Had a great time chatting to Barry Taylor yesterday - who's over in the UK 'writing a film score' (yeah right Barry - we believe you ;-)
We got on to talking music. I'd recently heard John Bell talk about protest music, and, harking back to the good old days of Dylan and Joan Baez, he complained that there wasn't really any good protest music around these days. I took him to task on this afterwards, and challenged him to think again.
Barry is in an excellent position to talk on this, and he talked about his theory that 'no one listens to music any more'. The basic idea is that music creates an emotional space, out of which actions and thoughts are born. As he said, no one really knows what Thom Yorke is singing about, but, regardless of the words, the emotion of the music resonates with strong messages of protest. According to Barry, most bands begin by writing the music, and the words come after. So perhaps the message of the music is located somewhere else than the lyric.
I like this idea for a number of reasons. Firstly, I think it affirms that, while there is less 'obvious' protest music, there is still a lot of music that is there to challenge, if we let ourselves encounter fully the emotional spaces the music creates. Ironically, the folk/protest movement of Dylan's hey-day could be seen as a failure. While the shallow, glitzy rock-fest of Live Aid was, in many ways, an enormous success.
Secondly, I think this has something to offer in the debate on Christian music. Worship is an emotional space. We need to affirm that, and need to realize that we don't need obvious lyrics to make music 'Christian.' Moreover, where obvious lyrics are put in, they actually tend to detract from the emotional space, making the music too fixed and preachy... And, personally, leaving me cold. Connectedly, I think this is why ambient music has really been embraced by the alt.worship community. It's often been a criticism that it's 'not really worship' because the words aren't there. But that is missing the point, and the key truth that alt.worship seemed to pick up on was precisely that it was the emotional space that music created that was the space within which worship was offered.