Whatever happened to the protest song? Music stations and the Billboard charts of decades past were chock full of politically-themed songs, most notably during the Vietnam War and its many statewide protests. Recently, liberal filmmaker Adam McKay (“Anchorman,” “The Other Guys”) started his own website–a protest song submission page–asking that very same question. What is it that has led to the decline of political music’s popularity?
Fortunately, “New Party Systems” is here to answer that question. A New York indie “supergroup” consisting of David First of the Notekillers, Kyp Malone from TV on the Radio, and the bassist and drummer from Liturgy (saw them in concert recently–the singer intentionally sounded like a screeching banshee, and I’m pretty sure they spent one song playing the same chord in different strumming patterns for seven minutes–nuff said). New Party Systems recently released “We Are,” another in a long line of songs written to inspire and represent the Occupy Wall Street movement.
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Penned by guitarist First,”We Are” isn’t terrible musically, but it absolutely fails as a protest song for many, many reasons. There’s so much to work with here, actually, that we can use “We Are” as a case study in The Top 5 Ways Indie Rock Killed Protest Songs. Read on, aspiring hipster musicians, and immerse yourself in cautionary tale-age.
5. You’re Not Intelligible
Now, there’s certainly room for the too-cool-for-enunciation style of singing in the music world; catch me on the right day, and Andrew Bird’s “The Mysterious Production of Eggs” ranks as the greatest album of the aughts. But when you’re crafting something that’s meant to be a singalong, make sure your words are 1) striking and easy to remember, and 2) easy to make out without a lyrics sheet. Malone’s verses are just fine on the second point, but the chorus, presumably sung by First, I could only make out “We are the dome’s electric prize, the gathering of consciousness creating / We are an overwhelming tide, A feat, another sound to make a change” after about half a dozen listens. The official Bandcamp page tells me that should actually read “We are the dawn’s electric rise, A gathering of consciousness creating / We are an overwhelming tide, Of heat and light and sound to break the chain.”
Right. Everybody, now that I’ve given you the real worlds, try and sing along… without a lyrics printout. Yeah, not gonna happen.
4. You’re Not Timely Enough
Apparently, the “We are the 99%” chant at the end of the song was recorded mid-November, which already was late in the game for OWS. The Bigs had been updating the movement’s “Rap Sheet” of crimes and indefensible public behavior for several weeks, and now in the second week of January, OWS has been a punchline not only for conservatives but on shows such as South Park and on Internet meme incubator Reddit. Camps have been evicted, health officials have compared the remaining ones to “refugee camps,” local governments are publicly releasing the tremendous costs of the protests to taxpayers–just about everything that could happen to tarnish the movement’s public image has happened over the time “New Party Systems” took to release a song that could have been written and recorded over a weekend. In a musical world where positive buzz is so directly tied to the immediacy of blogs, you had better move double time to keep on top of the news cycle.
3. You Can’t Play Up the Everyman Angle
There’s a reason Scientologists don’t talk about Xenu and Thetans until someone’s proven themselves loyal enough to reach a higher level within the organization; that kind of language would turn off thousands of new recruits were it used as the hook instead of the more palatable, psychobabble-y Dianetics. In the same way, “We Are” is chock full of weird, clunky, over-serious poetic imagery that feels more suited to a skit at a Renaissance fair than a protest march. It makes sense that the same people who use “twinkles,” hand signals which smack of a cult created by 8-year-olds, would then think that lines like “Watch the water carving through the mountain’s heart of stone” would be the potential musical moment that convinced the unconverted to finally hate corporate personhood. In the quest to look and sound as elite as they consider themselves, indie rockers have forgotten that sometimes straightforward is the only way to make a point, especially when it deals with complex socioeconomic concepts.
2. No, Seriously, You’ve Completely Destroyed Any Everyman Appeal You Ever Had
I’ll just rattle some names off here: Sufjan Stevens. Of Montreal. Janelle Monae. Frankmusik. MGMT. Fever Ray. Bjork. Crystal Castles. Devendra Banhart. Goldfrapp. Twin Shadow. No, not everyone in the indie music scene dresses like this, but enough do that it’s created an archetype in the public consciousness. And I personally have no problem with crazy, bold style, but ultimately it hurts the effectiveness of a protest song. Bottom line: when you meticulously craft your image around the idea that you’re so much more unique than everyone else and no one can identify with you, nobody is going to identify with you.
1. You Realize You’re Protesting for the Man, Right?
The biggest farce of OWS was that its members–at least, the ones who had any idea why they were there–believed that the solution to the problems caused by powerful, corrupt bureaucratic organizations was… a bigger, more powerful (and–shhh!–more corrupt) bureaucratic organization. With endless calls to tax the 1% to redistribute their wealth to the 99%, the average Occupier articulated little more than a toddler’s cries for Daddy to take the toys away from a brother or sister. Rock and roll has always been “you leave me alone so I can live my life the way I want,” not “you have to take care of me so I can live my life the way I want.” With glaring inconsistencies like montages of 99%-ers taping themselves singing along with smart phones or support for teachers unions, which actively create income inequality by refusing pay freezes that could save some teachers’ jobs, the message becomes less and less compelling.
So the primary reason, Adam McKay, that protest songs, especially left-wing protest songs, haven’t been as effective or popular as they were in the past, is that they’re not about telling the government to leave well enough alone–stop the draft, stop the war, yadda, yadda. They’ve always got to throw in some affirmative goal that the government must achieve–free health insurance, income redistribution, environmental regulations, etc. Reasonable adults, regardless of political affiliation, can usually get behind a “hey, this is wrong, they need to stop this” message; it’s much harder to convince them that the lack of disability checks for adult babies deserves their time and support.
So keep these five points in mind, oh you of Youth and Plastic-Rimmed Glasses, and you may end up crafting the first great protest song of the new millennium. Your peers may pirate it–you know, to crush capitalism and whatnot–but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of…