The Protest Song Wakes Up

A buzzy protest song about the definition of war, timed perfectly to public protests against the Israel–Hamas War, shows that there’s room for social media and protest singers to coexist.

By Ernie Smith

Last year, we saw the unlikeliest of pop stars emerge from the backwoods of Virginia with an acoustic-folk turn—a protest song that seemed to highlight the plight of the working man.

That song, “Rich Men North of Richmond,” played into a number of political talking points, found support from the right-leaning political establishment, and even appeared in a Republican presidential debate. (Its singer, Oliver Anthony, demurred from being on the right or left, but his song included a base-level commentary on welfare that made the song controversial with progressives.)

It topped the charts (partly with the help of a well-known iTunes gaming scheme), but within a few months, it had faded from memory. Oliver Anthony released an album recently, produced by Dave Cobb, the guy who has made albums by Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and Brandi Carlile sparkle. It was not a mega-hit when it came out (very few newly released albums are), but he’s still in the conversation.

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I bring this up because there is now a musician strongly on the left who is drawing attention for a similar formula. Over the weekend, a guitarist named Jesse Welles, using a similar model to Anthony’s singing-outside-in-nature field-recording tactic, emerged from the murky waters of YouTube with an extremely timely critique of the Israel-Hamas War:

The song’s message is direct and harsh, as highlighted by its title, “War Isn’t Murder.” However, it’s full of lyrical wordplay of the kind that someone who has been doing this a while usually comes up with. The whole idea of the song is to needle at the semantics that people use to discuss and paper over the nature of combat. (One look at Reddit suggests that at least some people did not understand that was the point of the song.)

Coming during a week when social media is loaded with stories about major U.S. universities trying to manage anti-war encampments on their campuses, often with police assistance, it feels like the song emerged at the very second something like it needed to come up. Putting aside whether you agree with the song, it feels like it emerged almost on the very day something like this was bound to enter the conversation.

On the surface, his song is very reminiscent of another famed (and controversial for its time) anti-war song, the 1965 hit “Eve Of Destruction,” which its singer, Barry McGuire, didn’t write, but infuses with a similar gravel-voiced directness.

Now, Jesse Welles (apparent birth name Jesse Wells, no additional e) seems like he came from nowhere to drop the timeliest of protest songs, but he really didn’t. Welles, who hails from Northwest Arkansas, has flowed through the waves of indie rock for roughly a decade, and has been featured by NPR in the past for his more rock-oriented sound. Over the years, he’s opened for big-name bands like Greta Van Fleet. Unlike Anthony, music was obviously his career before he made this song.

Artists like Welles often try out a few sounds, or launch new bands, until they find something that fits them. Welles’ new sound feels like John Prine more than Bob Dylan, but he’s talking about things that are of its moment, like he’s Phil Ochs. (Ochs, famously, sold himself as a “singing journalist” who sang songs directly inspired by stories in newspapers and magazines.) Welles is singing about fentanyl and microplastics, not Vietnam and the civil rights movement.

Since his sudden breakout, Anthony has carried himself like someone who tripped into this. By contrast, Welles feels like someone who has embraced this as a strategy, based on the fact that he has a TikTok full of songs like this.

But even if it’s strategic, it nonetheless feels like a conversation worth having.

Back in 2017, a Washington Post story, riffing off the fact that Lady Gaga (!) performed one of his songs, suggested that we needed a Phil Ochs, singing protest songs about what’s happening in the culture in real time.

At a time when a guy sounding like the second coming of John Prine can write up-to-the-minute protest songs and post them on YouTube and TikTok, I feel like there’s a chance we might be getting that.

Protest singers have long had the tools to respond to the culture in real time. With songs like “War Isn’t Murder,” they’re starting to use them.

Non-Protesty Links

Always have someone conspiring against your success. Patrick Warburton says his deeply religious mom tried to get Family Guy cancelled, despite the fact he was a cast member on the show, and he was paying his parents’ bills with Family Guy paychecks.

Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek, busking in Washington Square, a solid year before Big Thief was a thing, is the sweetest bit of serendipity you will see today.

The iPad is getting a calculator, but if it’s not this specific calculator, don’t bother, Apple.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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