Welcome to the #Occupation

Welcome to the #Occupation: 
Politics and the Power of Music
Steven Michels

“Without music, life would be an error.” –Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Of all of the charges lobbed at the Occupy Movement—they are privileged, overeducated, lazy, greedy, leaderless, prescriptionless, immature, filthy, idealistic, dangerous, anarchical, etc.—none is more curious than what is said of its music.

George Will diminished the drum circles in Liberty Plaza as liberal nostalgia and a “facet of the Sixties.”[1] In response to Alan Grayson, former Democratic Congressman from Florida, and his explanation of OWS, on Real Time with Bill Maher, PJ O’Rourke quipped, “Get the man a bongo drum; they’ve found their spokesman!” And in an early piece about the Movement, Andrew Grossman at the Wall Street Journal couldn’t help but mention the most common injury among Occupiers: blisters from bongo drums.[2]

What’s going on here?

Perhaps the opponents have read their Plato and what he says about how corruptible music can be to the soul—and to the city. In Book II of Plato’s Republic, Socrates posits that a smaller and simpler city is to be preferred to one that is large and disharmonious. In fact, our desire for non-essential things—Glaucon calls it “relishes”—is the cause of war, as cities look to expand their territory to accommodate them. Hence what was once a “healthy” city soon comes to include “all the hunters and imitators, many concerned with figures and colors, many with music; and poets and their helpers, rhapsodes, actors, choral dancers, contractors, and craftsmen of all sorts of equipment.” The simple and true city is becomes “a bulky mass of things.”[3]

If material want is the origin of war, then it’s also the origin of government; for it creates a need for leaders, or guardians. And we’ll also need an education proper to the city. It is a physical education, in the gymnasium; but it’s also a musical one. Yet the music can’t be of just any kind; it too needs to be consistent with the needs of a just and well-ordered city. That requires the censorship and even compulsion of the poets, story tellers, and musicians. They must tell tales that are correct in form and substance—“songs written in the panharmonic mode and with all rhythms,” as Socrates explains.[4] Put another, less liberal, way, “There must be no innovation in gymnastic and music contrary to the established order…For never are the ways of music moved without the greatest political laws being moved.”[5]

And we can’t forget that Plato was no great fan of democracy. Sure, he calls it a fair and sweet regime that makes possible all sorts of lives, but it’s also an unjust regime that’s one step away from tyranny, when people misuse their liberty.[6] In other words, count Plato out of the drum circles.

Nietzsche too understood the power of music. Unlike Plato, whose main goal seemed to be ensuring only suitable works would be produced for the sake of preserving the city, Nietzsche saw, at least at first, music in general as a transformative influence, one that could return German culture, and even Western civilization, to its historic heights. The full title of his first significant work (from 1872) was The Birth of Tragedy from of the Spirit of Music. There he writes of how, “In song and in dance man expresses himself as a member of a higher community.”[7]

On hearing Wagner for the first time, Nietzsche wrote: “for the life of me I cannot preserve an attitude of cool criticism in listening to this music; every nerve in my being is set tingling.”[8] In the “Attempt at Self-criticism” added to later versions of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche commented on how “art, and not morality, is presented as the truly metaphysical activity of man.”[9] And in the Epilogue he wrote:

"In its measure of strength every age also possessed a measure for what virtues are permitted and forbidden to it. Either it has the virtues of ascending life: then it will resist from the profoundest depths the virtues of declining life. Or the age itself represents declining life: then it also requires the virtues of decline, then it hates everything that justifies itself solely out of abundance, out of the overflowing riches of strength."[10]

But Nietzsche would eventually turn on his teacher and friend—after Wagner debuted his too-Christian Parsifal. “Wagner is merely one of my sicknesses,” he would later remark.[11] Nietzsche’s break with Wagner signaled a revaluation of art and culture. This explains why Apollo becomes secondary in Nietzsche’s later writings: he came to understand more clearly that culture could only be set right through a tragic philosophy, a Dionysian philosopher. Music in general, and Wagner in particular, was no longer the answer. Art must be driven by philosophy, not the other way around. And in any event, neither was to serve mass democracy.

Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, was certainly a close reader of these philosophers. “Plato’s teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are barbarous expressions of the soul,” he writes. “It is not only not reasonable, it is hostile to reason.”[12] Bloom hoped that a proper liberal (by which he meant conventionally moral) education would moderate our natural passions and desires; that was the stuff civilizations were made of. “To Plato and Nietzsche,” Bloom observes, “the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul—to make them serve a higher purpose, an ideal, to give man’s duties a fullness.”[13]

And it’s not just that music will affect that soul; it’s what that corrupted soul will do—namely, want to have sex.[14] “Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire—not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored,” chides Bloom.[15] It’s not so much that music will have a direct or immediate effect, but that it will affect the ability to young people to receive a proper education.[16]

Bloom sounds a little dated—and just a little closed minded—and not just for his attack on those crazy kids and their “rock music.” Even so, it’s more than just rock and roll he should be worried about. As Ambrose Leung and Cheryl Kier have concluded in an article from Journal of Youth Studies, not all music subverts equally; indeed, classical, opera, musicals, world music, new age, house, heavy metal, punk, ska, and even easy listening (?!) all are associated with more politically active listeners. (It turns out, somewhat surprisingly, that hip hop, rap, R&B, and pop have a negative association with activism.)[17]

 What kind of music do we see at OWS? And to what extent is it corrupting souls, risking civilizations, and making people horny?

