Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra and What Political Music Means in the 21st Century

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One of the complaints that’s often leveled by old people at millennials and late era Gen-X types is that today’s music lacks any sort of political edge. This has been a source of angst for most of the 21st century, leading to a constant stream of pieces like this (I’ll save you the trouble — it features a picture of Beach House with the snarky caption “Beach House, shortly before they went hurling Molotov cocktails down Wall Street”). This complaint was particularly prevalent during the halcyon days of Zuccotti Park, when articles like this asked, “Where have all the protest songs gone?” With Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra’s Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything out this week, it seems a good time to survey the state of 21st-century political music.

The thing is, songs reflect the age in which they were written. And it’s 2014, not 1964. The optimism of the ’60s counterculture has long since dissipated, along with any sort of conviction that rock ‘n’ roll can change the world. You could dismiss this as millennial angst or apathy, but I’d argue that if anything, it’s a sort of savvy realism — this generation has seen the legacy of the ’60s counterculture and the way that kaftans and love-ins and protests from bed singularly failed to change the world. They’re also distrustful of political rhetoric, because they hear it every day from politicians, and have done so all their lives.

In the same way that Occupy Wall Street was a movement that was less about specific goals and more about providing a blueprint for protest, today’s political music is often more subtle and/or nuanced than the protest songs of the ’60s, which often had specific goals in mind (stopping the Vietnam War, effecting civil rights legislation, etc). Those songs carried an implication that things would be better if the goals they called for were accomplished — the end of the war would mean peace, the end of segregation and Jim Crow laws would mean a fairer and more just America.

I suspect that very few of today’s 20- and 30-somethings think in such utopian terms. This, I think, is why no one has written this generation’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” or “The Times Are A-Changin'”: because when you’ve grown up in the long shadow of 9/11, when you’ve suffered through eight years of George W. Bush and then found the alternative wasn’t much better, when you’ve seen some wars fought on false pretexts and others allowed to continue because no one cares about their participants, when you’ve seen Communism collapse and the left flounder for decades as a result, when you’ve seen politics as a whole shift inexorably rightwards in pretty much every Western democracy, when you’ve seen mass shooting after mass shooting with no meaningful gun reform, when you’ve heard demagogues co-opt the language of the free market to justify the existence of a financial system that privileges the few at the expense of the many, when you’ve seen that system collapse and then be rebuilt at public expense with no hint of repercussions for those responsible… well, it’s hard to be idealistic, put it that way.

This is why what we used to know as “protest music” has relatively little currency these days. Sure, there are still bands who beat their chests and holler about storming the barricades, but honestly, they’re rarely very good, and they certainly don’t speak to a younger generation. It’s no accident, for instance, that while the New York Times article linked above noted that, apropos of Occupy Wall Street, “[a] handful of songwriters are tackling the issue,” the people cited as doing so — Ry Cooder, Tom Morello, Everlast — weren’t members of the generation actually doing the occupying.

It’s the same story with a lot of other old-fashioned political music: Green Day’s American Idiot, for instance, was depressingly by -the-numbers, lowest-common-denominator liberalism, an album (and Broadway musical!) that was an extended exercise in preaching to the converted and ridiculing those who don’t share your view. It appealed to people in their mid-30s who grew up with Green Day, sure, but kids? Not so much. And then there was Serj Tankian’s attempt to write, with Morello’s assistance, an “anthem” for Occupy Wall Street. Tankian’s perpetual high-school lyricism was a pretty poor fit for a movement whose goals are as nebulous as its provenance, which is perhaps why the song (entitled, inevitably, “We Are the 99%”) failed to resonate with pretty much anyone. As our Judy Berman pointed out when it was released, “It sounds dated, circa Woodstock ’99.”

Or, y’know, Woodstock 1969. Either way, such songs have little currency today. As far as music that doesn’t feel dated goes… well, clearly musicians engage with politics on as many levels as the population in general, but I’d argue that there are two broad categories of 21st-century political music.

The first is music that engages with politics in a relatively tangential manner — the artist’s political stance, such as it is, is woven more into the music itself, along with their performances, personae, etc., than it is into their lyrics. Of this category, perhaps the best example in recent years is The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, an album that’s a far better fit for OWS than anything Serj Tankian could ever write: it’s just as nebulous and sprawling and unruly and unfocused and contradictory as the movement itself. It’s an album whose rejection of convention is as much manifested in the strange, disorienting nature of its music and instrumentation as it is in the words that Karin Dreijer-Andersson is singing.

This idea of implicit rather than explicit comment on the 21st century often manifests in strange ways. I’ve written before about the idea that chillwave, bless it, and its abiding air of faux-nostalgia was as much an expression of middle-class unease as it was anything else. I don’t necessarily think Toro Y Moi or Washed Out were necessarily thinking this way when they sat down at their laptops, but music resonates with audiences at certain times for certain reasons, and hey, these are strange times. What better escape than some imaginary beach where the PBR is cold and the air is hazy and Person Pitch is on repeat forever?

