Considering the maddening details behind our nation’s current socio-economic struggles, it’s natural for many to ask: Where is the art to help us deal with our troubles? In this second installment of the “This Art Is Your Art” series, we’ll look at what role popular music had played in helping people survive tough times in the past, and what role it is playing in the struggles of today.
It was bound to happen. After nearly four years of prolonged economic struggle, lingering joblessness, an ever-increasing income gap, declining household wealth with an incongruent gain in corporate wealth, and a resulting explosion of mass frustration, people were bound to start asking: Where is the music that speaks to my problems? “Every successful movement has a soundtrack,” the New York Times recently quoted former Rage Against the Machine member Tom Morello telling reporters during a rally at the Occupy Wall Street Protest. Others concurred with Morello. NPR’s Ann Powers had run a similar story two weeks earlier. 24-year-old college student Martían Hughes told the Times: “I have not heard a single song that sums up what we are trying to do here,” and a clever wag joked on Twitter: “Really torn by the Occupy Wall Street movement because I agree with the message but I fucking hate drum circles.”
These concerns raise questions. First, has there actually been, during past struggles, music that spurred on mass protests movements or that soothed and inspired struggling masses of Americans? And, if so, is it reasonable for people to insist that such a soundtrack emerge for a protest movement that is so young it has yet to even decide what it is protesting exactly? And, perhaps most importantly, if we need music to raise us out of the muck, what is it about drum circles that fail to satisfy this desire?
Today, we can look back from our safe remove at past eras of suffering and despair—the Great Depression of the 1930s, for instance, or the sustained economic troubles of the 1970s—to examine the role music may have played in helping society deal with times of systemic troubles, how it may have given solace to the suffering or provided inspiration, and how it may even have helped affect change. And we can take heart in the fact that conditions today are the same as they ever were, and also completely different.
The Music of the 1930s: Daydreams and Defiance
The Great Depression struck the country with the suddenness of a howitzer shell. After a decade of brisk economic growth, bustling consumerism, and a resulting speculative bubble in Wall Street, the Black Tuesday stock market crash of October 29, 1929, ushered in a quick economic decline that would culminate in 1933 with a 25 percent unemployment rate (from a near-0 percent rate in 1929), a 37 percent drop in gross domestic product (from its high in 1929), and a debilitating deflationary spiral. Millions of displaced workers stood in bread lines. Families struggled with widespread anxiety and despair. Local union workers fought harassment by union-busting companies. Displaced and bankrupt workers were forced into itinerancy. And through it all an ineffectual government remained uncertain about the best course to take to solve the nation’s troubles.
At the time of the Wall Street crash, jazz was the ascendant style of music, and through the 1930s jazz vocalists such as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Rudy Vallee, Ted Lewis, Dick Powell, Louis Prima, Cab Calloway, Kate Smith, Billie Holliday, and Ethel Waters would provide a soundtrack for the Depression. As with most eras of American popular music, the radio air waves of the 1930s were filled with fluff—songs of unrequited or jilted love, songs hoping for a chance at love, and songs celebrating the acquisition of love. But there was also, as early as 1930, an undercurrent in the time's popular music suggesting that life had changed. In January, 1930, “Why Was I Born?", from the Jerome Kern musical Sweet Adeline, captured a sense of the year’s uncertainty in its lyrics:
Why was I born?
Why am I livin’?
What do I get?
What am I givin’?
Why do I want for things
I dare not hope for?
What can I hope for?
I wish I knew.
The song that many consider to be the anthem of the Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, followed in the same vein. Written in 1931 and recorded by Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby in 1932, the song recounts the heartache and frustration of a narrator who, just a few years before, had helped build railroads and skyscrapers, and had marched alongside his victorious countrymen in 1918. That the song struck a nerve with thousands of displaced American workers was evident in the fact that both Crosby’s and Vallee’s recordings reached the top of the hit charts that year.
Beyond the music of the popular airwaves, a resurgent “folk” music in the 1930s—created by figures like Jim Garland, Woody Guthie, Burl Ives, Pete Seeger, and Lead Belly—further explored the injustices faced by millions of ordinary citizens whose lives had been disrupted by the Depression. Songs like Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi,” “This Land Is Your Land,” and “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World No More” told stories about migrant workers, families reduced to poverty, and people forced to live in hovels and worker camps. Florence Reece’s 1931 song “Which Side Are You On?” channeled the anger and frustration of Kentucky miners facing union-busting activities during a labor strike. And Jim Garland’s 1933 song, “I Don’t Want Your Millions Mister (All I Want),” spun the sentiments of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” into even more defiance.
