As I have been wrapped up in exploring the conflicting idea of nostalgia and retro-fitted music, and actual progression in terms of cultural evolution, I too have been distracted from recording my thoughts thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movements happening here in New York City. In addition to thinking of how this grassroots movement came to be, I’ve also thought about why there is no one particular leader for the movement, either in terms of direction or even culture. Thankfully, the folks over at Salon have asked a question that, I’m sure, has been at the back of our minds since the movement started over a month ago: Will a new Dylan emerge from Occupy Wall Street?
Why not? If the Tea Party could attract the attention of country artists and right-leaning rock and rollers into writing tributes to their own causes, as inorganic and misdirected as they may have been, then surely a progressive folky voice should emerge as a cultural leader for the Occupiers sitting and marching across the world. Though the movement takes pride in recognizing itself as representative of all downtrodden peoples, equal in their struggle, there’s nothing that suggests one person can write the anthems the stir their souls and record their triumphs and falls.
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But as Salon’s Stephen Dousner points out, in the past decade it has been easier to write protest tunes based in abstract anger without specifics. The most popular folk-ish songs have been written for the pro-war crowd who easily attach themselves to the us vs. them mentality, and believe whole-heartedly in their strength of numbers and nation mentality. Comparatively, artists who leaned left in their politics instead recorded their dissatisfaction with living in war time America in equally wide narratives. Unlike the protest songs of the 1960’s and 70’s, there is no direct address of the current woes, many of which were first covered in the blues written by artists like Woody Guthrie.
Of course, it would be easy to say a new Dylan is just what the Occupy movement doesn’t need, based in his own songwriting strategy being oblique and open to interpretation, unlike the fiery and passionate lyrics of Phil Ochs. But it seems unlikely for even a Phil Ochs to come out of the movement. The focus of the movement to appear as a leaderless mass of the affected leaves no room for even a singular cultural leader. The wide reach of folk music has no place even in such a protest thanks to the increasingly fragmented world of subjective tastes. The difference between the 60’s and today is that rock and roll and, specifically, folk rock, were still new ideas then. It was the only music available at the time to record the struggles of the people who rallied against war and injustice. Though the Occupy Wall Street protesters move as one, they dance to a different beat individually, and who’s to say the lyrics and chord progressions that affect the most of the protestors will speak for each of them?
On the cover of the second issue of their ‘Occupied Wall Street Journal’ newsletter, a rap or poem (I don’t know if it has been recorded or not) by Lupe Fiasco, called ‘Moneyman,’ was printed. While it obviously has passion and reason on it’s side, the lyrics are clumsy and awkward, with references to how important Twitter has been to organizing the movement. Even if it is relevant to their actual story, the presence of the technology dates the lyrics, giving them a sort of awkward stagnancy in time and space. While it isn’t likely that nobody will suddenly stop using the social networking website tomorrow, or that it’s affects on future sites and networks won’t be felt in the future, the references to hashtags renders any kind of passion for the movement itself trivial. An unfair assessment to the cause? Perhaps, but I, personally, feel no more stirred to act simply because Mr. Fiasco is giving me a current context to attach myself to, that he understands the world we live in and all that goes into it.
As coverage comes and goes, making whatever new development that comes along for the Occupiers a quick filler between the GOP race and the quirkier side of squirrels doing interesting tricks, I’m simply glad that someone else considered the pop cultural impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Moreso, I’m glad someone else considered how this movement could impact the zeitgeist, beyond accusing Tim Robbins and Alec Baldwin of being unworthy to consider themselves among the so-called ’99 Percent,’ and get down to the absurd, yet certainly relevant need, to find a voice for this movement.
But really, it just makes me feel all the worse about being born long after the death of Phil Ochs.