as it is, "LOLcats" pulls off a neat trick, intentionally or not. It protests what some call a seriously flawed pro-copyright measure by setting its lyrics to a copyrighted tune: Don McLean's "American Pie."

In a sense it occupies the melody. And it thus may prompt listeners, however subtly, to consider how unnuanced thinking (or lawmaking) about copyright could silence or discourage protests similar to the very one they're listening to. And by using a hit folk tune from the '60s era ("Pie" nabbed the No. 1 spot in 1972), "LOLCats" implicitly raises questions about the relationship between singer-songwriters and the charts -- i.e., the major labels.

As Frazier notes, social media provides a way to sidestep such a relationship completely, to, in a sense, set the music free.