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Protest, Music, And #OWS Opportunism

When does a performer’s “endorsement” of Occupy Wall Street cross over into exploitation?

Music and protest have long gone hand in blistered hand. (Those power chords don't play themselves, after all.) Try to imagine the Civil Rights Movement without “We Shall Overcome,” or the opposition to the Vietnam War without “Give Peace a Chance.” At one point in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, the aging punk rocker Richard Katz says: “Remember when, I forget his name, but that rocker who wrote the ‘Marseillaise,’ Jean Jacques Whoever--remember when his song started getting all that airplay in 1792, and suddenly the peasantry rose up and overthrew the aristocracy? There was a song that changed the world.”

It’s no surprise, then, that music should be playing a role in the Occupy Wall Street protests, and that the endorsements of various prominent musicians--Lupe Fiasco and Kanye West, among others--have been welcomed by many of the protesters. Even so, we couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at a press blast that went out Friday from a PR firm representing a musician called Penguin Prison (real name: Chris Glover, above). “CALLING ALL NEW YORKERS & PENGUIN PRISON FANS,” read the announcement. It then invited people to join Glover at the site of the OWS protests as he shot a music video for “his forthcoming single ‘Don’t F**k With My Money,’” which we were informed “is already steadily becoming the anthem for this movement!”

The blast also included a link to the song in case I needed “to familiarize" myself with this anthem. I did need to familiarize myself, so I clicked the link, expecting to hear some seriously angry rap or retro punk, oozing disenfranchisement and decrying the woes of the modern financial system.

“I went up to you after, and you come home with me” somehow doesn’t quite rank up with there with “Allons enfants de la Patrie!” in the pantheon of rallying cries. Listening to the song, I felt moved, admittedly, to dance. To protest, not so much.

Shortly after the announcement of the video shoot, a music journalist from Los Angeles named Justin Hampton, active in the OWS movement, tweeted “Why Is Penguin Prison Exploiting Us?” Hampton linked to his blog, where he wrote that he had heard the “Money” track months before the protests even began, on Hype Machine, and that “it was hardly any sort of call to action.” He summed up: “fuck Penguin Prison and fuck them using this as a means to market their hipster bubblegum.”

“It’s been a funny one,” Alexandra Baker, Penguin Prison’s publicist at High Rise PR, started saying over the phone, before I had asked her any questions. “Because it’s something Chris Glover felt very strong about, but he also was so wary of him looking like he’s exploiting it, but he really isn’t.” (We've emailed Glover for comment and will update this post when we hear back from him. Meantime, his new album, as fate would have it, is out today.)

Baker says that while there had been something of a backlash to her email blast, many people had responded in support, or to share music, art, and writing of their own in support of the protests. “I certainly wouldn’t have endorsed this if he hadn’t believed in it,” she said, adding that Glover had been kicking around the idea of shooting “Don’t F**k With My Money” down on Wall Street even before the protests erupted. “It just made perfect sense, because Chris is a born-and-bred New Yorker,” says Baker. (That breeding apparently included attending Manhattan's Trevor Day School, which currently charges $36,000 in annual tuition.)

“It’s one thing to write a song on behalf of the movement,” says Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur and PR expert. “But it’s a fine line, whether you’re doing it to actually lend support, or doing it to tie on to the back of a political movement and get press.” He raises the examples of fashion designer Kenneth Cole, who tweeted on February 3, “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online." Shankman gives another example of a rapper who issued a press release in the wake of the 2005 London bombings assuring everyone he was OK, when he was in fact nowhere near the bombings. “So celebrities need to be careful as to what they join or lend support to for countless reasons,” sums up Shankman, “the least of which is people saying, ‘Wow, he’s just trying to ride the coattails of this, what a douche.’”

Shankman, and others, could also look at less conspicuous ways of aligning oneself with the OWS movement to underscore this point. With virtually no fanfare, top-shelf indie rock stars such as Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum and Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello have snuck down to Zuccotti Park to perform acoustic sets.

So where exactly is that line between endorsement and exploitation? For Liam O’Donoghue, an account executive at PR firm Fenton who has blogged about the communications lessons of OWS, “it’s really about the process.” He says that if Glover had taken the idea for his video to the OWS General Assembly, its loose governing body, he might have had a better reaction. To the various endorsers of OWS, O’Donoghue gave different scores. Kanye’s example was “confusing,” in that his last few albums were about “bragging about how he’s in the top 1%.” Lupe Fiasco’s example is widely seen as much more sincere: “When he came to Occupy Oakland last week,” says O’Donoghue, “he reached out to the organizers and asked if they needed anything,” bringing tents, supplies, and food. “If celebrities want to be associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement they need to show more than just a willingness to lend their name.”

For Justin Hampton, the music writer who first publicly charged exploitation, he has softened his rhetoric somewhat. He feels strongly about OWS, and says that “if it’s just turned into a party, just turned into a marketing gimmick, we lose this opportunity for decades to come.” At the same time, he thinks Glover's gaffe was not evidence of a larger maliciousness on his part. “My sense with Chris Glover is he probably sort of had this idea in his head, ‘Oh right, let’s jump on this now,’ and it was kinda tone deaf.” Hampton, who has been covering music for 20 years, feels that the greater sin in music culture today is its overweening political apathy, which he feels is due in large part to the corporate influence of record labels. Music, that is, can’t occupy Wall Street if Wall Street has already occupied music.

Hampton thinks that, in a way, it’s a credit to the Occupy movement that it has cast broad enough a tent for “someone like Penguin Prison to enter this rough-and-tumble world” of politics, where many musicians have opted to sit by the sidelines. He invites Glover, down the line, to make a more sincere contribution to Occupy Wall Street, and believes the movement is fluid and forgiving enough to still welcome him.

Update 10/24: Chris Glover writes in, "I wrote and recorded 'Don't Fuck with My Money' some time before the Occupy Wall Street protest began but I felt that some of the lyrics reflected the sentiments that a lot of people have right now. Inspired by OWS and by the other protests that have sprung up all over the world I decided to film a video for 'Don't Fuck With My Money' at the Occupy Wall Street March that went from Zuccotti Park to Times Square. I intended the video to be a tribute to and not an exploitation of the protest. Filming it was an amazing experience and I hope the video can help to bring their message to even more people than it has already reached.

The press release that was sent out recently claiming the song was 'fast becoming an anthem of the movement' was totally over the top and does not reflect what I think at all. I apologize for the confusion and look forward to working with the Occupy Wall Street movement to help their cause in any way I can."

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[Image: Flickr user Brandon Weight]

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