“Where are all the protest songs?” “Is the protest song dead?” Variations of this question have been asked over and over again in recent years by journalists and critics chronicling political movements: Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the Ferguson uprising, the Women’s March, the yellow vests filling Parisian avenues, the chants resounding from rooftops in Tehran. These protests, in response to rolling financial crises, the ascendance of xenophobic strongmen, and the pushing of so many lives to the brink, have often been visually spectacular. Images of raised fists and clashes with police have flooded social media. But what of the soundtrack of dissent, the songs and sonic expressions that distill symbols and move bodies?
To many commentators, the demise of the musical genres that defined the New Left in the mid-twentieth century—think of Bob Dylan and other (typically white) American musicians who alloyed folk and rock, singing of power to the people—has left a vacuum. Music is often no longer legible as protest, or as an amplification of dissent. But if we tune our ears more carefully, we might hear sounds of protest that take unfamiliar musical forms, or that aren’t musical at all. In 2010, Thai protesters issued oblique epithets that circumvented the government’s draconian censorship laws. In 2011, Iranians took to their rooftops under the cover of night and chanted in unison, registering their opposition to the government without allowing themselves to be identified, much less detained. In 2012, members of Pussy Riot were jailed for a punk performance in a Moscow cathedral. These were not the actions of musicians, but of sonic activists. Elsewhere, dissenters have turned from chanting and noise to the strategic and symbolic use of silence, as in the voiceless gatherings that dramatized the death of Eric Garner and the refusal to listen that characterized Colin Kaepernick’s protests of police brutality.
For The Revolution Will Not Have a Chorus, Ben Tausig, an ethnomusicologist and the author of Bangkok is Ringing: Sound, Protest, and Constraint (Oxford University Press, 2019), will speak about the various and inventive ways in which sound acts as a condition of dissent—whether via community radio stations, profane punk concerts in churches, or the improvisatory transformation of pop-song choruses into anti-racist slogans. (Tausig is creating an audio edition of the book, which punctuates readings with field recordings and other audio; the initial installments are available on his website. In 2010 and 2011, Triple Canopy published Bangkok Is Ringing, a series of his audio reports from Bangkok.) In a presentation and listening session, Tausig will draw on his fieldwork in Thailand and survey the “vernaculars of sonic dissent” that, in the US and around the world, have always shadowed—and now have supplanted—the conventional protest song. Afterwards, Tausig will be joined in conversation by Maureen Mahon, who has written extensively about black musicians confronting the norms of the industry and the expectations of audiences, especially through vocal styles.
On the occasion, Tausig has created a twenty-minute mix of field recordings, songs, and interviews that draw on his ethnomusicological work in Thailand. (See and listen below.)
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- Ben Tausig is an assistant professor of music at Stony Brook University. His research focuses on sound, music, and political dissent in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. His work has appeared in Social Text, Positions: Asia Critique, and Culture, Theory, and Critique, among other journals. His first book, Bangkok Is Ringing: Sound, Protest, and Constraint, was published by Oxford University Press in 2019.
- Maureen Mahon is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor in the department of music at New York University. She is the author of Right To Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (Duke University Press, 2004), as well as articles on music and African-American cultural studies that have appeared in academic journals, EbonyJet.com, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum website. She was the Chief Academic Advisor for “Soundtrack of America,” commissioned by the artist Steve McQueen for the opening in 2019 of the Shed (New York). She received a 2013–14 National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship to research Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll, which is forthcoming from Duke University Press.