Occupy Music: Digital Music Texts of the Occupy Movement

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"The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing, from which all actual “having” must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function."
-Debord, "Society of the Spectacle,"


The Occupy movement stemming from Occupy Wall Street (#OWS) has generated an enormous amount of music, art, and media activity. Collectively, I will refer to the mixed digital forms of these cultural products as digital music texts. Given the state of art as "always already" hybrid, these cultural products are naturally hybrids of previous cultural work. Hybridity as a concept is the subject of a broad collection of theoretical work. This essay will employ basic semiotics (Chandler); Bakhtin's theories on dialogism and its later expansions; and critical theory from Debord (as an interpretation of Marxism), as well as other postmodern thinkers. When applied to the cultural products of the Occupy movement, these theoretical frameworks lead to related questions. What are the signs that have been associated with the Occupy movement? How have cultural codes been used/reused by artists, musicians and media producers? The approach stemming from Bakhtin leads us to question how diologism is at play: How do these codes relate to one another to from a complex web of media? And Debord, Foucault, and other post-global, post-modern theorists require us to take a critical look at the power dynamics at play in this borrowing: Whose codes are borrowed, and for what purpose? When is borrowing viewed as authentic, representing a truthful challenge to hegemonic power, and when is it seen as co-optation? First, these issues of authenticity are examined below, positing that artists are judged based on the track record of their political expression. Through a variety of case studies of digital media, this essay will demonstrate three types of appropriation at play in the Occupy movement: image, parody, and genre. Further, dialogism is evident in Occupy cultural products by re-infusing political messages into genres and media spaces previously disassociated with political messaging. Put differently, Occupy digital music texts reclaim physical and digital space.


Beginning with the Occupy Wall Street protest in late September 2011, an Occupy movement developed throughout the United States and abroad. Encampments sprung up in public space in every US state in solidarity with the message that corporate greed had was at the heart of societal and political ills, and that vast majority of the middle and working class people ("the 99%") had been treated unfairly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Though the demands of the protesters were not clearly articulated at first, the Occupy movement quickly became a spectacle and garnered wide-spread media attention. Occupiers not only created communities in physical spaces, but also established an online presence through websites and social networks. As the Occupy movement continues, it inspires music, art, and media loosely united under a banner of class conscious, revolutionary rhetoric (occupy, #OWS, the 99%, etc.).

These digital music texts are available through a variety of digital platforms. For example, the Occupy Music Facebook page collates streaming music and video with user commentary. There is an Occupy Music website with an associated Twitter account. Cataloged in the popular print and online press, the star-studded "Occupy This Album" is scheduled for release in the coming weeks and months. There is a list of musicians supporting the Occupy movement compiled via the Web. The Huffington Post reported that music is central to the Occupy movement. Further examples garnered from a variety of online sources, such as google searches for occupy music, are below.

Music and media spurred by the Occupy movement are reflective of economic and political critiques of Wall Street. The spectacle of the 2008 financial crisis has been redefined in 2011 by the spectacle of public outrage. As this anger takes artistic form, culture and economy are critically re-examined through appropriation. Will the cultural phenomenon of Occupying public space to demand economic justice fundamentally change cultural industries and categories? Artists who have already attained fame and fortune are appropriating the signs and symbols of Occupy, while emerging and independent musicians and media producers are re-appropriating content from the major labels and news industries. Are these forces fundamentally opposed, or are they united through paradoxical truth? The types of borrowing at play in Occupy digital music texts will be further examined below.

Theoretical Frameworks

Basic semiotic theory can provide a helpful framework for analyzing just about any cultural phenomenon. In media studies, deconstructing and understanding the codes that underlie representation is a helpful exercise. For this essay, I will draw on theory from Peirce and Saussure to describe the symbolic systems at play in Occupy cultural products. Further, work on visual culture and semiotics is important for understanding the use of images in Occupy cultural products.(Baudrillard; Barthes; Benjamin)

A particularly helpful lens for examing the cultural products of the Occupy movement is the work of Bakhtin, expanded by Kristeva (1986) and Agger (1999). Bakhtin's concepts of the carnivalesque, dialogism and heteroglossia are prophetically relevant in the current context. While Kristeva expanded Bakhtin's work on the novel, Agger works to refine a "Bakhtin inspired approach" for media studies.

