Stephen Deusner of Salon quoted 33 Revolutions in a piece he wrote over the weekend about the role of music at Occupy Wall Street, leading with Jeff Mangum’s surprise performance a week ago. Deusner makes the point that during the Bush years protest songs became more oblique: “Instead of vocalizing opposition to the war, they worked more to document life during wartime and to examine their own uncertainty and alienation.” Similarly, he sees the economic crisis tackled indirectly in observational narratives by the likes of the Drive-By Truckers and tUne-yArDs, smartly describing the latter’s My Country as “a breakup song with a nation”. I think he’s far too harsh on Steve Earle’s John Walker’s Blues but otherwise he’s right about the way that politics is more likely to hum in the background of songs than punch through to the front. When he writes “The lesson of the 2000s seems to be to approach politics obliquely instead of head-on, to make it one concern among many,” I immediately think of Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible or Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One. The term “protest song” has always been flexible but it is becoming ever more elastic, which is only right considering that OWS represents a new form of protest itself.

That said, never underestimate the power of an old-fashioned clarion call. Indirect is fine when you’re listening at home. When you’re shivering in an encampment night after night, there’s still a desire for music to stir the blood. When Tom Morello sang Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, the message of this 70-year-old song, written in a different America – “This land was made for you and me” — seemed unimprovably relevant to the argument of the 99%. And Morello’s unamplified performance, relying on the crowd rather than a microphone to carry the song, would be familiar to Pete Seeger. So yes, new artistic strategies are always welcome but what’s interesting about the current moment is how readily protesters turn to methods which mobilised people before even Bob Dylan was born.

1 Comment

  1. Why does this post end, so tantalisingly, with “Here’s”?

    Missing swathes of writing, or just a remnant?

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