Where's the next protest anthem?

There was a time when music could inspire revolutions. Now it's just a marketing tool

By Dorothy Woodend

Published November 10, 2013 9:00PM (EST)

This piece originally appeared on The Tyee.

The TyeeThe other day I watched a clip from a little-known Jean-Luc Godard film called One P.M. that a friend posted on Facebook. The fragment featured a rooftop performance from Jefferson Airplane that kicked off with the reasonable exhortation, "Wake up you fuckers!" The spontaneous happening attracted a large crowd in the street below, and eventually the cops showed up and hustled the crazy hippies into a squad car. All the while, Godard himself hung out of a window from a building across the street, getting funky with the zoom lens and capturing the action as it unfolded in all its glorious, gonzo weirdness.

The band's performance was part of a larger work that Godard undertook in partnership with D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, a project that Godard eventually abandoned. The entire story is helpfully delineated by The New Yorker's Richard Brody, whose article accompanied a rare screening of the film.

A bit in the middle of Brody's piece caught my eye, when the critic explained the impetus behind the project: "Godard, whose interests had shifted in large measure to politics (specifically to left-wing politics), believed that America was on the verge of a real revolution and was glad to be able to film it... The footage that Pennebaker put together is wondrous on its own, as well as revealing on the subject of Godard's artistic evolution at the time. Not sex and not drugs but rock and roll, plus radical politics (combining the student movement and black militancy) were, in effect, Godard's new Hollywood -- his sudden overseas mythology that might inspire a conjoined political and cinematic revolution."

The revolution that Godard was hoping for failed to transpire, and he dropped out of the project and toodled off to make films that aligned more closely with his political ideologies. Jefferson Airplane, in the revised format of Jefferson Starship, went on to write some of the worst songs in the history of music, namely "We Built This City" and "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us."

But for a brief moment in 1968, all things seemed possible. The world was poised for a change and it had a soundtrack to launch it into blazing conflagration, from MC5 showing up to play the 1968 Democratic Convention, to Dylan and Baez, Buffy Sainte-Marie,even little ole Melanie.

Every revolution, like every film, needs a good soundtrack. But the marriage of music and politics that buoys every major social movement, from Civil Rights to the Riot Grrrls, is curiously missing at the moment. So where is our soundtrack for our revolution?

Good old protest jams

I can't remember the last time I heard a pop song with even the barest hint of social criticism or political savvy. The only thing that has come close in recent years is the occasional bit of rap, such as Killer Mike's song"Reagan." But on mainstream radio, or iTunes singles, there is nothing. This degree of absence is conspicuous, especially when you look at the long and storied history that music and politics have shared.

Long before the hippies took to the rooftops, revolutionaries of every possible stripe and strain were lustily singing along to the anthem of the day. Italian Nationalists singing "Va Pensiero" from Verdi's opera Nabucco, whose lines "Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!", seem a strange echo of Godspeed You! Black Emperor turning down the Polaris with a resounding thud that read "we love you so much / our country is fucked."

Everyone of a certain vintage learned good old protest music -- Dylan, Baez, Seeger, Ochs, et al -- from their parents or grandparents, or maybe from a fuzzy-haired choir teacher. Or maybe you found it yourself in a record store with a copy of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. The '80s featured some truly iconic protest tunes: old man Springsteen released Born in the U.S.A., and Peter Gabriel's "Biko" summed up in three minutes what it took Richard Attenborough three hours to do in the film Cry Freedom. NWA took off for Compton, and no one wanted to play Sun City.

In more recent memory the Riot Grrrls, or the post-punk rancidity of Rage Against the Machine, took the stage. But in the last 10 years politics seems to have faded away. Unless, of course, you happen to live in Russia, in which case protest music will get you killed or sent off to Siberia for a good long stretch.

American history in particular is studded through with intermingling of music and politics. Writing in The New Yorker about vice president Henry A. Wallace, Alex Ross recounts that Wallace's speech, "The Century of the Common Man," with its rising incantations to cast off the shackles of power and control, turned into Aaron's Copland's classic piece "Fanfare for the Common Man."

Ross pulls out some of the most stirring bits and pieces of the speech to give a gist of its tone and flavour. He quotes Wallace: "There must be neither military nor economic imperialism... international cartels that serve American greed and the German will to power must go... the people's revolution is on the march, and the devil and all his angels cannot prevail against it."

In its entirety, Wallace's speech, with its quaint references to stooges, Satan and she-bears, seems dated and a bit daft, whereas Copland's rendition still stands as sleek and silver as a trumpet blast.

