This Song is a Con, But It Can Still Change the World

Tim Sommer reckons with the power of the protest song in post-election 2020

Woody Guthrie (Art: Ron Hart)

In times like these, to make mediocre art is an act of collaboration with the enemy. 

If a song does not raise you, elate you, enrage you, engage you, inform you, reveal a new pathway to art or joy, or make you rush to spread the news, it is garbage. If a song does not make you want to change your life and your world in the way that extraordinary music can change your mood or your moment, it is garbage. This is especially true now, because we live in a time where inaction is a weapon. Inaction is a weapon you hand to your enemy to use against you. If a song does not arm you, if a song does not cause a tear, a grin, a clenched fist, or the ferocious desire to share it with your closest friend, than it is useless. And today, a song must supply you with the information, inspiration, or resources to insure that we will be free to live a life full of the elation of art. Today, a song must remind you how sweet freedom tastes. 

There is a time for songs that do not have these elements of marrow and truth. There is a time for pop that takes no stand, for songs that inspires no artistic revelation, for songs that do not guide you to resources. But this is not that time. Because now, even the distraction of pop must be loaded with tools for change, or it is an act of collaboration. Likewise, it is time to call out the lies that have fueled our lifetime of rock’n’roll culture: rebellion as an aspect of style, all those fists we raised that made us feel better about our generation’s level of “involvement,” all those songs that made us feel engaged, but in reality provided no resources or guidance for change. 

All songs are cons. What raises them to the level of genuine effect and influence is the willingness of their creators to apply them to creating awareness or raising resources. 

Without this application, songs are merely place keepers for the artists’ ego, just another aspect of style, like hair dye, a leather jacket, combat boots, or a bandana wrapped around they wrist. Without this application, these songs and their creators say, “I use products available to me as a consumer to wear the costume of rebellion, but I have as little to do with rebellion as a peace sign has to do with living a life of peace. I supply a consumer good for others to purchase, to allow them to affect rebellion at the time in their life when they wish to simultaneously appear to reject their parents while embracing a peer group.” 

Many of us – most of us – do not outgrow this phase. We use music as a flag to wave that says, “Hey, come here, possible friend.” And most of us want to seem like outsiders while waving a flag – our musical tastes – while also saying, “Dear god, do not allow me to truly be alone.” We want credit for being outsiders, without the risk of being alone. This is the story of pop, and nowhere in that equation is there room for actual
engagement.

The clock is ticking on our Republic. This is a simple fact. Pop music does not need to play any role in this, aside from the fact that to not take any stand today is to stand with the oppressor. All pop music that refuses to take a stand on today’s events is equivalent to that guy or girl who stood in the room with Hitler and did not kill them. Haven’t you thought about this at some time in your life? You look at some old picture of Hitler, and you think, gee, why didn’t someone in that room kill him? And somewhere in you, you think: That person is guilty. That person is a collaborator. 

Any song that does not take a stand is an act of collaboration. Any song that sits out this fight is that person standing in the back of the room in that picture of Hitler. 

Phil Ochs (Art: Ron Hart)

Anyone who underestimates the gravity of our time is making a calamitous error. Whatever you think is happening to the Republic right now, chances are that it can actually go much, much worse than you think it might. True: It could end up being not that bad. But just the idea – no, the fact – that the potential is there for a complete usurpation of all the ideas of freedom and democracy we have taken for granted means that we must be on full alert. We must consider this moment in time with enormous and constant gravity. We know the truth: even if it turns out not as bad as we sometimes worry it might, it will probably end up worse than we hope. This is why every song that does not take a stand, point to a resource or help provide for that resource is an act of collaboration. This will not be true forever, but it’s true now. 

There are two more elections on January 5: the runoff elections for both senatorial seats in Georgia. They are of vital importance. Below, I am going to provide resources where we might help, provided by our friend Bertis Downs. Please share these resources. In fact, I am going to request the following: On social media, I would like you to share a song that changed your life, a song that showed you the power of rock’n’roll, a song that revealed to you a new thruway of art and energy. It doesn’t matter who it is. And I kindly ask that you include some of these resources in your post. When you post the song, I would like you to write something like this: “This music makes me happy to be free, to be alive, to live in the era of rock’n’roll, to have a life full of noise and rhythm. Please investigate these resources in order to preserve that freedom.” 

So Post a song. Post a song that makes you happy to be free. And with that song, please post one or more of these links: 

 

 

Finally, I dedicate this piece to the last living king of rock’n’roll, Billy Childish, and to Ken Kurson. Ken is a great friend who, for many years, has consistently allowed me the platform to say whatever I want, regardless of his own opinions. He reminds us that freedom is fed when you provide people the resources to express ideas different from your own. 

Tim out. Punk Rock ist Nicht Tot.

 

AUDIO: Woody Guthrie “This Land Is Your Land”

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @Timmysommer.

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