The other category is music that’s more explicitly political, but only in the sense that it’s an expression of cynicism and disgust at the status quo. It’s less “The Times They Are a-Changin'” and more “The Times They Are a-Stayin’ the Same.” It’s a lineage that can be traced through songs like Radiohead’s “Electioneering” (“I will stop at nothing/ Say the right things/ When electioneering/ I trust I can rely on your vote”) through Jarvis Cocker’s “(Cunts Are Still) Running the World.” These songs are also characterized, I think, by a realization that great sweeping political declarations are less important than the way we live our own small lives.

I’ve quoted Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock a great deal of late, and think everyone should read it — but in the meantime, here’s a key passage on his idea of the death of the narrative, which I think is particularly relevant here:

All the great “ism”s of the twentieth century — from capitalism to communism to Protestantism to republicanism to utopianism to messianism — depended on big stories to keep them going. None of them were meant to be effective in the present… Experiencing the world as a series of stories helps create a sense of context. It is comforting and orienting.

The 21st century, Rushkoff argues, has largely seen the collapse of such grand narratives. In this sense, you could argue that Francis Fukuyama’s notorious idea of “the end of history” has come to pass, albeit not in the way that Fukuyama envisaged. We’re not marching toward some future utopia, a journey along which all our goals can be ticked off one by one, until they’re all achieved and our problems are solved and everything is great. Instead, we’re floundering in an eternal present, just trying to make sense of the world we live in.

In this world — a place where grand political narratives are largely absent, replaced by a sort of tacit understanding that all politicians have to offer is short-term promises and strategies to get re-elected in four years’ time — is it any surprise that what our musicians have to offer is observations of the present?

And, just as importantly, there’s a sense that the most relevant politics is the politics of the person. 2013’s most poignant example was The Drones’ “Why Write a Letter That You’ll Never Send.” Formulated as an imaginary letter, it’s a catalog of disgust and despair at the world we live in, but ultimately also an expression that all a person can do is lead their own life: “I don’t believe no one no more/ I don’t care what no one says/ I just wanna make the world/ A much less painful place.”

All of which brings us, finally, to Efrim Menuk. The contrast between his two projects — Thee Silver Mt. Zion Orchestra and Godspeed You! Black Emperor — is particularly interesting, because the two bands basically present both sides of this metaphorical coin. If you’ve ever seen them live, you’ll know that Godspeed are just as concerned with politics as their sister project — you only have to look at all the anarchist literature on sale at the merch booth, or the projections of marching soldiers and literature and all sorts of other imagery onto their backdrops. The music itself is viscerally compelling, full of dynamic shifts and long, portentous passages. It seems to evoke the idea of living in a world where nothing is certain, where the future could just as easily be The Road as it could The Jetsons.

If Godspeed’s music is all about evoking the atmosphere of where we might going, then Thee Silver Mt. Zion are about expressing Menuck’s feelings about where we are. He’s described Fuck Off Get Free… as a “take on a world replete with shabbiness, greed and injustice,” and this idea manifests in all its songs. “Austerity Blues,” for instance, is a deeply disillusioned view of the financial crisis and its legacy — “Thieves and liars rule everything we know,” Menuck snarls, “All we want is what we’re owed.” But ultimately, all he has is hope: as the song passes its eight-minute mark and starts to disintegrate, the lyrics settle into a sort of mantra: “Lord, let my son live long enough to see that mountain torn down.”

The rest of the album continues with a similar tone, but just as importantly, it’s an album that does also offer the idea that perhaps our narratives can be reconstructed, and our future taken into our own hands. The title track begins with the lyrics, “Stifled and entitled while they play at boring games,” but goes on to offer the solace that, “There’s fire in our dreams… While pennies pile, the hoarders smile and proclaim that what we want will never be/ In between we fuck and dream at living free again.”

Similarly dramatic imagery abounds: “Little Ones Run” contains a vision of a world where “There’s be war in our cities/ And riots at the mall… All our cities gonna burn/ All our bridges gonna burn/ All our pennies gonna rot…/ All our children gonna die.” Happy days, eh? But curiously, by the end of Fuck Off Get Free…, a strange thing happens. It makes you feel… hope.

Before you get the wrong idea, this is not an optimistic album by any stretch of the imagination — no record that contains the lyric, “The pale man always got his boot upon our neck” could be accused of being inspirational — but in its own way, it’s curiously uplifting. It’s the fact, I think, that for all Menuck’s visceral disgust, there’s also some abiding faith in human nature at play here, an invocation of the idea that somehow, despite all our flaws, we’ve made it this far, and perhaps we can make it further.

The aforementioned “Little Ones Run” starts like a lullaby and builds into a crashing crescendo that finds Menuck howling, “Tonight is yours/ The lights are yours/ If you’d just ask for more/ Than poverty and war.” These lyrics are layered over a sing-song refrain that goes, again and again, “And the day has come that we no longer feel.” But there’s no lack of feeling here — there’s a raging, beating energy, a yearning for something more.

The album’s final track, a somber elegy for Brooklyn rapper Capital Steez (who committed suicide in December 2012, tweeting this before he leaped from a building), fades out with the lyrics, “Hold on/ Don’t ever be done/ Hold on/ Hold on…” The lines seem as much addressed to the listener as they are to the song’s subject. Are better things coming? Well, something‘s coming. Something has to change. We can’t go on like this indefinitely.