According to The New York Times:
“Every successful movement has a soundtrack,” the songwriter Tom Morello told reporters after he had tried to fire up the crowd at the Occupy Wall Street Protest last week with a Woody Guthrie tune and one of his own labor songs.
Perhaps he is right, but the protesters in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan have yet to find an anthem. Nor is the rest of the country humming songs about hard times. So far, musicians living through the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression have filled the airwaves with songs about dancing, not the worries of working people.
In attempt to trace the history of the “protest song,” and the relationships between those songs and the artists who created them, Dorian Lynskey published 33 REVOLUTIONS PER MINUTE: A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day.
In end, Mr. Lynskey can’t help noting, the protest song is nearly an extinct art form; few mean nearly as much as they once did. “I began this book intending to write a history of a still vital form of music,” he says. “I finished by wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.” If the Bush years didn’t provoke scorching and popular protest songs, he asks, what could?
There are many reasons political songs no longer resonate. The Vietnam War bound people together as few issues have since. We no longer expect music to change the world, and we’re more atomized in our tastes. In the Stewart-Colbert-Gawker era we’re couch potatoes, and our default mode is sophisticated, needling humor. We’re lazier than ever too. “Placards and sit-ins,” he says, “have given way to charity wristbands and Facebook groups.”
However, this was back in 2011. Have things changed at all? Perhaps somewhat.
In Hong Kong, where mass, pro-democracy protests have rocked the political landscape over the past four months, the protest song seems to sing loudly and clearly.
Written and composed anonymously, then modified in online forums popular with protesters, “Glory to Hong Kong” features the kind of brass-heavy backing and soaring lyricism common to anthems, including the line “May people reign, proud and free, now and ever more.” In a slickly produced video version, an orchestra and choir dressed in protester garb — black shirts, helmets and gas masks — perform through a fog machine, meant to evoke images of tear gas.
A composer named Thomas, who has not shared his last name, first posted an instrumental version and lyrics on Aug. 26 to LIHKG, a forum used by protesters, and asked others to record themselves singing it. He collected audio versions via Google Drive, and assembled them together to make it sound as though a choir were singing. He adjusted the lyrics based on suggestions in the forum.
The song was then uploaded on YouTube on Aug. 31 with English subtitles and rousing scenes from demonstrations, such as crowds parting for an ambulance, a child leading chants and a banner hung on a mountain. The composer recruited video editors and musicians to create new versions.
Might the rest of the world learn something from Hong Kong? Are there fights—small and large—that need songs to raise our levels of consciousness up; songs that urge us to join our brothers and sisters in bettering today and tomorrow?
Conversely, might our musical experiences—whether as listeners or performers—become more significant and, potentially, creative when we compose, create, improvise, perform, and LISTEN with the intent to move, shake-up, and confront the ills of our common world?