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Talkin’ Protest Song Blues

Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Makana didn’t exactly put his life on the line when he sang his protest song, “We are the Many,” to President Obama and other leaders at the Asian-Pacific Economic Conference dinner. But he did pull off a gutsy, well-meaning public relations coup on behalf of the global Occupy movement.

Still, Makana’s performance piece seemed to me an odd if affecting moment. It was pop-surreal as Makana began by whispering the lyrics while world leaders chat and eat in front of him.

I knew the power in the words that I had written. And, in a world that was free of punishment for being yourself… I would have sung it at the top of my lungs. But I also didn’t want to do it out of disrespect.

Makana’s was a sly move. It takes nothing away from it to note that it also had the feel of self-promotion, which is to the 21st century what “elbow grease” was to earlier times. Without it, you get nothing done. Anyway, in Hawaii, Makana was ready with a hand-lettered T-Shirt (“Occupy With Aloha”), a sneaky against-the-rules phone camera and a rapid response Youtube campaign.

I worry a little about the self-assessment (“I knew the power in the words…”). Even with its overt musical allusions to Dylanesque protest songs of the early Sixties the lyrics don’t exactly reach the level of poetry:

From underneath the vestiture of law
The lobbyists in Washington do gnaw
At liberty, the bureaucrats guffaw
And until they are purged we won’t withdraw

He left out “paw,” “maw,” “straw,” or “Utah,” but what the heck. I don’t much believe in any conventional high art/low art distinctions.  Artists return to us from the dreamtime and tell their stories with more or less skill. There’s some truth to be found even in the exploitative or inauthentic ones.

Yet, by way of confession, I’m usually unmoved by preachy pop songs, books or movies. There’s a reason Bob Dylan left the road of the protest song. It can be a narrow, dusty lane that takes us away from and not toward a full humanity.

It’s also true that everything doesn’t need to do everything. I mean, there’s plenty of room for all kinds of songs. We need anthems and songs of solidarity. It would be less than intellectually fetching to mount an anti-ideological, ideological attack on art of one sort or another.

And it’s really not fair to limit this observation to the creative arts. Much of our political culture is plagued by a one-dimensional view of human life. Life shouldn’t be reduced to the arm wrestling of stick figures. When things are either/or, I want to camp out a while on the /, which can be thought of as a horizon where the sun (might) come up. It’s not fence-sitting; it’s a self-critical exercise in non-attachment.

While much good art is disorienting, many protest songs aim to do the opposite: orient us. The popular art that moves me the most does both. It is unsettling, not confirming. It’s consciousness challenging. It makes us think and feel differently than we did before we hear or see or read it. A good example is Bruce Springsteen’s Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia.”

In his Oscar acceptance speech, Springsteen also showed us his modestly becoming approach to his art. And maybe that modesty is key. Here’s what he said. Good words to keep in mind when we come back from the dreamtime with stories of our own.

You do your best work and you hope that it pulls out the best in your audience and some piece of it spills over into the real world and into people’s everyday lives, and it takes the edge off of fear and allows us to recognize each other through our veil of differences. I always thought that was one of the things popular art was supposed to be about, along with the merchandising and all the other stuff.

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Glenn W. Smith

Glenn W. Smith