I normally stick to the core of my own research interests when I blog here, but I just read Salon.com’s latest piece by Stephen Deusner, who’s column on Occupy Wall Street has become a regular part of my news reading. I am excusing this slight digression on the grounds (shameless plug here) that my public work on the internet and popular music started out with a conference paper delivered at the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Annual Meeting on protest communities and YouTube back in 2007.
So Deusner starts with a provocative question, if a new Dylan – note even the tropes identified here are seriously loaded – will emerge from the Occupy Wall Street movement. The truth is, he uses this as a lead-in to talk about the differential relationships between protest music and political and social protest movements between the current generations and the movements of the 1930s-40s and 1960s and never really had any intention of following up on his title. This is something that, while I like about half the articles I read on Salon.com, really irritates me about their article formatting and titling. That being said, it raises a good question. That is, if popular music is not being troped with protest music at the protests but we know that historically it has always been tied to it, how are these relationships being expressed in our current era?
This is the big gaping hole in Deusner’s piece and why I decided to post a take on the topic. The fact is, the arts, in particular writing and popular music, are just as heavily tied to protest movements, but since they all live online, particularly on YouTube, network commentators on news channels cannot show them and so they remain more or less invisible unless one is tracking Twitter and Facebook links and feeds. The fact is that protest communities have been widespread for a solid decade. While artists, and this I believe is Deusner’s point, are not getting personally linked with the movements, their music is. And both Dylan and John Lennon are just as important to current protest movements now as they were forty years ago, perhaps more so because it is the myth of the artist that can be most effective. People screw up. Images of John and Yoko as part of peace movement protests are part of the international vocabulary of protest music. Dylan’s songs are a standard in the repertoire and always represent core ideals of protest music, at least in the Ango-American world (my world, so pardon my American-centric focus).
What strikes me as most important about the online protest movements is that they encourage engagement at multiple levels and invite sympathy if not participation by ever larger members of the public. While middle class workers might have been sympathetic to some of the aims of the protest movement of the sixties, especially the part where family’s children were getting drafted, there simply wasn’t enough visibility at an unfiltered level for Joe and Jill American to get a sense of who the hippies were beyond what they saw on the network news or read in their local newspaper. Now we have local video cams uploading directly to YouTube and kids who are socialized to get their news through social media. People share on Facebook Newsfeeds their thoughts and experiences.
As an example, a friend of mine has been getting more active in the Occupy Philly movement. As a writer, it was natural for her to write about the experience and she posted this as a Facebook note late last week. Since then she’s been posting pictures of her experiences. The realness of her sharing goes beyond a song that’s written and produced in a recording studio, making a personal statement that is, in it’s way – and here is the meat of my point today – more important to creating protest communities than folk songs could do. While they do not unite communities in ways that are comparable, they create a foundation for shared systems of belief that can be more powerful in their impact because they are closer to people’s individual, personal identities.
Just an update that supports my point – an article today in the NY Times talking about the impact of social media on international protests in Germany that echo OWS – just one of many I could list.