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Music, Protest, and the Demographic Divide

September 22, 2008

I went to two concerts at the Kennedy Center this weekend, neither of which I chose myself, and neither of which I paid for. I also hadn’t really listened to any of the music before I went. Given these conditions, I wasn’t particularly invested in the shows, and free to observe the audience as well as the performers.

On Thursday night I settled into my seat in the Concert Hall to listen to Arlo Guthrie play with the National Symphony Orchestra. Until I googled him I wasn’t aware that Woody and Arlo Guthrie were two different people. (What was that? I think I just heard a collective gasp from the Kathy Guthrie and Jim Cason occupied office across from my desk. I apologize. My father was a Bob Dylan man.)

During his two sets Arlo didn’t make any outright references to the presidential election, though he did play a song mocking government bailouts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as generally encouraging us all to be peaceful and encourage peace around the world (during all of this I quietly wondered if there would be a way to collect the entire audience’s email addresses). He also reminisced about some old rallies he performed at and attended, creating a sense of nostalgia in the largely middle-aged crowd that was palpable. It was a feeling similar to one I frequently feel at staff meeting, when certain FCNL secretaries of this and that reminisce about the power of protest music, and regret its absence in today’s pop culture. Filing out of the auditorium I too wondered where it had gone, doubtful that the peaceful, decidedly uncynical songs I had just listened to (and enjoyed!) would have mass appeal to my generation.

On Sunday night I found out where the protest music had gone. I merely had to return to the same concert venue on a different night to find it. On this night Mos Def would be directing his big hip-hop band. The older white men and women at Arlo had been replaced with a younger, largely African-American crowd. There I sat again, on the margins of the concert demographic (mostly. I did fit the young part, so at least most of my concert companions and I were in the same age-range… I am supposed to really like this music, right?) .

I have to admit, I felt Mos Def’s music a bit more than Arlo’s. I think this was mostly about the beat, but perhaps also because it was more confrontational and blunt in its approach. Example of the bluntness: Mos performed a version of the “Star Spangled Banner” that simply repeated the lyrics “And the rockets red glare/the bombs bursting in air” over and over again. I think that FCNL could get behind that message, if not the method of delivering it.

Anger at the status quo was an underlying theme of the evening, and one that spoke to me (being the youngster that I am) more than anything Arlo Guthrie did. For example (warning.. at this point in the post I partially reveal my leanings for the election in November, it is in no way a reflection of my employer), at one point Mos Def shouted “Show me a picture of the President” and a photo of Barack Obama popped onto the projection screen suspended above the stage. Then he said things like, “It’s too important, don’t screw (except he didn’t say screw) this up, you deserve better people, etc.” I will admit, my emotions have been running a bit high about the approaching events of November 4th, and the brashness of this message spoke to me, made me feel as though my opinions had agency, inspired me to take action (in this case vote), and all of those things that the music of Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan inspire in my father and his contemporaries.

Last night as I lay in my bed thinking about these two experiences, so different on the surface and yet so similar in fundamental meaning, I wondered what to make of it all. I wasn’t sure whether to be heartened that some young people had found their music of protest, or deeply disturbed that these different musics of protest were so divided. Or angry, even, that I felt like an outsider at both concerts.

Now, if Arlo Guthrie and Mos Def collaborated, something beautiful and interesting, which could potentially bridge demographics gaps could be achieved. I wonder if it’s the artists who would resist this, or, in fact, their audiences. And maybe that reluctance identifies a deeper problem about why we (the majority of Americans) who oppose the war and want a smaller military can’t unite to get the job done.

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