Protest rock was once fueled by the Vietnam War and civil rights. But every era has musicians who use their art to make a point — and these days, there are plenty of points to make.
Emma Ayres grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, listening to folk legends Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Sam Perry was a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, kid who idolized John Lennon. They first met as students at UMass Amherst.
“When I moved back to the area, we reconnected,” Perry said, “and realized we both were looking for something new and fresh and relevant — especially because it was 2016, and Trump had just gotten elected, and we were really angry.”
Ayres sings and Perry plays guitar. With three more millennial musicians — Hannah Rosenbaum, Nate Mondschein and Ken Birchall — they formed the band Old Flame.
One of their first songs was called “Ain't A King” — a commentary on President Trump — with a refrain that goes:
You ain’t a king, ain’t a king
so why are you ruling?
Reticent and worried
I wish you were fooling.
“That was our first sort of angry hymn of protest,” Ayres said. “But I think it's sort of evolved into something a bit more subtle, and it's like an inherent thread of every single song we write now.”
Do they look at music as a means of expression, or as a way to get their message out?
“I'm not trying to change anybody's mind,” Ayres said. “I'm just hoping that they'll listen, and maybe think about what they're hearing.”
On further thought, Ayres added, “I guess in some cases, we are trying to change minds. It's a balance. This album that we're going to be releasing in May is called Young and In Debt, and it's very much about our own personal relationship to our student debt — but also just the student debt as a sort of national crisis.”
Among the title song’s lyrics:
The only way to live
is to buy something you can’t pay back
From the cradle to the grave
work ourselves until we crack.
“It's actually even more than just student debt,” Perry said. “I think it's also all of the new, newly-created wealth is going to the top 1 percent, and so the middle and lower classes are struggling harder and harder to get by.”
Of course, Old Flame is not the only local band to combine the personal with the political.
On her acoustic guitar, Easthampton singer-songwriter Pamela Means has been writing political songs for more than 30 years, since she was a Gen-X teenager dealing with great pain and loss.
“My mother died when I was 14,” she said, “and just being a biracial person growing up in Wisconsin and learning about racism at an early age.”
In her song “Color of The Skin,” Means sings about her father’s experience as a sharecropper in Jim Crow Tennessee, and her own experience getting pulled over by the police.
“A lot of those things were just stirring around, and just made me an angry sad person in the world on a regular basis,” she said.
How did writing and performing songs interact with that anger and sadness?
“Well, probably literally saved my life,” Means said. “Because at least it gave me an outlet for all of those feelings, and to vent and explore, analyze, ponder and discover some sort of a community that could hear it, and maybe understand and connect with me.”
Like Old Flame, Means has found the Trump presidency highly motivating as a songwriter.
“Daily, there's something to stress me out in the news,” she said. “And I kind of knew, because of being a political songwriter, [and] because it was so consuming of my emotions and my thoughts, I would need to address it in a song. And I tried many times, but nothing really clicked.”
When it did click, Means decided to be pretty direct: the title song of her latest EP is called, “Impeachment Now!”
Among the lyrics:
The president is incompetent
Corporate tax breaks permanent
I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant.
"When I wrote the song, and singing these lyrics for the first time, I really was kind of scared and freaked out, because it's not subtle at all,” Means said. “And so once I wrote it, that meant I’ve got to sing it in front of people, wherever I go. So far, I've been in safe places.”
In that respect, both Means and Old Flame encounter a similar conundrum: it's uncomfortable to sing political songs in places where the audience may disagree with you. But performing in like-minded communities — especially in western Massachusetts — means you may not get anyone to think differently.
Still, as Perry said, there are advantages to preaching to the choir.
“It's a rally cry to organize,” he said. “Yeah, we are preaching to the choir. But you know what? You're surrounded by your choir mates. And there's a lot of us, and we can effect change.”
Both Old Flame and Pamela Means produce their own albums.
Ayres said that while they've had dreams about signing with a big music label, there could be a cost to breaking into the mainstream.
“I think that the fear of disapproval, or getting blacklisted by the industry, is so great that maybe people don't put themselves on the line as much as maybe they should,” she said.
At the moment, Ayres said, that’s not a big concern for Old Flame.
“When you're a rag-tag indie artist, you have nothing to lose, so you just go for it,” she said. “We’re not getting paid millions of dollars!”
But Perry added: “I like to think when we do get to that point, that we'll still speak out.”