Humpy humps, twerky twerks

Music transcends time and space and it is not to be trifled with, but that is exactly what we are doing with it as of late. What the hell happened? How did we get from Patti Smith to Miley Cyrus? The ultimate question is cui bono? And I'm not talking about a Sonny and Cher tribute band. A pied piper of marketing and pop hooks has led all the little children away underneath the mountains of money. Before we stretch this particular analogy until it squeaks, let's hear from a real, live young musician.

Selina Crammond, whose band Movieland will play a gig at the 30th anniversary of Simon Fraser University's Institute of the Humanities (catch them at Vancouver's Railway Club on Nov. 30), explains that explicit politics have been replaced by action, with bands refusing to play bars and opting instead to perform all-ages shows. But actual genuine politics, at least in mainstream music, are as rare as hen's teeth at the moment.

I'm sure there are musicians and singer/songwriters somewhere out there penning furious lyrics about the state of the world in their parent's basements. Given the state of the place, you would think the time is ripe to inspire all manner of pointed political pop songs. But I cannot for the life of me remember the last time I heard any mainstream music that had much to say other than just dance. That's fine, but seems a little irrelevant in light of the current global shifts taking place.

Meanwhile, pop music spins round and round. As the great anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko said, "The greatest weapon in the hand of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." Especially if the oppressor has a catchy beat and constant radio repetition. Sometimes I can't help but think that the youngsters have been trained from a very early age to think only of slaking individual appetites from every conceivable angle, drugs, sex, shopping. The higher purpose of music has been diluted and degraded to humpy humps and twerky twerks.

There is something so deeply nefarious about the perversion of music that I think warrants closer attention, especially since humans are essentially hardwired for it. Music opens up every section of the brain from the cerebellum to mesolimbic system to the frontal lobes. There is a reason that music lights up your body like heroin, since essentially that is what is happening inside your brain with the release of brain drugs. As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explains in his book This is Your Brain on Music, music is "involved in arousal, pleasure, the transmission of opioids and the production of  dopamine."

But it is more than that. The ability of the human brain to hear and process musical sounds far surpasses any super computer ever built, and borders on the near mystical. It's little wonder that music found a home in religion for however many millennia. If the only way to hear a Palestrina mass was to attend church, it's little wonder that people trotted off to chapel.

A tear-shit-up anthem

Whether in war, love or revolution, there's a reason we all sing together. Music also provides social cohesion quite unlike anything else. Given its power, it's a little creepy to take a spin through the top 100 singles. There is something positively unholy happening. Nothing in Harmony Korine's film Spring Breakers, a Dantesque descent into Floridian Hell, was quite as horrifying as the opening musical montage featuring Skrillex's cheerful little tune "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites." This is a song that grinds industrial beats against screaming samples of teenage girlies. You don't even need to watch the rest of the film; that one musical leitmotif pretty much sums it all up.

Since people have been writing music, they've been using it to call for change. I'm waiting for a song to come -- an anthem, a singular uniting cry for freedom -- but it's taking its sweet time. Because if ever a place and time needed a uniting clarion call, an anthem to kick things into action, send folks into the street to tear shit up, scream and yell and set things on fire, it's here and now. So what's going on? What does it take, if not the dissolution of all that we hold dear in sweet, old Canada? Or the writhing, twisting of rich white creeps, like grubs in the sunlight, who hold political office but don't hold themselves accountable to any moral or ethical codes in the land? Surely, someone is writing an ode to Rob Ford at the moment. The story begs for immortalization in searing stanzas.

The answer isn't simple. Fracturing and fragmenting have turned music into shards of stuff. There are no longer any albums or CDs, only single digital bits as light as air and just as ephemeral, floating off into the atmosphere like so much sonic fluff. The damn stuff doesn't stick.

Revolution and change is the responsibility of young folk, but as of now so many of the poor little wieners seem hopelessly distracted by swirling lights and dance floor riffs. It is in the interest of the few who make heaps of money from this industry to keep the young'uns pacified and distracted, lest they realize how much shit they'll inherit once the damn boomers finally kick off.

But things have a way of changing when you least expect it. Like the Velvet Underground of old, who inspired however many folk to start bands of their own. Perhaps one day a girl punk band will take to the stage, kick out the jams and light a match that changes the world.

I can't wait.

Dorothy Woodend

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Miley Cyrus Music Patti Smith Revolution Rock N Roll The Tyee