There’s been a lot of talk lately about the lack of music produced in conjunction with the Occupiers and various social reform movements that characterized the past year. Seeger, Guthrie, Baez, et al. played their way through the creation of a musical/political connective tissue that’s garnered such a strong legacy that we expect the two to never be separable. We see images of social unrest, and we wonder when the soundtrack’s coming out. So the lack of music surrounding the Occupy phenomenon has become a phenomenon in its own right.
A few have tried to rebut this overwhelming impression of musical vacuity. Quinn Norton, of Wired.com posted a detailing of what he saw as a wealth of creative output within the Occupy movement in his Threat Level column two weeks ago. But no one’s ever heard of the artists he referenced. And I’m all for the no-names, but Peter, Paul, and Mary’s recording of “Blowin’ In the Wind” reached number two on Billboard’s Pop chart in 1963, “A Change is Gonna Come” made the 31 spot on the 1964 Singles chart, and “Give Peace a Chance” -released by Lennon as the Plastic Ono Band, hit 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969. The great protest songs of the 60’s and 70’s were made doubly great by their immense popularity. Their ability to attract otherwise inert revolutionaries to a cause through their reach within the populace is how they left their mark.
So if the most popular artist Norton can come up with is Miley Cyrus, then I don’t think the argument that the Occupiers do, in fact, have a soundtrack holds much water. (Cyrus released a video in support of the Occupy Movement, which was quickly denounced by the organization’s leadership. Priscilla Grimm, co-editor of the Occupy Wall Street Journal, dismissed the young popster with a not at all high-horse, insinuating jibe. [“Revolutionaries occupy, Ms. Cyrus.”] It seems the rebels, beggars for tuneage, still occupy the right to be choosers.) Ms. Cyrus’ contribution to the cause, “It’s a Liberty Walk!”, below:
So, why, then? Why are the recording artists of the world refusing to lend a hand in a good ol’ political struggle à la the fashion of their forebears? The New York Times, in an article published last October, does a good job of painting a picture in which the Occupy movement is a disjointed agenda at best, and musicians won’t risk attaching themselves to a leaky ship. The article goes on to characterize the issue of the day –financial inequality- as inspirational fodder not ripe enough for the sensitive palates of today’s artists, and blames a choke-hold placed on artists’ content by establishment-pocketed record executives for the lack of protest music available, quoting Justin Sane of Anti-Flag, who “[doesn’t] believe that the people who control the purse strings in the mainstream of music” are making moves to sign acts not civilly at rest. These are all valid points. But they approach the topic from outside the world of the artists, rather than from within. This phenomenon of artistic silence in the face of social change provides a wonderful understanding of the music industry today, but such an understanding is not found in exterior approaches to causality. Sure, record execs are greedy. And yeah, No one wants to write songs about money. But we know that already.
People listening to popular music today, for the most part, were born after the end of the war in Vietnam, which was arguably the peak of any development in the concept of peaceful protest. People listening to popular music today do not associate civil action with images of young men and women placing daisies in the barrels of machine guns. We associate civil action with riots in Los Angeles, all-out warfare, and yes- pepper spray in the faces of grandmothers. We don’t sit around stereos at parties listening to “Blowin’ In the Wind”; we’re the sons and daughters of Weathermen, who thought they knew which way the wind was blowing and murdered innocents. Who knew that the soul and R&B roots of HipHop could produce material like Body Count’s “Cop Killer”, on which Ice-T growls “Die, die, die, pig, die!”? Or that a guitarist as talented as Tom Morello would shred to the tune of “Killing In the Name”? Things have blown way out of proportion. Where the musicscape once had order and quality, we now have the nihilism of Punk, the completely misdirected values of HipHop, and the inane factory-churned crap that is Power Pop (See Miley Cyrus’ video above). And yet, within all this uncertainty- all this absence of substance, there may be the greatest hope for music in a long time.
Like the critters of Bambi’s forest scattering before a big storm, musicians have splintered further and further away from each other -and further and further away from the mainstream. Who could blame them? If all that’s being produced is crap, better to not produce at all until the storm ends. In a mad-dash benefit marathon for the International Organization for the Health of Artistic Integrity, everyone’s running away in all directions. But where are they running to? They’re running back to their craft. When waiting out a rainstorm, it’s always best if someone brings a guitar. Shunning the limelight, artists have returned to a more traditional mode of creation. They are honing their capacity for beauty, introspection, and skill within their work. Genres don’t exist anymore. I don’t know what I mean when I talk about ‘Pop Music’ half the time. Why talk about Pop music when you can use terms like GloFi, Post-Punk, TripHop, Freak Folk, and Math Rock, and have them actually mean something? And genres don’t exist because musical creation has become so isolated that collaboration (read: internet comms.) operates on a microscopic scale. No longer does one artist within one genre collaborate with another. Rather, one Dubstep producer might have a Jazz vocalist lay down a few bars on a beat he created overnight, using a sample from a hook from a Led Zeppelin track (forget about licensing). So what ends up happening is music’s splintered, disjointed, contemporary practice of recording sets up the only possible way to create new sound anymore. Many people don’t consider anything done after the Modern Age to be of any value; that everything good that could ever be written has already been done. But the animals of the forest have been very busy in their holes and crevices during the storm. Soon, the cacophony of novel music will be too loud to ignore. The birds will still be in hiding in the leaves, but you’ll hear their music anyway. And you’ll beg them to come out. Maybe, in the process of coaxing the real artists back into the spotlight, we’ll see the readvent of commercially viable, quality music. Record stores will proliferate, and we’ll all act like Bambi’s family was never murdered by hunters.
I say give the artists as much time as they need away from the spotlight, even if it means putting up with drum circles at our Occupy protests a little while longer.
And for what it’s worth, there is an official list of musicians associated with the Occupy movement here.