When Dylan sang that The Times They Are a-Changin’ in ’64, his song echoed the sentiment of the unvoiced mass public. Today, technology and the media have created plenty of new outlets for the public to voice their ideas and opinions. Now that the times are a-changed, it feels overly simplistic to picture that a song could be the best way to give a voice to an era of change.
Philip Kennedy’s post last week reminded me of a dialog that seems to permeate the conversation place, namely, the role of music in modern culture and under what lens it is to be examined. It’s no secret that there is a link between the arts and socio-political events, and with such fast access to socio-political events (remember, we live in a world where data can be transferred thousands of miles in a fraction of a second) the reactionary status of the arts is in question. The victory in Libya last week has been spun into the defeat of today and slights the drama of right now. It feels impossible to write a soundtrack fast enough.
The video above, of Sam Cooke covering Bob Dylan in the early 1960’s, displays an idealistic and confrontational tone at the same time. Dylan’s poetic touch allowed his music to transcend musical genres, race, and age groups and to solidify an idea of the populace. Then again, this populace was much smaller. Back then you HAD to buy the record to join the club, there was no YouTube/Pandora/Spotify. For Sam Cooke to perform this Woody-Guthrie-by-way-of-NYC inspired song, live for a mixed audience, with funky, soaring vocals, was a huge statement. The music could be shared by every television viewer. It was a blending of culture, a statement for the future of not just America but progressive social change.
This moment – alongside several others – was a first impression. The genesis of folk/funk/rock activist music emerged as a new group of people who weren’t sold on the status quo. The media had no way of coping. Technology restricted social awareness. There had to be protest concerts because there were no online petitions. You couldn’t donate to the cause online but you could march to your town hall. Advertising – both political and economic – had to learn to sell to this mental shift.
To some extent, the idea of being able to place musical ideas next to political or cultural ones is a product of mass marketing. Selling music as a reactionary, incendiary force is no different than any other advertising lexicon. The idea of raising passion in the heart of people has always been one of the number one ways to make money. And nowadays music as a political cause is like an old hat you don’t want to wear. We’ve seen Bob Dylan perform, Bono talking about Africa and Live8 already. Hell, we’re even giving it away. Now, the finest pieces of music that incite change have to do so in subliminal, hidden ways. There is an interpretation that Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac – including the release and marketing – are desperate protests against political, advertising, and musical convention. The unrelenting ambition of the music made the music industry buckle, but did create a mental shift in us?
I think it has. As rebellion has been sold to the under-30’s crowd since before they got out of the womb (Kumbayah, Blowing in the Wind) it seems the only logical reaction has been the current wave of indifference. The safest view towards contemporary events is not accepting or even looking at it, it’s ignoring the problem completely and going down your own path, wherever that may lead you. My favorite example: The desolate, empty, vapid world of Drake’s Marvin’s Room. Accepting the solidarity of life, he realizes it is safer to accept spite, being used, using people, and inequality. It is a jaded, helpless attitude, removed from reality. It’s a first world retort to global problems. I think that’s why, several years ago, Rick Rolling was so popular. We needed something to be happy about. And joyful, cheesey, pop from 1987 was a quick fix.
Personally, I believe the most dangerous emotion in today’s society is hope. Optimism is something we are all afraid of, and I mean the optimism for the world you live in. In a world of dog-eat-dog corporations and endlessly addictive media, it takes work to cultivate actual optimism. Much in the way Soren Kierkegaard challenged our minds 150 years ago in Fear and Trembling, we must be bold in our decisions to do something good for this world. Carvaggio’s The Sacrifice of Isaac, displayed above, reveals the challenge of Abraham to do the right thing regardless of the momentary horror of killing his son. Hope takes sacrifice, effort, and challenging yourself. It isn’t just something you are born with. You must go through with it in your actions as well.
I would like to do my part to encourage hope. Hope doesn’t just have to be happy emotion – it can create a driving light into the future. This song exists in the epicenter of a civil war. Ibn Thabit, a Libyan rapper who prefers to remain anonymous, has been releasing anti-Gaddafi music for the past year. While I don’t speak Arabic, I don’t need to in order to get this music. The beat draws itself from the g-funk, west coast era of Dr. Dre and Snoop. Released 2 months after the start of the Libyan Civil War, this is a dialog about the Battle of Misrata. Thousands of civilians were injured in the battle as Gaddafi forces leveled the city. Five days after this track appeared on Youtube, Misrata was liberated by rebel forces. This really is music of a revolution.
I warn you that the video has fairly intense images of war and violent stuff so if you just wanna listen to it, that’s cool. But if you’re interested…
In the anonymity of Ibn Thabit, this music takes on a bellowing voice to the outside world. To answer Philip’s question, I think collected voices united behind a positive idea are our only hope. We can’t rely on iconic artists other than Dylan. That revolution has been marketed. If this music can be created in the middle of war, I would only ask that we be so bold to release our art with such similar ambition. It’s a challenge. I think it’s worth it.