In the book 33 Revolutions Per Minute, journalist and music critic Dorian Lynskey discusses the history of protest music. One of the important statements that Lynskey makes in this book is about the relevance of protest music to world conditions. Lynskey wrote like this:
“Does protest music have the power to change minds, let alone policies? Is protest music, in essence, an admirable and necessary art form or simply bad art and entertainment?”
These two questions that music critics posed for The Guardian are important because they touch on the central role of music. Because apart from being a form of entertainment, music—especially what is labeled as protest music—is also used as a medium for conveying critical messages regarding socio-political conditions worldwide.
In Indonesia, for example, many musicians use their music as a weapon to criticize the government and policies that are not in favor of the community or discuss social phenomena that occur in society. The list of musicians who use music as a medium of protest would be too long to list them all. So, we will only discuss these three musicians as examples because these three are the ones we can consider the most famous. In the past, they were known as musicians who had no fear and, without being direct, often infuriated the rulers who were despotic towards the people. The three are Slank, Iwan Fals, and Marjinal.
The above questions give rise to the thesis statement: it is good that we explore the change in social and political approach to this famous musician’s work and daily life, from a sharp and revolutionary attitude to a more subtle and comprehensive one.
Why should this thesis statement be excavated? Because many people think that these three musicians are no longer as critical as they used to be, and their musical works have undergone a significant change in theme, from sharp and revolutionary to more mellow.
How critical was their music in the past? And what social and political impact did their music have? Let’s discuss them one by one.
First, Slank. In the 90s to early 2000s, Slank was known as a musician who was quite critical, criticizing the government and conveying the socio-political conditions of Indonesia in their music. In songs such as “Siapa yang Salah” (Who’s Wrong), “Seperti Para Koruptor” (Like the Corruptors), “Gossip Jalanan” (Street Gossip), or “Aktor Intelektual” (Intellectual Actors), Slank succinctly and boldly criticizes troubled Indonesian politicians or social phenomena such as the 1998 riots which devastated many Indonesian citizens’ lives.
However, many Slank fans—at least those who share their opinion in this tweet thread—consider that the critical Slank stuck on the album Mata Hati Reformasi (1998) and the double album 999+09 (1999). After that, Slank softened. Their songs talk more about romance or other trivialities of life.
Reported by Hai, drummer for Slank, Bimbim stated that Slank’s political stance in the current era cannot be compared to their attitude in the mid-90s. It’s normal for them to change.
“Our political attitude in 1997 and 2021 clearly cannot be equated. The enemies are different; the conditions are different,” Bimbim explained.
In recent years, Slank has received much attention regarding this softening political attitude. In the 2019 election, Slank through Bimbim stated, “Abstentions are cemen.” Everyone must vote to elect a candidate for a leader in the general election. This statement certainly angers those who no longer believe in politicians, political parties, and the five-year electoral politics called general elections.
Slank is back in the spotlight when in 2021, their guitarist Abdee Negara was appointed as Telkom’s commissioner. Several reports stated that Abdee ‘Slank’ was said to have been involved in a team of volunteers supporting Joko Widodo in the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections. Thus, the appointment of Abdee as commissioner of one of the BUMNs was considered a political retribution, not because of his competence.
Later Slank returned to being the talk of the town after releasing a new single titled “Polisi yang Baik Hati” (Good-Hearted Police). Timeline of social media then flooded with criticism by netizens for Slank. This is because the lyrics of this song are full of sky-high praise for the police institution. Though, later, public trust in the Police is quite low. Even until the hashtag appears #PercumaLaporPolisi (It’s useless to report to police), which often becomes a trending topic whenever the police institution has problems or does not professionally handle certain cases.
Slank got the nickname “Band pelat merah” (“red plate band”) because of the softening of their political stance and their closeness to the regime.
Second, Iwan Fals. Perhaps he is the most famous musician with protest songs that dare criticize various government policies and social phenomena. Who can deny the power of the song“Bongkar” (Demolish” released by Iwan with the Swami group in 1989? Then the song “Sore Tugu Pancoran” (1985) describes Iwan Fals’ partiality towards the fate of the nation’s children who suffer from being forced to look for work.
There is another “Surat untuk Wakil Rakyat” (Letter for the People’s Representatives) (1987) as a critique of the performance of the people’s representatives who sit in the seats of the People’s Representative Council (DPR). Don’t forget “Tikus-Tikus Kantor” (Office Rats) (1993) as a satirical song on the culture of corruption at that time, and in fact, the song is still relevant to today’s conditions.
The three songs previously mentioned were composed by this musician, whose real name is Virgiawan Listanto, during the New Order era. However, after the reform, actually, Iwan Fals still managed to compose an album Manusia Setengah Dewa (Half God) (2004), with songs like “Asik Ga Asik,” which boldly proclaims “The world of politics is the world of animals, the world of rah-rah animals.”
