It’s a natural inclination. You see injustice in the world and you want to do something about it. Maybe you send an outraged tweet. Maybe you give money to a good cause. Maybe you protest in the streets. But if you’re a musician, then you can do something more. You can write a song about it. Maybe that’ll do some good.
Some of the greatest tracks ever recorded were in response to inequality and injustice. “Strange Fruit.” “A Change Is Gonna Come.” “Alright.” But those are too often the exceptions. More frequently, artists with noble intentions pick up a guitar or go to the piano, and what comes out are ill-considered, awkwardly-conceived, knee-jerk protest songs. You can’t fault their aspirations, but that doesn’t mean you have to listen to what they come up with, either.
Today, the Grammys announced a few new categories for their annual awards show. Starting in 2023, there’s going to be a prize for Songwriter of the Year (non-classical) and a Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Video Games and Other Interactive Media. But the new award that got the most attention was for something called Best Song for Social Change. Here’s how that honor will be determined: “This Special Merit Award will be determined by a blue ribbon committee and ratified by the Recording Academy Board of Trustees. Submissions must contain lyrical content that addresses a timely social issue and promotes understanding, peacebuilding and empathy.”
On its face, it’s commendable that the Recording Academy wants to spotlight music that aspires to bring about change in the world. Love songs are all well and good, but what about art that elevates the human condition? Unfortunately, like many of the songs that will soon be competing for this Grammy, this feels like a half-baked, potentially embarrassing idea. A great protest song is like nothing else. But a bad one is pure cringe. I fear we’re about to get a flood of the latter.
In recent years, all types of awards shows have tried to walk a tricky tightrope, celebrating their specific artform by giving out lots of shiny trophies while, at the same time, acknowledging the real-world issues that make giving out lots of shiny trophies seem deeply gross and self-centered. This year, the Oscars flirted with having Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the broadcast. (The Grammys actually had him on.) In an age of Time’s Up and Black Lives Matter, the entertainment industry wants to look respectful and conscientious while also throwing lavish galas for itself. And the awards themselves often reflect this tension: Green Book was a bad movie, but from some Oscar voters’ perspective, it was a paean to healing racial divides. That’s a good thing, right? Right?
That “good intentions/iffy execution” problem is rampant in mediocre protest songs, even from our greatest artists. Tom Petty, a beloved musician, had just returned home from a European tour when the 1992 Los Angeles riots got underway. “We got back and all hell broke loose,” Petty said later. “And I just had the feeling that the word ‘peace’ needs to be on the radio. We just need to hear ‘peace, peace, peace.’ I quickly got on the phone, arranged the session and then went into my little room and wrote the song. Really fast.”
What he came up with was “Peace in L.A.,” one of his all-time worst songs.
“Peace in L.A.” embodies everything that’s misguided about the well-intentioned protest song. It’s simplistically conceived, both lyrically and musically, feeling dashed-off rather than effortless or elemental. But judging by the Grammys’ criteria for their new award, “Peace in L.A.” would certainly be eligible, addressing what was, in the early 1990s, a “timely social issue.” Petty no doubt hoped he was “promot[ing] understanding, peacebuilding and empathy” and, to be generous, maybe some people heard the song and felt that their own sentiments about the rioting were being expressed. But that doesn’t make the song any less cringey, its message of not giving into anger inevitably compromised by Petty’s privileged vantage point.
In the last couple decades, there’s been no shortage of bad protest songs reacting to 9/11, the rise of Trump, the murder of George Floyd, you name it. Each of those epochal, devastating moments left people reeling, and music often serves as a balm in such instances. But sometimes saying nothing as an artist is the smartest move, recognizing that you don’t have the perspective or critical distance to address such a weighty moment. Or, you could be Brad Paisley in 2013 and decide to record “Accidental Racist” with L.L. Cool J because you feel like it’s time for the nation to talk seriously about race, casting the rapper to be a random Black guy who has to teach Paisley’s well-meaning, Confederate flag-wearing white dude how systemic racism works.
Paisley and Cool J got deservedly pilloried for their dopey song, with Ta-Nehisi Coates saying it best: “The assumption that there is no real difference among Black people is exactly what racism is. Our differences, our right to our individuality, is what makes us human. The point of racism is to rob Black people of that right. … It is no different than the only Black kid in class being asked to explain ‘race’ to white people, or asking the same question of the sole Black dude in your office.” I haven’t thought about “Accidental Racist” in forever — mostly because I like Paisley and want to pretend he wasn’t capable of such a dumb track — but as soon as the Recording Academy announced this new Grammy category, that bad, bad song sprang immediately to mind.