We worked to build this country, Mister,
While you enjoyed a life of ease.
You’ve stolen all that we built, Mister,
Now our children starve and freeze.
So, I don’t want your millions, Mister,
I don’t want your diamond ring.
All I want is the right to live, Mister,
Give me back my job again.
Not all Great Depression music was as despairing. A certain American optimism filled the radio air waves alongside these other, more dour songs. In February, a song appeared in a movie called Chasing Rainbows that would become another great anthem of the Great Depression. Though written in reference to the end of World War I, “Happy Days Are Here Again” struck such a catchy, joyous message of hope that it inspired many Americans too look beyond their current troubles to when times would one day improve. The song’s sentiment was so popular it appeared in more than twenty movies during the Depression’s height (1930-1933), and then in nearly twenty more as the downturn lingered through the rest of the decade. Other songs based on this forget-your-troubles-be-happy model were common throughout the Depression: “On the Sunny Side of the Street” from the 1930 Broadway musical Lew Leslie's International Revue; “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” performed by Rudy Vallee in 1931; “Help Yourself to Happiness,” from the Ziegfield Follies of 1931, “Looking at the Bright Side” performed by Gracie Field in 1932, and so on. One such song became so popular it helped make the film it appeared in—the Busby Berkeley choreographed spectacle Gold Diggers of 1933—the biggest box office hit of that year. “We’re in the Money,” written by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, epitomized the cheering quality of much music of the Depression, even as it added a thumbed-nose to the whole idea of Depression in the final line of the chorus.
We’re in the money, we’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money, that sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression, you are through, you done us wrong.
Both aspects of Depression music—the indignation and defiance in songs like “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” and the roll-up-your-sleeves optimism in songs like “We’re in the Money”—spoke volumes about the values of the times. While people suffered, faced hopeless job markets, and had their families torn apart, this was still an age when the idea “American know-how” had currency. Many of us have heard stories about how our grandparents and great grandparents survived the Great Depression through a collective sense of determination, pluck, and thriftiness. My own grandmother used to keep a drawer full of old, used tinfoil—even well into the 1980s—because “you just never know when you’ll need it.” Franklin Roosevelt, a Democratic presidential candidate who broke a 12-year Republican hold on the office in 1932, won election that year by emphasizing American’s natural perseverance and ingenuity, and stressing how much we have relied on each other to get by. In his inaugural address—the famous “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech—Roosevelt spoke words that might have come from the mouth of a folk singer of the era:
Considering the similar trajectory of the 1970s recession to the turmoil of the 1930s, it’s no surprise that the music of the later era followed a similar pattern to the music of the Depression. As with the Great Depression, the lingering recession of the 1970s came after a long period of economic expansion. Both downturns lingered for a decade or so after the initial recessions had technically ended, and both were precipitated by a single event. (In the 1970s, the event was the 1973 oil crisis that followed the OPEC oil embargo on the United States that began on October 17, 1973.) Therefore, it did not take long for American ears in the 1970s to turn to music that spoke to the pain of era. In November, 1973, Stevie Wonder released his single, “Living for the City.” While not as sharp a commentary as songs he would write a few years later, this composition strung together a blunt series of images depicting the nature of American city life. Meanwhile, that same week on the opposite end of the musical spectrum, country-western star Waylon Jennings released his depiction of a laid-off factory worker, “If We Make It Through December.” The similar sense of empathy that these two very different artists feel for the downtrodden reveals the universality of artistic concern in a troubled time.
Plenty more popular music depicted the troubles of the times as the nation struggled after 1973 with joblessness, inflation, and stagnant economic growth. J. Geil’s Band’s “Detroit Breakdown,” Supertramp’s “Crime of the Century,” Hudson Ford’s “Burn Baby Burn,” Gil Scott-Heron’s song “Winter in America” and spoken-word album “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Don McLean’s “Homeless Brother," 10-CC’s “Wall Street Shuffle,” and the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” all appeared in 1974. Note: While some have adapted this last song as an ode to American acquisitiveness, a glance at the song’s lyrics make clear the O’Jays’ original intentions:
For the love of money
People will lie, Lord, they will cheat
For the love of money
People don’t care who they hurt or beat …
I know money is the root of all evil
Do funny things to some people
Give me a nickel, brother can you spare a dime
Money can drive some people out of their minds
In 1975, gritty looks at the times included “Hard Times” and “Never Say You Can’t Survive” by Curtis Mayfield, “Fight the Power” by the Isley Brothers, and “Rich Get Richer” by the O’Jays. In 1976, Stevie Wonder filled an entire album—Songs in the Key of Life—with songs that reflected his increasing dismay and bitterness at the way the country was being run. The album included the stark and angry “Have a Talk with God,” “Village Ghetto Land,” and his tour de force “I Wish."
