Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Tunes They Are A-Changin’

Last November I accompanied Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello to OLSX for a music magazine feature about the movement. On the way down we talked about the role of music and the media’s hunger for an Occupy anthem. Morello, who is as much an activist as a musician, thought it was a red herring. “The media likes to quantify things,” he said. “’What’s the anthem?’ Occupy is not an advertising agency – it’s a social movement. It doesn’t speak in soundbites. It’s the 99% in which there’s a wide variety of opinions on a wide variety of matters. I don’t think it needs a Kanye West jam that says ‘let’s occupy y’all’ to bring it all together.… My broader concern is what are we all doing about the problem of gross economic inequality. There aren’t enough musicians making songs? Who the fuck cares?”

Having recently written a book about the history of protest songs and visited St Paul’s a few times, I was asked the anthem question by a number of media outlets last autumn and never quite knew how to answer. The 60s model of protest is so established in the popular imagination that a vibrant new protest movement invites nostalgia in many observers: The civil rights movement had anthems – where’s yours? But the point of Occupy is that it represents a new way of doing things, with radically new approaches to structure and strategy, and it renders the question irrelevant. You might as well ask where Occupy’s Martin Luther King is.

Over the past couple of months the question has faded away — if something isn’t quickly forthcoming the media doesn’t like to hang around looking needy like a jilted date. But it leaves me wondering where music fits in and if it is of any more than trivial significance. I don’t think any protesters are getting distracted from their work by thinking, “This is great and all but when are Arcade Fire going to write a song about us?” I’m convinced there must be sympathetic musicians who would like to sing about Occupy but don’t want a sincere gesture to be interpreted as bandwagonning opportunism. I can sympathise with Chris Martin, who briefly joined an Occupy Wall Street demonstration that he happened to be passing and then left, unsure what, if anything, a multimillionaire rock star could bring to the table. In historical terms real anthems are rare anyway. We remember successes like Give Peace a Chance and Free Nelson Mandela but recording a would-be anthem that isn’t embraced is as embarrassing as throwing a party and having nobody turn up.

I think the best way musicians can respond to Occupy is to see the big picture. This isn’t like a march with an old-fashioned slogan and an agenda. Its scope is dizzyingly wide and rests on two claims: (1) The current system isn’t working (2) We all have a responsibility to imagine alternatives. It’s the start of a conversation rather than a roadmap for the whole thing, and that doesn’t lend itself to a punchy unproblematic singalong.

But that conversation-starter has permeated the whole culture, whether you measure it by media coverage, Google search terms or exchanges in the pub, and this is slowly manifesting itself in songs such as Aloe Blacc’s sometimes maddeningly ubiquitous I Need a Dollar or Everlast’s viral hit I Get By. These may not be songs about Occupy but they are songs about the 99%. A pop song is exceptionally good at relating a political issue to everyday experience. You don’t have to understand the mechanics of a Robin Hood Tax to feel angry that your best friend has lost her job or your local youth club has closed down. In the 60s, for every protest song that was taken up by civil rights activists or antiwar protesters there were many more that spread the message — “The status quo is unacceptable” — to the broader public. Social change comes when an idea pollinates from a hardcore of activists to the population at large, until it can’t be ignored. It would be crazy to claim that music, or indeed any artform, drives that process but it certainly helps.

But there’s another, more localised way in which music can function as a tool for activism. Tom Morello talks about how music speaks to the “reptilian brain”. The primal appeal of singing message songs in difficult times goes back centuries. When things are going well, they stir the spirit and draw people together. When they are going badly, songs offer reassurance and strengthen resolve. Vernon Jordan, a civil rights activist in Georgia in 50s and 60s, observed what happened when frightened protesters began singing songs such as We Shall Overcome. “The people were cold with fear, until music did what prayers and speeches could not do in breaking the ice.”

When the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park was brutally evicted last November, some protesters were heard to be singing Bob Marley songs and, almost inevitably, We Shall Overcome. Cold and vulnerable, they found in those old songs the same comfort and defiance that previous generations did. That act of singing may not have changed what happened but I’m sure it changed, if only a little, how they felt.

That episode made me realise that as much as Occupy is a radical departure from previous protest movements, certain human needs remain constant and in that challenging moment those songs acted as symbolic bridges to older struggles, offering both a reminder that there will be setbacks and a promise that they can be endured. The roles that music can play in times of crisis and resistance are many and varied and if there isn’t one song that everyone can slap a label on and call an anthem, well, like Morello said, “Who the fuck cares?”

Dorian Lynskey is the author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs

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