Remember the predictions in 2016 that the consolation prize for such a divided country would be an era of great protest music?  People pointed to the rock and roll of the fifties, the folk, rock, and soul of the sixties, the punk rock of the seventies and eighties, and hip hop of the nineties as products of conflicted and repressive times.  I felt the notion was a little reductionist and dumb (I think art flourishes more when we support it, not when we suffocate it). If there was a surge in protest music, I might be too old and out of touch to have recognized it; still, I was struck by the question of what protest music would sound like in the 2010’s, and I’m still very interested in what it could be in the 2020’s.

Everyone knows we can discuss art in terms of content, style, and form.  If we examine the history of protest music as art, we might assume that it prioritizes content, or what we might call message; after all, the clearest form of protest is to say what you don’t like about a thing and suggest how it could be improved.  In the music of Woodie Guthrie, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, or Public Enemy, the most obvious place to locate the protest is in the lyrics.

The second easiest place to recognize the “protest” in protest music is in the style, which we might describe as attitude, approach, or aesthetic.  A genre like punk might prioritize style.  Yes, punk lyrics matter, but we can’t always understand them.  What we understand immediately, with punk, though, is its aesthetic of rebellion.  At its best, it sounds and looks unsettling and disruptive, and you don’t need to decipher lyrics to get the message.  At its worst, you’re just walking into Hot Topic instead of Abercrombie and Fitch.

As far as moving the culture forward goes, I’m not sure how effective the words and style of protest are anymore.  I think we always need to examine the content of Truth, and the only appropriate style or aesthetic with which to approach Truth is humility.  I think television and social media tend to work against both, unfortunately.  Digital culture tends to tribalize us—it finds out where we stand, shows us that we are part of a large group of people who see things the same way, convinces us that our membership numbers are the same thing as proof, and then weaponizes us against the other side.  It manipulates us into a type of protest that maintains a status quo instead of improving it—powerful and wealthy continue to grown in their power and wealth, and everyone else gets to deal with a crumbling society that has yet to reach its potential.  By design, most TV news has more in common with Sportscenter than academic debate.  We adopt the aesthetics of our sides to signal our teams, but these aesthetics do little to improve freedom or cooperation in our culture.   When we constantly live in a state of protest that reinforces the status quo instead of improving society, it’s no wonder that we are too exhausted to create a new era of protest music.  What would it do that CNN and FOX don’t already do around the clock in our brains whether we are watching or not?  It seems that in many ways, words and style distract us from addressing malevolent shifts in social structure.

If Clay Wires creates protest music, it does so through form more than style or content.  We have a different lineup every time and intentionally draw musicians and sound artists from a wide range of (some might say conflicting) backgrounds, so how can we have a style?  And if we have lyrics, they are composed in the moment, so don’t expect a consistent, premeditated message in our words.  That leaves us with form.  But why prioritize form, and how can a group with an ever-shifting lineup, spontaneously-composed music, and no fixed or consistent sound even discuss form?

In our case, our form consists of the rules of how we make music, and those rules also contain a countercultural message.  In an age that encourages factionism, we refuse to be a faction.  We don’t have the us-against-the-world attitude of a band because we aren’t a band.  We are an assortment of people who are in other bands or who perhaps don’t even have bands. I’m sure we haven’t met most of the people in the group yet—there’s no fixed membership beyond the idea that Alex Riesenbeck, Matt Borghi,and I are curators of the project, and even then, it’s not like all three of us have to play in any given show.  The only certainty about the lineup is that it will never repeat itself.   There is a lower case “t” truth that there are only so many gigs to go around and that our bands sometimes compete for them, but there is a more important, capital-“T” Truth that music is a boundless gift to all mankind and all musicians are on the same side.  So it goes with all resources that matter and humanity.

The form of our band assumes that despite our differences, all people have to work together toward the greater good in the face of a ticking clock.  We don’t need to worry about whether our band is better than other bands—we’re not even a band.  We need to worry about whether we can work together to do something beautiful with the short amount of time we have, even though we are all different people with different strengths, weaknesses, styles, tastes, and viewpoints.  When we assemble a group for a performance, we don’t stack the deck in our favor beyond the idea that we are working with musical “grown-ups,” since we believe we are doing the work that grown-ups ought to do.  In all other regards, we try to make the evening challenging because working together to make a beautiful society is challenging.  We make sure some of the musicians don’t know each other.  We don’t rehearse.  We change our rigs around.  We don’t discuss chord changes or structure—we don’t even have any before we start playing.  We don’t come from similar backgrounds.  While these rules seem to limit our freedom, they actually limit our security and give us an anxiety-inducing amount of freedom.  Any of us can play anything as long as it doesn’t already exist.  We really just have to know ourselves and trust each other.  We have to use our strengths well and trust others to compensate for our weaknesses.  We have to find a way forward, and we struggle to create something beautiful against our self-imposed odds and the unknowns of other people.

The best protest music creates positive social change by transforming its audience, and we hope that we can offer our audiences a cathartic experience by shifting the typical dynamic of a night’s music.  Normally, the tension in listening to bands we enjoy hinges on whether or not the group will play their songs well and reward us with songs we like.  For our audiences, the tension hinges on whether we will create something beautiful at all against the odds or just make a bunch of stupid noise.  There isn’t really a way to know what to expect—the audience could hear almost anything, and it could sound wonderful or terrible.  An attentive audience must confront some significant existential questions:  can people still work together to make something beautiful, or will our best intentions and efforts fail?  Do we all have to see things the same way to succeed?  What are the limits of our efforts?  How good can good be?  What is inside of the individual, and what is inside of the group?

We hope that in a symbolic sense, an audience member who roots for Clay Wires to succeed roots for humanity to succeed, and if there is a protest latent in our form, it rests in our attempt to get people to cheer for cooperation in pursuit of Beauty again.

No responses yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *