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September 6, 2010 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

The soundtrack to struggle

I used to go to a lot of gigs. I would buy a single over-priced drink and nod vaguely in the direction of whatever band was playing, nonchalantly stepping from side to side in companiable disdain with casually disheveled indie girls and pointy-shoed indie guys, all immaculately coiffed. While enjoyable in some respects, my gig attendance has since somewhat waned: a result of busyness, changing taste and eroding eardrum endurance.

It was something of an occasion last weekend when I bought a $20 ticket and headed out in the evening fog to attend a different type of gig from those of my not-so-fevered youth. Set at the Newtown Community Centre, the seats were filled with a variety of ages. I guessed at people’s backgrounds: grey-haired radicals, colourfully-clad anarchists and long-time ardent unionists. The draw card of the night was David Rovics, a US-based musician who writes political folk songs about subjects as diverse as the occupation of Palestine and the reasons why Somali pirates are awesome.

Rovic’s music was alternatively hilarious and heart-wrenching, and ended up giving me more chills than three years of living in a Dunedin flat put together. His songs brought about an almost uncontrollable urge to chain myself to something (erm, in a political way, of course). I wondered: what is it about a well-written song that can tear you up? It’s one thing to read, research and superficially understand an issue, and another to be suddenly overwhelmed with sadness by means of a simple melodic and lyrical progression.
In the realm of climate change psychology, studies continually find that providing information alone results in no real behaviour change. We don’t respond well to plain facts alone, but what about emotions?

Call me an idealist, but I figure that if we could better understand the struggles of others we’d dig so deep in our pockets for Pakistan that we’d hit a coal seam. If we could begin to feel the effects of military occupations far across the globe we’d be protesting outside embassies daily, weekly, forever. The problem is that it’s incredibly difficult to imagine another human’s pain, particularly when they’re unknown and distant. Let’s not even try to talk about other forms of life: how do you empathise with a carnivourous snail? What about an ecosystem?

Although communicating intangible feelings using analytical descriptions can obviously be pretty problematic, for most people emotions can be translated through music, visual art, and fiction. That’s why protest songs are so important: because they can easily make emotional connections that encourage peeps to take action. Unsurprisingly, in many different cultures you can find a massive back-catalogue of songs calling for social change. Protest music gives commonality to artists diverse as Bikini Kill, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.

Try as I might, I can’t seem to find any climate change-related protest music. I fear this is a niche that must be filled. If you’d like to join my hip-hop collective, please contact me ASAP.


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