What Do You Want to Hear?

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December 1, 2012
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Eitan Kensky

On October 6, 2011, Jeff Mangum, the musician behind the legendary indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, played a surprise concert for the Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York’s Zuccotti Park. Until earlier that year, Mangum was modern rock’s most famous recluse. He practically disappeared in the years following his band’s second album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.” He made few public appearances and granted fewer interviews, and the long articles that were written about him during this time, the ones that actually had something to say about Jeff Mangum, seem to have disappeared from the Internet entirely. It is possible I imagined them.

But even before he disappeared, there was a mystique around Mangum and his music. His cryptic and grotesque lyrics are haunted by desires that cannot fully be explained. The songs are also haunted, almost literally, by Anne Frank. Mangum read The Diary of a Young Girl shortly after the release of his band’s first album and he found himself devastated by Anne’s story and tormented by nightmares. The album is filled with facts about her life, but it’s also exceedingly difficult to know where the facts end and his machinations begin. While the lyrics can be impenetrable, the emotions never are. Mangum exhausted himself in the performance; nothing was omitted. The album sold hundreds of thousands of copies, despite almost no marketing. His disappearance only made the album seem more like prophecy.

After occasionally performing with friends, Mangum decided to tour again. In 2011, he played small venues around the country, each chosen for its acoustics. There is no way to describe those shows other than intimate;  Mangum, his guitar, and his voice. He used as little amplification as possible, and most concerts became sing-alongs. Thinking about it now, the sing-alongs seem like the point of the tour: Mangum wanted to give the audience the experience of connecting through music.

But a strange thing happened to Jeff Mangum at Zuccotti Park: He stumbled into the longer history of protest music. Social progress movements in both the 1930s and 1960s memorably and indelibly used music to voice their messages. Woody Guthrie became an American legend; “Ohio,” a perfect blend of rage, melody, and message, reached 14 on the Billboard charts. And Neil Young instantly became one of the leaders of the 1960s counterculture.

Today, it should be even easier to use music for political purposes. Guthrie frequently had to choose between performing political music about working conditions on site and performing on the radio. Today, technology allows artists to bypass the “culture industry” entirely: Bands don’t need a record label to upload their music to YouTube. Their work is accessible to millions; and yet, none of the music from Zuccotti Park has had any sort of mass impact. The two most widely reported concerts, Mangum’s and that of former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, have garnered only 50,000-80,000 views each on YouTube — respectable numbers for a clip of a cute kitten. If a Pete Seeger was born in Zuccotti Park, we haven’t yet heard his music.

Mangum may have been playing at a protest, but he wasn’t performing protest songs. He saw himself as an entertainer, not a leader: “I’m here to serve you,” he said. “What do you want to hear?” If there is something that categorizes music, perhaps all media, in this era of change, it is the hesitancy toward serving politics through art — and an audience suspicious of hearing those messages. We no longer expect our culture to be a commentary on the world.

In a sense, we’ve traded mass-consciousness for intimacy and personal connection. The dominant literary genre is the memoir. Radio shows have been reinvented as podcasts, more than ever directed at the listener alone with his or her headphones. Groups like “The Moth” are dedicated to live storytelling. Performers enter the stage to tell their stories to a small group of people in attendance and a larger group of people spiritually connected via their headphones. It’s true that established artists such as Bruce Springsteen remain political and outspoken. But many of the younger generation of singer-songwriters who compose music about homelessness, the environment, and poverty, do so as autobiographic and personal narratives. Their songs tell us about their lives, not their politics. We’re brought together by the confession. Presence and closeness matter.

Mangum is only a singer-songwriter. We no longer expect him to change the world; we only hope his music will tell us something new about humanity. He was there to entertain the protestors, and maybe to share with them new feelings of hope.

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Eitan Kensky is the preceptor in Yiddish at Harvard University, where he is a doctoral candidate focusing on American Jewish literature and culture. To view Jeff Magnum performing at Occupy Wall Street, go to www.YouTube.com and search for “Jeff Magnum at Occupy Wall Street.”

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