The Revolution Will Not Be Spotified



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
dare not hope for?
What can I hope for?
I wish I knew.

11/10/2011 6:49:27 PM

I have another song suggestion: "Too Big to Fail", by John McCutcheon (free download available on his website at

11/9/2011 5:27:53 PM

Check the three pages of songs and music at

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