No Thanks, Protest Music. I’ll Dance.
There was a good piece on Tuesday in the New York Times by James McKinley on the absence of protest songs in the Occupy movement. I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own on the subject. As an ethnomusicologist, I believe that the sensibilities and values of an era, a generation, or a culture are reflected in its music, and conversely, that music can take on an important role in shaping those things.
Why isn’t there a definitive soundtrack for the Occupy movement yet? There’s the argument that the listening audience is so fragmented now, that no one song, artist, or genre could speak for everyone involved. Not only is the audience fragmented, it has far greater access to a variety of musics not sanctioned by the big record labels (or any record labels), so even if there were several obvious choices for spokesingers, listeners would still be able to find endless alternatives to them.
In the 1960s, when protest music occupied a significant place in mainstream music, rap, punk, and reggae, all forms of music that lend themselves to, and have been appropriated for, protest did not exist. Rock was still in its infancy. So, it was up to folk music to speak for everyone. The reasons why folk succeeded in being the choice genre for a movement are the same reasons why the above genres do now. Rap and punk especially are focused on lyrics, have a simpler structure compared to other genres (that’s not a value judgement), and their basic formulae lend themselves to a variety of geographical, linguistic, and political environments. They are also genres conducive to the expression of anger; the acoustic guitar and solo voice formula of folk, while effective for generating audience participation, doesn’t quite have the satisfactory aggression that other genres offer.
So that’s one way to explain the absence to date of defining songs so far. McKinley also notes that the increasing conservatism of the major record labels means that those artists with a message better find someone else to support their music. Also true. What I would argue against, though, is this notion that somehow protest music should take precedence over dance music, which is derided at the beginning of the article. Sorry, but pop music is generally used first and foremost for entertainment purposes, and the desire to hear music designed for escape in our troubled times is nothing new.
In fact, look at the eras when protest music actually did make it on to the charts. It still couldn’t compete with dance music, ever. What brought the record industry out of the Depression in 1935? Swing. Not the labour movement songs of Woody Guthrie and his peers. How about 1963, when Dylan’s (and P/P/M’s) “Blowin’ in the Wind” took off? P/P/M’s version stayed at number 1 for five weeks on Billboard’s Easy Listening charts; meanwhile, The Four Seasons, The Chiffons, and The Angels topped the pop charts, as did Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” and Jan and Dean’s “Surf City”.
When the Vietnam War was ending, what was everybody listening to? Disco. Sorry. (I know you cool folk on No Depression weren’t, but pretty much everyone else was.) Even when the anger of Public Enemy, NWA, and Nirvana actually did make it on to the charts, us teenagers were still pretty enamoured with Janet Jackson, Color Me Badd, Paula Abdul, and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.
The thing is, we want to believe that our songwriters are capturing what we feel is a significant moment in time, especially when that moment has the potential to bring about great societal change. And they are. Unfortunately, it’s not what we’re listening to. Some of us hear those songs, but the majority will discover those protest soundtracks after the fact, finally catapulting the artists who wrote them into the canon that Dylan, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Tom Morello now occupy. But for now, I think most of us are just dancing.