What’s Going On

What’s Going On

When it comes to protest, are pop songs smarter than us, knowing what they can and cannot do?


Little is so deadly for contemporary struggle as previous struggle—or, rather, nostalgia for the same, with its exaggerations and rosy glow. In particular, the glorification of “the sixties,” now an occasion for sclerotic boomers to claim ownership over history, shake their heads at current strife, and encourage passivity in the form of a ceaseless knowing-better. That generation crouches toadlike on the present, rousing itself periodically to vote for more drone killings. No wonder a slogan of the last few years has been “Fuck May 1968, Fight Now.”

And yet, as every second paragraph must begin. For a columnist whose remit is the entanglement of popular culture and political-economic conditions, the much-remarked lack of “protest music”—and expressly politicized popular art in general—is not an easily dismissible question.

It’s one with a dozen answers, none entirely satisfying. Corporate control over the culture industry has surely intensified. Complementing this homogenization, the balkanization of culture into microgenres undermines the possibility of a shared lifeworld, the near-mystical sensation that even alone in your room with the headphones on, you are shouting along with millions of others.

More than the audience has fragmented. As late as, say, 1972, it was still possible to imagine a quarter of the world’s rock stars shopping at the same general store in Laurel Canyon, while their counterparts mingled in the Detroit two-story dubbed Hitsville USA. Today, the stars do not move in the heavens unless surrounded by a retinue of personal shoppers and attorneys, passing near each other thrice yearly, sidestage at awards shows. It is not a scenario conducive to collective outrage, collective utopianism, or really collective anything.

Such answers can be a convenient shorthand for actual change. They can also be reductive: things are getting worse and worse! The powers that be consolidate all before them while we fester, mourn and watch reality TV! This passes for wisdom sometimes; it is closer to nonthought, a theodicy of domination.

Two important questions should be posed to the doxology of decline: Oh, really? and How so? Is this assumption really true, and what are the particulars of the difference between then and now? In the case of protest art, both questions are peculiarly apt.

It is worth recalling that most music from that blessed era was far from the firing line. None of 1967’s chart toppers promised much antagonism, unless one had a sophisticated reading of “Ode to Billie Joe.” Top songs from 1968–70: “Hey Jude,” “Sugar, Sugar,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Rules, not exceptions. And the protest pop that has so marked our memories was unevenly distributed: antiwar, anti-establishment, but not so much anti-patriarchy, for example.

Further, the story of protest art’s contemporary withering has little purchase in many places in the world, from French hip-hop’s massive response to the banlieue riots of 2005 (largely North African and Arabic-inflected) to the ongoing flowering of South American political music, particularly in the Brazilian favelas. These are just a few examples of a broadly global phenomenon that will not conform to a simple story of rise and fall. In truth, we are speaking, as the hashtag has it, of #firstworldproblems.

But let us accept that the proposition of pop’s depoliticization has some truth to it here in the United States: militant songs hug the margins, while charting fare keeps its politics abstract if not vague, sometimes depending on riot-porn-styled videos to imply intensity. I greatly like Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” but it is far from “Ohio,” “Think” or “What’s Going On.”

How then might we take up this puzzle without simply sketching a descending line? At peril of generalizing in this limited space, the hot-button topics of the 1960s were often enough cultural (sexuality, say, or nonconformity), or clear and decisive issues that seemed to involve matters of individual ethical choice. It seems possible not only to craft a song around the civil rights or antiwar struggle, but to believe in the value of persuasive rhetorical appeal.

But how does one make a song about credit default swaps wrapped around a real estate bubble driven by finance capital’s need for an outlet absent investment opportunities in manufacture? The industrial profit rate will never again be as high as it was the year “Eve of Destruction” went number one. How to find the appealing hook in systemic breakdown, outrage in the malaise that has become a gloomy atmosphere? The present crisis is intractably abstract, unobliging.

This abstraction is matched by overwhelming scope, most evidently in the existential dread of ecological crisis. As with the breakdown of the capitalist system, we could almost think it isn’t happening, even as it permeates every molecule. It is not distant from us; it runs through each of us, necessarily, a tangle of invisible circuits that connect us all without leaving much of a trace. The machines of creeping catastrophe seem to whirl on autonomously, even if we first set them spinning. The moment of choice—even false choice, the illusion of agency—doesn’t appear. No wonder few songs hazard a description, much less a program.

This is not to argue against the making of art, or even against the savoring of pop songs. It is to suggest that the decline of protest pop is not an index of decline as such. It is a telling fact about the character of our crisis, our present world. Pop songs are smarter than us; they know what they can and cannot do. We have less choice; we must destroy this world or die.

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