“Every successful movement has a soundtrack,” the songwriter Tom Morello told reporters after he had tried to fire up the crowd at the Occupy Wall Street Protest last week with a Woody Guthrie tune and one of his own labor songs.
Perhaps he is right, but the protesters in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan have yet to find an anthem. Nor is the rest of the country humming songs about hard times. So far, musicians living through the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression have filled the airwaves with songs about dancing, not the worries of working people.
Where have all the protest songs gone?
To be sure, a handful of songwriters are tackling the issue. Ry Cooder, the blues and rock guitarist known for his exploration of roots music, lambastes bankers and conservatives in his latest album, “Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down” (Nonesuch). Similarly, Mr. Morello, who began his career as the guitarist and chief ideologue for the band Rage Against the Machine, makes an unapologetic call for leftist revolution in his new album, “World Wide Rebel Songs” (New West Records)…
Yet none of these songs have been big hits, and none are likely to have the impact that a song like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” had in the early 1960s.
The scarcity of songs about the economic disaster stands in contrast to the flurry of pop songs in the mid-2000s blaming President George W. Bush’s foreign policy for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Antiwar songs came not only from stalwarts like R.E.M. and Neil Young but also from younger performers like Green Day, Bright Eyes and Pink…
“A Darth Vader-like president makes a great target,” Mr. Morello said. “One of the reasons the air has gone out of the balloon of protest songwriting is people hung their hopes on the Obama administration…”
The lack of a coherent message on the left has been evident at the Wall Street protest. “I have not heard a single song that sums up what we are trying to do here,” said Martían Hughes, a 24-year-old college student, after Mr. Morello’s performance. “Nor have I heard a single message.”
A couple of instant reactions to the article:
These are mostly middle-class kids griping about the availability of good jobs when they graduate from college. They will disappear from protests on the street as the economy very slowly improves – just as did their peers when the VietNam War ended and the draft dissolved. Educated self-interest is self-limiting for the middle-class declassé.
OTOH, serious protest in the statehouses and legislatures against Republican attempts to crush unions among state employees and teachers have lasted under a lot tougher circumstances than anything the collegiate crowd confronts. Those are families with mortgages to pay for and their own kids to try to send through college. They’re mommies and daddies whose own children have joined them on the picket line.
I’m afraid many of those sustained by the vague, generalized ennui and discomfort that sings about Occupying Wall Street – have parents who work down the street in one of the brokerage houses or are busy back home in Indiana selling life insurance. The occupiers will be around for what seems like a long time to TV talking heads. But, geeks who write games and sociology majors in Boston will find jobs – and vanish – before laid-off teachers do in Wisconsin.