I took a group of students to New York in October, in conjunction with The City, a class I taught in the Fall of 2011. The students were interested in seeing the Occupy protestors, so, after a relatively dull tour around Times Square, we went to where the real action was.

There were drummers drumming and dancers dancing, and there were even nappers napping. But mostly the music seemed incidental to what everyone was doing—which was just trying to live and draw attention to the issues of the Movement.

Seeing such dedication made me want to do something. I’m probably too old and way too soft to sleep outside, I too quickly surmised, but I wanted to do something. I don’t know that I agree with everything associated with the Movement (or if they agree with themselves), but they are drawing attention to important issues related to social mobility, economic inequalities, and corporate responsibility. Plus, if nothing else, I can’t help but worry about my students—their preparedness, their professional prospects, their chance at a purposeful and happy life. And what kind of world are they heading in to?

It was inspiring to see so many young people stand up for what they believe in. After spending years hammering that message home in my courses, I couldn’t help but want to participate in some way. I decided I wanted to go down there and play some songs for them.

I spent the next few weeks putting together a list of appropriate songs and memorizing lyrics (mostly in my car). I enlisted a former bandmate of mine, Christian Laursen, who I knew would be sympathetic to the Movement. He liked the name I came up with for us to play under: Golden Shower Parachutes.

After a one-off run through and a two-week illness-related delay, we ended up there on a Saturday in November. It was sunny and crisp and very crowded. Apart from the people who were camped out, there were countless locals and tourists who were down there just to check out the scene.

“We’re here to play some songs,” I said to the woman at the Information Desk, who, more than anyone else, looked like she might be in charge—or at least in the know. “Where should we set up?”

“Wherever you like,” she somewhat laughingly responded.

A little after 1:00, we jumped up on a marble foundation on the corner of Broadway and Liberty and kicked into Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues.” It was windy and loud, and I could barely hear myself play or sing. Out of necessity, our guitar strumming became a bit more deliberate, and I had to sing louder. A few people stopped, some slowed down, but mostly people kept walking. It wasn’t the immediate revolution that I had anticipated, but at least we were joining in the fun. We didn’t have an order to what we were planning on doing, so we played it by ear, as it were, and quickly went through songs by Rage Against the Machine, Billy Bragg, and the White Stripes.

There’s nothing like the look on someone’s face when they’re walking by and recognize a song you’re playing. (That happened a lot when we played Arcade Fire’s “City With No Children.”) It’s instant community.

In addition to the walkers-by, some would stop and watch and even sing along. I even got a handful of young people to play our tambourine and the shakers I brought.

Around mid-performance, someone came up and requested an original song and videotaped our performance. We played a song (“Get Love”) that I wrote about the Movement. It was the first time I had ever played the song for anyone.

After we went through our set, we started just strumming chords and singing the words on the signs that people held up as they walked by. Everyone loved to have their signs sung back to them. Then we did our set again for a new crowd.

Countless people wanted pictures of us or us and them, and at some point, I was approached by a documentarian, who wanted me to sing the Arabic word for freedom. After she told me how to pronounce it (hurriyya), I started singing it over of a chord progression we had been playing, and Christian joined in with some harmonies. She was thrilled. “You just made our documentary,” she said. “I’m going to put it at the very end.”

The highlight of the afternoon was when we played (John Lennon’s) “Power to the People.” During the second chorus, I glanced to my right, and saw this elderly woman—she must have been in her mid- to late-60s—holding up her fist and singing with me. I’ll never forget it.

There was more than music and more than politics going on that day, in my mind at least. To drive that point home, my friend and roommate, Brendan Murphy, came down to meet us that day—to see us play and to support the Occupiers. While he was walking around, he saw a sign asking for shower facilities. We ended up having two guys (Kent and Johnny) from California come up to our apartment in Astoria. They used our shower—they hadn’t had a shower in a week or so—we made them tea, which eventually become dinner, and gave them some clothes. (They lost a good bit of their stuff after the raid, which happened earlier that week.) We offered to let them sleep on our floor, but they wanted to be with their friends, so they ended up heading off to—I think—a church in Manhattan.

