Hunting the New Agitprop

We had just come back from a trip to Tower Records and sat down to play a couple tracks from what we had bought, with plans to skip around and listen to the rest later. The first track on one album, by whom I don’t remember, started out like this: “We’ve got to save the rainforestssss…”

Took it out of the player, broke it in half, and threw it away. We never listened to the rest.

There’s nothing wrong with saving the rainforests, or even singing about it—but have some decorum, please. Otherwise you’re just doing a disservice to the baby seals you were trying to save in the first place. Political art can be done well (Crass, Woodie Guthrie, early Dylan, Phil Ochs), and in general I’d argue that 90 percent of anything has some element of politics to it, but in the end, the laws of showbiz triumph over agitprop.

It’s a delicate balance between giving people what they want and what they don’t know they want yet. Not putting the cart before the horse, not shitting where you eat, and not shitting in the cart. It’s good to have some obscurity to ease the abrasion of the obvious. Mix the metaphors around with some confusion and imagery so people can taste the message. And like a French schoolgirl's taunt, they’ll never know what you were actually saying, but they’ll like how it sounded.

» Listen to “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe” by Okkervil River at Ear Farm

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There’s a general confusion about why people were upset with Dylan going electric. It wasn’t that people thought he crossed some sacred acoustic threshhold by making a deal with the amplification gods, but that loud electric rock would hinder people from hearing his lyrics. It still doesn’t make any sense, but it puts the logic into some context. Sometime in the way-gone past, the folkists had an agreement that musicians would be judged on their lyrical content first. That way they would never again align with amoral, slick musical con artists who just have one hit song and never call them back.

» Listen to Kevin Drew at Cause=Time

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There’s a real need for some angst-ridden agitprop right now, or at least there’s a need to know that some is being made, without having to actually listen to it. Then you know that at least somebody out there gives a damn! It makes you feel better about not voting. That’s why I rename all of my techno albums from “Lollipop Space Voyage” to political slogans like “Perot in 2008” and “Up with People.” It gives you a warm feeling all over.

» Listen to Turzi at MySpace

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There’s been plenty of opportunity and room for protest music, but the larger trend of the last few years has been to run into the woods and scream until you’re AIDS Wolf. In the battle for relevancy, they’re winning out. I mean, I actually like AIDS Wolf, if you can get into the experimental scream thing (although deferring to Marnie Stern for a tighter prog-spaz jaunt), and wouldn’t that be fun to just go into the forest to yell and mumble whatever comes to you?

» Listen to “Boyz Donut Cry” by Japanther at Sucka Pants

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And yes, there are Phil Ochs-inflected folk singers out there singing the socialist anthems and drifter adventure ballads to try and inspire the workers to strike for better pay as they always have. Some of them are making great vocal rebel music with just an acoustic guitar, but most are just playing the same old Woodie Guthrie melodies. I know it’s terrible that I can’t bring myself to be enthused by something that I agree with just because of the melody and sound, but that’s how it is.

» Listen to “Eye for Eye“ by the Popular People’s Front at American Athlete

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