In 2006, Neil Young told the Los Angeles Times that the silence of young songwriters during the Bush era compelled him to retake the stage as a protest singer: “I was waiting for someone to come along, some young singer eighteen-to-twenty-two years old, to write these songs and stand up. I waited a long time. Then I decided that maybe the generation that has to do this is still the ’60s generation.”
Hats off to the Godfather of Grunge for stepping into the breach during the Bush years but it’s time for him to exit stage left and let a new generation take over. Whether it’s Occupy’s resurgence as an army of first-responders distributing food, clothing, and even bike-powered electricity or the Rolling Jubilee that has pooled enough funds to buy and then cancel over $10 million in homeowners debt -- this is not your father’s protest movement.
To tune into the new poetry of protest, Neil should check out the Flobots. They’re a band out of Denver writing songs that reflect the frustration and anticipation of a new generation of activists navigating the seemingly intractable environmental and economic crises.
What sets the Flobots apart from other contemporary topical songwriters is their keen sense that something new is afoot. They are one the first bands to articulate the sneaking suspicion among activists that a new paradigm with a new storyline is emerging - one that, against all odds, we may have the power to shape.
The Flobots don’t drip with the idealism of the drum-circle crowd, but in songs like “Circle in the Square” they let their hope mingle with fear:
We are the night light bearers for night terrors
we are group dreamers vision seekers and pall bearers
in aftermath of blight errors
blood type and marrow to the bone oaths
and beat hope into plough shares.
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They use their music to embrace what co-founder Johnny 5 sees as the “complications, questions, and frustrations” of activism and social change. They celebrate this complexity “as a part of a global transformation, one in which forces of violence, hopelessness and waste will be composted into fertile soil from which new possibility can grow.”
Too many protest songs are uninspired. Like banal picket line chants—"Hey hey, ho ho, Dirty coal has got to go"—songwriters dash off drab lyrics that influence neither heads nor hearts. Neil Young went from writing Ohio in 1970, one of the most pointed, timely and moving political songs of his generation, to the slapped together “Impeach the President For Lying” in 2006. As Truman Capote famously quipped about Jack Kerouac, "That's not writing, that's typing.”
The Flobots are on a quest to return poetry to politics. In songs like “The Rose and the Thistle” they weave images of street clashes and concealed edens:
the shadow cast was like a battle axe
so I grabbed it fast and I smashed the glass
and I crawled through the shards
and i found myself in a beautiful garden
with petals bulbs
nettles mulch hibiscus delphinium ferns christmas bells...
The band tag themselves as “students of illness” and prove it by scattering medical references of surgical procedures and prescription drugs like chondroitin and glucosamine throughout their songs. Once you realize they’re not defending Obamacare, the rhymes becomes less peculiar and more powerful. The Flobots—like many of their generation—are intent on holistic critiques of social ills, not the laundry lists of siloed issue politics.
These are artists diagnosing the disease and disorders of the body politic—and that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. As Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org writes, poets and other artists are the “antibodies of the cultural bloodstream” and key to social movement vitality, because they “sense trouble early, and rally to isolate and expose and defeat it, to bring to bear the human power for love and beauty and meaning against the worst results of carelessness and greed and stupidity.”
Whether it was Picasso’s “Guernica” capturing the horrors of the German bombing of civilians in 1937 or “We Shall Overcome” expressing the optimism and power of the civil rights movement, throughout history artists have joined forces with political movements to battle injustice. Our generation’s fight to build a sustainable future will be long and hard. To prevail we will need a battalion of Flobots to inspire and fortify our wills - and together we will make the world better and more beautiful place.