Remember all the hand-wringing last year over the so-called disappearance of protest music? As the Occupy movement hit its peak, capturing the attention of the country, commentators and older musicians were accusing contemporary artists of failing to grapple with the major struggles of their time in song.
The accusation was dumb -- any Google-savvy person looking for new protest music shouldn't have much trouble finding it -- but it was also revealing. Protest music hasn't had a prominent place in our pop landscape, but that may be because it's often more satisfying to make than to listen to. It feels great to sit down with an acoustic guitar and sing your indictment to the Man, but good luck finding lots of people who want to listen to that, much less pay you for it. And as a general rule, songs filled with positive-minded cliches about widely agreed-upon political and social principles (the worst caricature of protest music, but still a valid description of lots of it) tend not to be very interesting.
Today's Occupy This Album -- a 99-track omnibus of protest songs from unheard-of drum circle members to Joan Baez to Thee Oh Sees -- illustrates this perfectly. Like the movement itself, Occupy This Album is sprawling, inconsistent, occasionally deluded, and sometimes devastatingly incisive.
The songs on its online sampler vary from appallingly bad (Michael Moore's hamster-voiced cover of "The Times They Are A-Changin") to sublimely powerful (Mogwai's grandiose "Earth Division"). We haven't plowed through all 99, so we're in no place to render a conclusive verdict, although critics who have heard the whole thing were slightly more positive than negative.
But just like Occupy itself, one of the intriguing things about the album is its diversity: It is not, thank god, filled with 99 folk songs about "fire in our hearts" and "days of darkness." (Looking at you, Matt Pless.) There's hip-hop (Immortal Technique), post-rock (Mogwai), punk (Anti Flag), reggae (Toots and the Maytals), country (Willie Nelson), and plenty of other genres represented. Appropriately, proceeds from the album will go to support Occupy Wall Street -- although just how, and how much, isn't clear. The album was envisioned by Jason Samel, a laid-off corporate type who was walking through Zuccotti Park last year, heard a performance he thought deserved documenting, and set about doing it. (Eventually he got the help of quite a few more famous musicians.)
So at the core of Occupy This Album -- however varied the quality of the music -- is an important goal : to preserve the soundtrack to one of the most important social movements of our time. Its release today is a significant achievement. And at the very least, the album should (finally) shut up the people who claim there isn't protest music anymore.