Saul Alinsky was right.
The late Chicago community organizer wrote in “Rules for Radicals”—a user’s manual for those seeking to overturn the status quo—that when it comes to social movements, “it doesn’t matter what you know about anything if you cannot communicate it to your people.” In the absence of a clear message, “you’re not even a failure,” Alinsky warned. “You’re just not there.”
Apt advice, perhaps, for Occupy Wall Street. Buoyed by a growing public consensus that our economic system was either broken or perhaps built from the start to take from the many to benefit the few, the Occupy movement had history and hope on its side. What critics on the left and right soon asserted it didn’t have was a consistent message. Movement organizers have variously called for an end to wealth inequality, capital punishment, police intimidation, corporate censorship, joblessness, meat-eating, American imperialism, war and most recently and perhaps perplexingly, the art world’s Whitney Biennial. When reliably liberal publications such as Mother Jones note that the Occupy movement “lacks focus” and takes too much of a “kitchen sink approach,” we sit up and take notice.
To the rescue rock ‘n’ roll? Sure, rock itself has often been characterized as rebellion without focus. But there’s a time-honored tradition of protest music written into that history of rebellion, and it’s laid down the backbeat for some of the last half century’s most powerful social movements. So, a humble suggestion for the Occupy movement: fine-tune the message and keep the focus on a system that serves the 1% to the detriment of the 99%. In that spirit, we’ve mined the protest canon for its greatest anti-capitalist anthems. Part populist rallying cries, part odes of sorrow for a system serving the few rather than the many, these songs have never felt more urgent—or more necessary—than they do right now.
“First We Take Manhattan,” Leonard Cohen
Long considered the poet laureate of rock, Cohen crafts a somber, synth-pop stunner that serves as a call to populist action. A quarter century in advance of the Occupy movement, he captures the ennui of a middle class in possession of just enough comfort to be politically numb, expecting little to change. “They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom/ For trying to change the system from within.” In the slow-burn of his discontent, Cohen doesn’t so much sing as growl his warning to those in power, who loved him as a loser, but now worry he “just might win.” There’s apocalyptic urgency here, as Cohen hastens revolution in the streets as the answer to society’s death through bureaucratic entropy.
“The Man Who Would Be King,” The Libertines
All hail The Libertines, the best band of the new millennium (at least for the three years of it they managed to stay together). Produced by The Clash’s Mick Jones, who knows a thing or two about raucous musical rebellion, “The Man Who Would Be King” (a title thieved from Rudyard Kipling’s classic novella about two British imperialist adventurers who succeed in setting themselves up as royalty in a remote region of Afghanistan) doesn’t just mock fraudulent leaders; it reminds them that the so-called apathetic, ignorant knaves who made their rise possible can turn the tables, “take you away if they don’t like what you say.” Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
“The Great Song of Indifference,” Bob Geldof
Sir Bob, rock ‘n’ roll’s original humanitarian, the presiding genius of the 1980s Live Aid music fest, started out as ranting lead-singer for Ireland’s greatest punk/new wave band, The Boomtown Rats, until his activist response to famine in Africa effectively broke up the band. In subsequent solo efforts, he brought a new political edge to his music, never more effectively than in this gleeful, mock-nihilistic take on an Irish jig. Here Geldof adopts the perspective of First World fat cats (the 1% with an exclamation point) who watch governments and nations fall, who look on as culture crumbles and religion stumbles, who all but root for the ravaging of the earth and global warming. They sing “I don’t mind at all” before falling into a chanting cheer of indifference (“Na, na, na, na”) that tilts percussively—amid the dizzying accordion whirl— toward an economic endgame in which everybody loses and nobody cares enough to turn things around.
“Spaceship,” Kanye West
Before the incessant and irrelevant tweeting, the trash-talking at the Grammys and the PETA-condemned lyrics about the joys of wearing mink, there was simply, stunningly this: a rap reinterpretation of the spiritual “I’ll Fly Away,” one that dares to posit that the response to injustice should be rage, not retreat. Set in three-quarters time, at once lilting and lively, “Spaceship,” a track on West’s debut album “The College Dropout,” was written while his memory of being a pawn in the system, rather than a player, was presumably still fresh. West’s riffs on long hours and poor pay, abusive corporate managers and serving as the “token blackie” at The Gap have the feel of the real, and his signature arrogance and ambition—“I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly/ Man, I’m talking way past the sky”–work to brilliant effect, suggesting that sometimes it takes an outsize ego to survive an oppressive system.