The truth is, the Grammys already sorta give out a Best Song for Social Change award: It’s called Record of the Year and Song of the Year. These separate prestigious prizes — the former for the actual recording, the latter for the composition — have been handed out to the likes of “We Are the World,” “Another Day in Paradise,” “Streets of Philadelphia” and “This Is America.” Eric Clapton won for a song that was literally called “Change the World.” Forgetting for a moment the many socially-conscious tunes that were simply nominated in these categories, Grammy voters are often picking prizes based not just on a song’s musical greatness — they’re assigning value to a song that’s About Something Important or Has Meaningful Things To Say About The World. They’re not just voting on merit — they’re cosigning a song’s inspiring or relevant message. Whether you personally like those songs I just mentioned doesn’t matter — we’re all susceptible to being swayed by the earnestness of what a song is about. And in the wrong hands, even an all-time great protest tune can be reduced to absolute drivel. Or have you forgotten that atrocious “Imagine” singalong that happened at the start of the pandemic?
Actually, Gal Gadot and her famous friends’ public humiliation is instructive in talking about what’s potentially catastrophic about this new Grammy prize. A song advocating change is laudable, suggesting that the writer (or the singer) is looking beyond himself and considering the wider world around him, sympathizing with those less fortunate and offering encouragement. In theory, this is what we want privileged, famous people to do, but a cringey rendition of “Imagine” only illustrates how hollow the gesture can be — it feels like the bare minimum of what a powerful person could do in difficult circumstances. “Sorry, I don’t want to really put myself out there but, hey, enjoy this song instead.”
You could argue, of course, that artists across mediums already chase awards based on saying what they think is “important.” How many movies, both great and stunningly inert, are advertised as being “timely”? How many TV shows try to address modern societal concerns in the most shallow ways imaginable? Even if all these artists have nothing but honorable intentions, sincerely seeking to speak to the times, the cumulative weight of all that meaningfulness can be oppressive, especially when the results are toxically smug. (Dear god, the global-warming satire Don’t Look Up was unwatchable.)
And that’s not even considering the challenge this “blue ribbon committee” will be facing. Essentially, you’re asking them to decide which “timely social issue” is more worthy than others. Forget your personal feelings about these individual songs for a moment, but let’s say “FDT,” “I Can’t Breathe” and, oh, Martina McBride’s “Concrete Angel” all came out the same year and were nominated. Is a song about child abuse more deserving than a song about George Floyd’s murder? Was Donald Trump a greater evil than either of those other societal ills?
This sort of question comes up during the Oscars when projecting the race for Best Documentary, which is often filled with films about pressing societal issues. Often, the Academy just goes for the feel-good nominee — although, this year, with the well-deserving winner Summer of Soul, the voters managed to pick an incredibly entertaining concert film that’s also a deeply moving study of Black life in America. But regularly I’ll hear complaints about one documentary getting more attention than another, with the argument always being, “How could people not care about a movie about _____?” As if by pointing at a societal issue, a filmmaker automatically gets the moral high ground over another filmmaker whose societal issue may not be as urgent or despairing. That’s not how art works.
Funny enough, the MTV Video Music Awards have been giving out their own version of the Best Song for Social Change Grammy for more than a decade: Best Video With a Message, which is now called Video for Good. You could make the case that creating a prize that encourages MTV’s youthful audience to think about social causes is a net positive. Obviously, being engaged politically is better than being apathetic and uninformed. But by incentivizing social consciousness, the Grammys are encouraging the kind of glib virtue-signaling that right-wing trolls are always accusing those on the left of doing.
If great songs come in the wake of this new award, I’ll happily admit I was wrong. But what seems more likely is we’ll continue to prize the appearance of trying to make a difference over actually making one — and we’ll perpetuate the notion that Important Art is inherently superior to all other kinds of art. Phil Ochs, a folk singer who devoted his life to social change, famously said, “A protest song is a song so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit.” Maybe that’s true, but the Grammys’ attempt to quantify the meaningfulness of such songs sure stinks.