By 1977 and 1978, the times were so frustrating that artistic anger led to the rise of a new, underground musical genre. These so-called “punk” bands played spare, loud, and angry songs about the frustrations of the working class—the class from which most of the performers came—and of the hypocrisy and control exhibited by the rich and powerful. Among the punk acts that appeared between 1974 and 1977 were the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols, the Boomtown Rats, the Undertones, the Buzzcocks, the Damned, the Clash, the Suicide Commandos, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Crime, the Nuns, the Tupperwares, VOM, Siouxsie and the Banshees, X-Ray Spex, the Slits, the Subversives, and the Runaways. “All the power’s in the hands of people rich enough to buy it,” screamed the Clash angrily in its 1977 song “White Riot,” “while we walk the street too chicken to even try it.”
As this new, energetic underground flourished on the indignation and anger of the times, similar sentiments filtered into even the most mainstream of music between 1976 and 1979. Songs like Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Angry Young Man” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Factory” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” more tunefully expressed the frustration felt by young people with few options for success in their lives. Even the biggest band in the world at the time, the hyper-successful Rolling Stones, who had little real reason to be upset in 1978, couldn’t keep the frustrations of the time from creeping into their feel-good brand of rock ’n’ roll. Their song “Shattered” spoke of the rising crime rates, the “money grabbers,” and the maggots overrunning New York City. “You got rats on the West Side,” Mick Jagger moaned, “bed bugs Uptown. What a mess, this town’s in tatters. I’ve been shattered.”
And you know once Mick Jagger is feeling frustrated, then it’s a safe bet that the masses are dealing with some pretty serious troubles.
Today: Music of Distraction
The breadth and depth of the anger and the haunting depictions of pain that was commonly written into the music of the 1930s and 1970s—as well as the popularity of such songs among the angry and frustrated masses—might lead one to expect a similar occurrence today. Thus, the questions raised today by Tom Morello and Ann Powers are completely valid, especially when considering the breadth and depth of musical response to bad times in the past. While mainstream pop charts of today are, as in times of past, filled with songs of frivolous distraction and the obsessive pursuit of (or pining after the loss of) love/sex, what’s different now is that, unlike in the past, there has been little sign of the troubles of these times in the charts of musical hits. (Just to cite one example, in the Billboard list of the top 100 hits for 2010 there was only one song—Jay-Z’s somewhat gentle depiction his life on the streets of New York, “Empire State of Mind” (#21)—that includes any sort of social content, and no song that examines the anger or frustration of the times.) If pop music is to be believed today, no one seems to care to hear their own life frustrations reflected back at them in their music. (If pop music is to be believed, in 2010 Americans spent its spare time clubbing, cruising, and “doing it big all over the globe.”) In pop music today, no one seems to have any interest in venting their worries and frustrations or in being uplifted beyond the troubles of the current times.
There may be several reasons for this social disconnect in mainstream pop music. In an age when the lilting spiritual-cum-protest song “Kumbaya” is deemed an embarrassing national joke, we may have come to consider ourselves too savvy, too cynical, too clever by half to have our emotions and feelings depicted and manipulated by something so banal as a song. Indeed, several musical acts, in several different musical genres, go so far as to suggest that the protest song is dead. This includes the heavy metal band Foundation, who released their song “No One Writes Protest Songs Anymore” in 2011; the modern folk-rock group GioSafari, who produced an entire album called Protest Songs (Are Dead) in 2011; and, finally, and most famously, there’s Hugh Laurie’s send up of the protest song, “Protest Song.” This song appeared on national TV just as the country began tipping into the economic abyss in 2008. As Laurie sings it, the answers to the country’s lingering problems—“poor keep gettin’ hungry, and the rich keep gettin’ fat,” etc.—are easy: “All we gotta do,” he sings, before mumbling an incoherent (nonexistent) answer.