“The Glorious Land,” PJ Harvey
On 2011’s masterful “Let England Shake,” PJ Harvey melds English folk ballads, gospel harmonies and stripped, percussive rock into a lament about the business of war and the toll it exacts on her ambivalently beloved homeland. In a song which marries the jingoism of England to its powerful former colony, she reminds us—over harmonious “Oh, America”s that linger like graveside laments—that the recession economy suffered by America and its European allies this past decade is in no small part the result of a “war on terror” driven by Western imperialism and multinational corporations. And “what is the glorious fruit of our land?” It’s fruit, Harvey chants in the song’s most evocative stanza, is “orphaned children.”
“Dead End Street,” The Kinks
In an era in which conservative pundits co-opt the term “class warfare” to decry every attempt by the have-nots to denounce inequity, The Kinks remind us what class warfare looks like from the perspective of its real casualties. In this 1966 piece of ballad blues, lead singer Ray Davies laments “What are we living for?” in a drawn-out, nasal, world-weary cry set to relentless guitars, sprays of ivory and mournful for-whom-the-bell-tolls horns. It’s all here: the strife of being poor, living in tenement housing, searching for work without luck and fending off aggressive rent collectors while scraping together a Sunday banquet of bread and honey. Just in case radio-listening audiences missed the song’s point, band members dressed themselves as gravediggers for one of the industry’s first music videos, which featured an impoverished widow (Ray in drag), who lets them cart her husband away in a casket; but when the “dead-beat” man awakens to spring from the casket, the gravediggers give chase through narrow eighteenth century-style lanes, refusing to allow him to escape his destiny.
“Dirty Blvd.,” Lou Reed
Lou Reed spent the 1980s, as the band Too Much Joy once put it, “hocking scooters and American Express.” Then he took a hard look at the consequences of a decade of Reaganomics on the streets of his city and came thundering back, gunning on 1989’s album-cum-jeremiad “New York” for the American dream. In “Dirty Blvd.,” Reed sings flatly—over stripped-down Telecaster chords—of a child named Pedro whose own dream consists of one day escaping public housing and the father who beats him. On the dirty boulevard no one dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer; you dare dream only of dealing drugs to earn cash. In the song’s soulful release, Pedro envisions escape by flying away, but our country’s most symbolic monument, renamed “The Statue Of Bigotry,” sings a different tune in a bridge delivered with Reed’s deadpan panache: “Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I’ll piss on them.”
“Richard Cory,” Van Morrison and Them
Written by Paul Simon, who himself was riffing on an 1897 British poem, Van Morrison’s “Richard Cory” is proof positive that a great cover can render the original all but irrelevant. It opens with a six-string, seven-syllable guitar riff that perfectly suits a musical portrait of a jaunty industrialist who “spreads his wealth around,” buying things, people and a sterling reputation on the backs of the laborers he exploits. Sung from the perspective of one of Cory’s workers, who curses his own poverty and “wishes that he could be Richard Cory,” the song takes a turn for the tragic when Cory commits suicide. All of this might serve as a simplistic parable about the oppressor being as deformed by inequity as the oppressed, except for a brilliant turn at the song’s end, when the worker still—perhaps more than ever?—wishes he could be Richard Cory. And what Morrison manages to do, somehow, is to make us all but forget the brilliant allegory, as his signature wail and rollicking guitar transform the song into an R&B classic that rocks us into caring.
“Revolution,” The Pretenders
Perhaps it was inevitable that Chrissie Hynde—a student at Kent State during the 1970 shootings by the Ohio National Guard—would write an ode to the transcendent powers of revolution. The surprise isn’t that the song she crafted is powerful. It’s that it’s so pretty. When Hynde, in her trademark tremolo, rues how the “privileged classes grew,” acknowledging the difficulty of undoing “what won’t undo,” there’s a moral fatigue in her gorgeous voice. But any hint of hopelessness soon gives way to an impassioned plea for a revolution that might give meaning to our present (“I want to die for something”), connect us to others engaged in struggle (“for every freedom fighter/ I want to hold on tighter”) and be deemed ultimately necessary by future generations (when “the children will understand why”).
“Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” Billy Bragg
From “Workers’ Playtime”—an album for which the original subtitle was “Capitalism is Killing Music”—Bragg sings this folk punk classic with so much gusto he nearly bursts vocal cords reaching for notes that stretch his range almost as much as he wishes to stretch the public’s political imagination. Unabashedly “mixing pop and politics,” Bragg foresees peoples of the Third World demanding justice, rallies laborers to organize and post pamphlets, and with an ironic nod to “commodity fetishism” even imagines a revolution that’s “just a T-shirt away.” In solidarity with labor, he worries about politics giving him the sack, but then warns the powers-that-be, “Here comes the future and you can’t run from it/ If you’ve got a blacklist, I want to be on it,” making it clear that politics means choosing sides as well as causes.
“Burnin’ and Lootin’,” Bob Marley and The Roots
The Roots’ remix of Bob Marley’s 1973 classic takes a musically evocative but lyrically unambitious song and turns it into a contemporary rap that explores the global links between oppressed peoples. Roots lyricist Black Thought name-checks regions primed for rebellion—New York, London, Cuba, and South Africa—and condemns the privileged few who oppress those on the low end of the economic scale (“his net workin’, our shoulders, backs, and necks hurtin'”). Here burning and looting is both revolutionary and reactive: a response to a world in which the “hungry, thirsty, and workin’” are not so much falling through the cracks as dropping into “crevices,” left with little choice but to turn on a system that long before turned on them.
“Goin’ To The Party,” Alabama Shakes
“If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution,” the anarchist Emma Goldman famously said; and implicit in her statement is the understanding that social movements are, at their best, a celebration of the future possible, a notion this year’s best breakout band, Alabama Shakes, seems to understand instinctively. When lead singer Brittany Howard, with her growl-howl of a voice, sings “You’re going to the party/ at the end of the night/ there’s gonna be dancin’/ and there’s gonna be a fight,” the thin line between rebellion and exhilaration disappears. Hey, Brittany? We’re going to that party, too.
And let’s not forget (our honorable mentions):
“Kill the Poor,” Dead Kennedys: In this satire ripped from the playbook of Irish author Jonathan Swift, Jello Biafra, prince of hardcore California punk, projects himself into the collective mind of capitalist zealots who can imagine only too well the uses to which the neutron bomb might be put.
“All Along the Watchtower,” Bob Dylan: This apocalyptic classic—reinterpreted brilliantly by Jimi Hendrix—is not so much a song as a warning shot to businessmen, princes and thieves of all stripes.
“Fight the Power,” Public Enemy: In this hip-hop classic, commissioned by Spike Lee for “Do the Right Thing,” Chuck D and company keep it simple: Fight. The. Power.
“Tis of Thee,” Ani DiFranco: Imagine a dystopian America in which poor black men are seized on the streets, arrested and thrown in jail. Wait, that doesn’t sound like mere hyperbolic fantasy, does it?
“Heads Will Roll,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Dark, devastating and infectiously danceable, the New York City indie rock band skewers the indifference of the powers that be.
“Sleep Now in the Fire,” Rage Against the Machine: In this paean to imperialist conquest, rock’s most fiercely political band calculates the expenses of the privileged as nothing less than the violent suppression of the needs of the conquered.
“Salvation,” Rancid: When the poor ask for “salvation,” do they really want microwaves, refrigerators and leftover crap the rich have tired of?
“Is It Because I’m Black?” Syl Johnson: Because far too often, it still is.
“Uprising,” Muse: Lead singer Matthew Bellamy channels his inner Freddie Mercury in this anti-totalitarian clarion call to “fat cats” who ought to prepare for “heart attacks.”
“Say, Hallelujah,” Tracy Chapman: On this gospel-styled funeral hymn, Chapman sings gleefully that “the bucket is kicked.” We like to think she’s referring to the death of a political system that perpetuates economic inequity.
On Spotify: Playlist for the 99%
Anne K. Ream is a Chicago-based writer and the author of “Lived Through This: Listening to the Stories of Sexual Violence Survivors” and the founder of The Voices and Faces Project, a global storytelling project. She is also a contributor to “The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan” and the creator of A Rock Shock to the Status Quo, the concert to end rape.