The critical times for the troubadour, which has headquarters in Leuwinanggung, West Java, are fading away as time passes. Iwan Fals softened. The sacred “Bongkar” suddenly turned into a slogan for an advertisement for an instant coffee brand. Iwan is also no longer picky about the stage. He’s been on the same stage as the governor of Central Java, Ganjar Pranowo; Even though we know that Ganjar Pranowo is one of the officials who often issues unwise policies regarding environmental issues, land grabbing and the fate of indigenous peoples in Central Java.
Iwan’s songs also talk more about romance or love, such as the songs “Izinkan Aku Menyayangimu (Allow Me to Love You), “Aku Bukan Pilihan” (I’m Not a Choice), or “Kumenanti Seorang Kekasih” (I Wait for a Lover).
Third, Marjinal. One of Indonesia’s most famous punk bands, formed in 1997 and previously named AA (Anti ABRI) and AM (Anti Militerisme). From their old names alone, they already show their political attitude: anti-authoritarian New Order and anti-army (before they were named the Indonesian National Armed Forces or TNI, during the New Order era, the Indonesian armed forces were called the Indonesian Armed Forces or ABRI).
Why did Mike Marjinal and his friends previously name their band Anti ABRI and show an anti-militarism attitude? This is because when Soeharto was in power, ABRI adopted a dual function (dwifungsi ABRI). This means that apart from being a state defense and security force, ABRI is also a socio-political force. With this dual function, ABRI is the instrument the New Order uses to perpetuate its power for 32 years and repress anyone who tries to be subversive of that power.
Marjinal became the subject of discussion when a photo circulated of Mike Marjinal shaking hands with Moeldoko, a businessman, politician, and retired high-ranking Indonesian Army officer who currently serves as Chief of Staff for the Indonesian Presidency. The photo shows that Marjinal has damaged the sacred slogan of “anti-militarism” they used to echo. Marjinal has made peace with the military, an enemy they have criticized in the past.
Reflecting on the stories of three Indonesian musicians who are known as critical musicians but are accused of softening, we can relate this to Dorian Lynskey’s question: Does protest music have the power to change minds, let alone policies? Or maybe protest music is just a form of entertainment that is three in money with commercial pop music, for example, which has cheap lyrics that tell the love story of lovebirds?
Then, it’s good for us to explore the change in social and political approach in the work and daily life of these three famous musicians, from a sharp and revolutionary attitude to a more subtle and comprehensive one.
Of course, it is legitimate for Slank, Iwan Fals and Marjinal to change their political attitudes, their musical direction, and the material of the songs they create. We cannot forbid them because political attitudes are the musician’s prerogative, a right that is their full authority and cannot be contested. We cannot arbitrarily accuse them of being uncritical and revolutionary, forcing them to maintain the same political views as they preached decades ago.
Times have changed. The answer to Dorian Lynskey’s question is that protest music is not just a cheap form of entertainment. Protest music has the power to change minds. Protest music will always exist and be present in every era.
So, when times change, when the critical and revolutionary era of musicians like Slank, Iwan Fals, and Marjinal ends, there will still be musicians in the younger generation who voice harsh criticism of those in power and defend the underprivileged at the grassroots.
As music listeners, what we can do when we feel fed up with musicians whose political attitudes have changed is to leave them. If you don’t like them anymore, you don’t have to listen to their work and watch their concerts anymore; there’s no need to force them to return to being icons of resistance when they have strengthened their political stance to become more lenient.
After all, many other Indonesian musicians still voice protest music in the current era, and we can listen to and support the movement. Efek Rumah Kaca, Morgue Vanguard, Dendang Kampungan, Navicula, Oscar Lolang, Teknoshit, to name a few.
Earlier, when I learned that Slank had released the song “Polisi yang Baik Hati” in commemoration of Bhayangkara’s 77th birthday, I immediately naively and recklessly reviewed the song as “the song of lousy cheesy kitsch.” In a tweet on Twitter, I immediately ordered Slank to disband and retire instead of remaining in the band but creating bad songs that became the laughing stock of music listeners. While writing this essay, I have rethought my statement. Yes, I must admit I was naive and stupid for forcing my will by ordering Slank to disband.
Here, I think that if you don’t like the song “Polisi yang Baik Hati” because it classifies one of the most problematic institutions in this country, then leave Slank! Don’t listen to the song! It’s okay to criticize, but don’t force it. Let them go their way, and we walk our path to keep writing or listening to critical and revolutionary protest music. I think this will be better so that we remain sane and not bothered to be trapped in the paradox of changing directions and political views of musicians whose critical and revolutionary era has ended.
PS: Previously featured in Bahasa Indonesia on Pop Hari Ini.