So we may have—despite the wishes of Morello (wishes that, actually, may be self-motivated; see more on this below) and Powers—moved as a culture beyond the protest song. It’s possible that we live in a time when our values have turned so inward into personal introspection and self-regard that we find it impossible to gather together and sing about a common cause. Or else protest music may simply be too embarrassing a relic of the past, of a time when such well-meaning sentiment actually meant something. Today is a different age, we prefer to think, when problems are so complex, so difficult to solve that they’re not even worth bringing up in polite society. Considering all of these attitudes, it makes sense that the music that has thus far dominated the Occupy movement—the ever-present drum circle—is essentially an act of solipsism, in which a person with a loud percussive instrument expresses himself loudly without regard to whether or not anyone really wants to listen to the racket. And this may be the one object-lesson of today’s protests: Most of us, no matter our sympathies one way or another, can agree on one thing. We hate the music of the Occupy movement.
There may also be another, somewhat related reason that protest songs today simply don’t have the sticking power of the past. We may not only be prone to dismiss such music as out of touch with the times, but, as Live Aid founder Midge Ure suggests, we may also be living in a culture that makes it impossible to hear such music. “The protest song isn’t quite as relevant right now,” Ure said at a recent conference on politics in the digital age. “The world certainly has enough turmoil going on in it for people to write about. I just think maybe the vehicle to hear those songs has changed, or broken, or disappeared.” As Casey Rae-Hunter of the Future of Music Coalition recently pointed out in an NPR story, ours is a “fractured culture,” sliced up in so many different ways that we lack much common cultural ground now. In an age when people carry in their pockets devices that hold upwards of 10,000 songs of their own choosing, when satellite and internet radios offer access to hundreds and thousands of radio stations of every particular bent, when Spotify allows you to tap into the music collections of your entire network of friends, when we have, in a word, unlimited amounts of choice about which music to consume, it makes sense that songs of complex or troubled sentiment might be lost in the mix.
Still, the fracturing of our culture is not necessarily a completely bad thing, as Rae-Hunter explains, because it gives a “plethora of folks who otherwise would’ve had no shot of getting on commercial radio” a change to be heard. And, as it happens, this dynamic is analogous to the changing nature of protest that has become apparent in the Occupy movement itself. Today, the traditional trappings of protest—rallies, speeches, song circles—seem less important than the constant stream of chatter that is made possible through social media. “In the 1960s music was the social media of the day,” said Ralph F. Young, a professor of history at Temple University, in a recent Time magazine story. “Today protesters have Facebook and Twitter to disseminate their message.” And in an age of flattened discourse—made possible by universal access to the Twitter stream—music ends up being far less of a player in the debate than in the past.
In the end, apparently, it may no longer really matter whether or not artists are writing meaningful music about the times. Which is unfortunate in a way, because in fact there are plenty of songs of protest and complaint to be found if you’re willing to look beyond your own iPod’s playlists. The New York Times story, of course, lists a few—by Ry Cooder, Justin Sane of Anti-Flag, and Aloe Blacc. But the list could be much more expansive, including a wide range of genres and takes, including: “Survival of a People” by Gabriel’s Grandzjuk, “Sounds Like Life to Me” by Darryl Worley, “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)” by John Wesley Harding, “Ponzi” by the Felice Brothers, “Shutting Detroit Down” by John Rich, and entire albums by Robb Johnson (Some Recent Protest Songs) and the Nightwatchman, a.k.a. Tom Morello—no wonder he wants us to reconsider the protest song (World Wide Rebel Songs).
And then there’s my own personal current favorite song about the times, one that I would gladly share with anyone who comes within reach of my own ear buds: Jeremy Messersmith’s recent composition “Blue Sky (Corporations Are People My Friend).” In this simple, tuneful song Messersmith finds an accessible, endearing way to put his musical thumb right on the deep, raging, universal vein of frustration that is nagging at the so-called “99 percent.”
We don’t have money
We don’t have guns
Off shore accounts
Or mutual funds
But from the suburbs to trailer parks
We’ve got each other, and that’s a start.
While Messersmith’s song may not change the world, in this age of iTunes and Spotify, and it may not find its way onto the Billboard charts, by sharing his take on the times through this song I can honestly say he’s changed my life just a little bit. And that’s a start.
Michael Fallon is a writer, editor, and non-profit administrator based out of St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Art in America, American Craft, Public Art Review, Minneapolis-St. Paul Magazine, the OC Weekly, City Pages, and many other publications. Read his previous posts here.
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Lead image by David Shankbone, licensed under Creative Commons.
Additional image by Jessica Warren is licensed courtesy of Getty Images. © 2011 Jessica Warren. © 2011 Getty Images. All rights reserved.