Music might not have been central to what was going on that day. But it was for me, and its ability to bring people together can’t be discounted.

Clearly, Plato, Nietzsche, and Bloom are not the philosophers for the Occupy Movement. They might be radicals, but they are the wrong kind of radicals.

But Theodor Adorno’s critique of music has something to offer us. “The role of music in the social process is exclusively that of a commodity,” he laments; “its value is that determined by the market. Music no longer serves direct needs nor benefits from direct application, but rather adjusts to the pressures of the exchange of abstract units.”[18]

Inspired by Adorno, Michael Bull, in his Sound Moves, has found that iPod technology might have made the workplace more pleasurable (in that you can chose to replace the music or noise of the office or factory with something of your own choosing), but it hasn’t made it any more communal. We merely use our choice of music to work more efficiently.[19] Nevertheless, “we cannot close our ears to the world,” he concludes; “and it is this very openness that constitutes their democratic nature.”[20] In a piece coauthored with Les Black, Bull puts it rather succinctly, “Sound connects us in ways that vision does not.”[21]

Commercial music and the individualized technology that has come to play it have resulted in a “mediated we-ness”—that’s Adorno, again. Rather than having music bring us together, we are using it to keep us apart. Or maybe the philosopher John Coltrane said it best: “the audience heard ‘we’ everywhere the singer said ‘I.’”[22]

It’s not only the easy commodification that’s at work here. It’s also a question of the active versus the passive. In This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin writes:

"Whenever humans come together for any reason: music is there…Only relatively recently in our culture, five hundred years ago or so, did a distinction arise that cut society in two, forming separate classes of music performers and music listeners. Throughout most of the world and for most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, and everyone participated."[23]

If passive consumption is the problem, then non-commercialized participation is the solution.

And it’s not just the playing; it’s the playing together. Others, including Alfred Schutz and Peter J. Martin have treated the reciprocal nature of collective music making as a kind of dialogue between the Other—a “mutual tuning-in relationship,” as Schutz puts it.[24]

In any event, it seems clear that opponents of OWS are not objecting to the music because it’s silly or pointless; they’re deeply suspicious of it because it’s evidence that the Movement has real traction. Whether it’s a full-on drum circle or just two friends with borrowed songs looking to make a difference, the people might actually have the power.

But to say that music is powerful is to actually diminish what it can do. Music does not convey or transfer power: it transcends it.


Steven Michels is associate professor of political science at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, CT and the author of The Case against Democracy (forthcoming from Praeger). He lives in New York City.



[1] George Will, “Can Occupy Wall Street Give Liberals a Lift,” Washington Post, Oct. 12, 2011.

[2]Andrew Grossman, “Down with Wall Street, but Keep the Pizza Coming,” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 28, 2011.

[3]Plato, The Republic, Allan Bloom, trans. (Basic Books, 1991), 373b.

[4]Plato, 404d.

[5] Plato, 424b.

[6]Plato, 557c.

[7]Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Walter Kaufmann, trans. (Vintage, 1967), 37.

[8]Friedrich Nietzsche, Letter to Erwin Rohde, The Nietzsche-Wagner Correspondence, Caroline V. Kerr, trans., 4.

[9] Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, “Attempt at Self-criticism,” 22.

[10]Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, “Epilogue,” 190.

[11]Friedrich Nietzsche, Nietzsche Contra Wagner, Walter Kaufmann, trans. (Vintage, 1967), Preface. 

[12]Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (Simon and Schuster, 1988), 71.

[13] Bloom, 72.

[14]For Saul Bellow’s fictionalized take on Bloom’s seemingly hypocritical sexuality, see his Ravelstein (Penguin, 2001).

[15] Bloom, 73.

[16] Bloom 79.

[17]Ambrose Leung and Cheryl Kier, “Music Preferences and the Civic Activism of Young People,” Journal of Youth Studies 11/4 (Aug. 2008).

[18]  Theodor Adorno, “On the Social Situation of Music,” Essays on Music (University of California, 2002), 391.

[19]Michael Bull, Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience (Routledge, 2008), 120. Guy Debord makes a similar point in Society of the Spectacle: “The economic system founded on isolation is a circular production of isolation. The technology is based on isolation, and the technical process isolates in turn. From the automobile to the television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation of ‘lonely crowds.’”Society of the Spectacle (Black and Red, 1977), 26.

[20]Bull, 12.

[21]Michael Bull and Les Back, eds., The Auditory Culture Reader(Oxford: Berg), 6.

[22]Bull and Back, 6.

[23]David Levitan, This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Plume/Penguin, 2007), 6. Emphasis added.

[24]Alfred Schutz, “Making Music Together: A Study in Social Relationship,” Social Research: An International Quarterly 18/1 (Spring 1951) and Peter J. Martin, Sounds and Society: Themes in the Sociology of Music (Manchester University Press, 1995).

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