Insightful analogies may be drawn between Bakhtin's work on the carnivalesque and modern protest movements. The Occupy movement shares important parallels with medieval carnival. Bakhtin noted that the carnival in medieval Europe was a time when typical social boundaries could be transgressed, and social grievances could be aired. The transgressive language was replete with double entendre, irony and parody, resulting in a temporary reworking of the social fabric. In the Occupy movement, the transgressive occupation of public space is itself a challenging of political ideologies. I can attest from personal experience at Occupy DC that conversations otherwise considered too touchy or taboo about class, race or oppression surface frequently at Occupy encampments. Moreover, a variety of social relationships are possible in the occupied public space that would not be likely to occur otherwise (e.g. restaurant workers sharing tents with homeless people). In this way, the Occupy movement transforms social norms and expectations, much in the same way medieval carnival allowed for temporary easing of social restrictions.

Dialogism was fundamental to Bakhtin's theories about language and literature. For Bakhtin, the "word" (and words more generally in language systems) mediated between self and other. In fact, the concept of otherness was fundamental to language in Bakhtin's view. Every utterance is intended for a receiver, and takes place in the context of the words of others. Others are always invoked through language, and no utterance can be made in a vacuum. Thus, dialogue is constantly constructed in language, even when only one speaker is present. Bakhtin's views on the orientation of self to other through language have become known as dialogism. In the present case of the Occupy movement, we will see that a unique sort of dialogism is at play. For Kristeva, dialogismm led to notions of intertextuality, that is texts (in the broad sense) referencing other texts in a complex system of signs and referents. Agger re-interpreted this framework and brings it into the arena of media studies, to arrive at what can be termed "intermediality," an even more complex web of signs and referents in a variety of mediums.

Debord's "Society of the Spectacle" is considered a Marxist critique of (post)modern consumer culture. For Debord, there is no life, no reality beyond the spectacle of production and consumption. Arguably, the Occupy movement take Debord's view as a common starting point. Countering the spectacle of corporate greed and its political influence, these protesters have literally created a new spectacle that re-envisions public space and participatory democracy. The rhetoric of this movement has already caused a political shift, as the language of "the 99%" becomes commonplace in American political debates. Yet the signs, symbols and creative codes employed by the Occupiers are necessarily unorginal. In Debord's terms, "When analyzing the spectacle one speaks, to some extent, the language of the spectacular itself in the sense that one moves through the methodological terrain of the very society which expresses itself in the spectacle. But the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practice of a social-economic formation, its use of time. It is the historical movement in which we are caught." (Debord, 11)

Issues of Authenticity

In Occupy-related art and music, a distinct sort of economic dialogism is at play. The 99% and the 1% are at odds particularly in the music industry, dominated by both talented artists and corporate interest. Financial success is reserved 1% of musicians (or less) who "make it big" through record deals with the four major labels. Technological trends (i.e. P2P filesharing technology) from the mid-90's to present are reshaping the music industry, challenging its profitable business models. Now, online distribution allows a wide variety of independent artists to become popular through viral marketing and niche market sales catering to ever more specific subcultures. In Occupy music, the fears of co-optation that have plagued the movement from its inception are constantly at play. Hip Hop legends Russel Simmons, Kanye West, and JayZ, have ostensibly attempted to support the movement with their appearances or merchandizing, but have been quickly rebuffed as "profiteers."

The Occupy movement is relatively impossible to characterize, a profound example of heteroglossia at work. Monolithic claims about its goals or composition are hotly contested. It is both "a leaderless movement" and "a movement full of leaders." Occupations, sit-ins, encampments and tent cities have a long history of use within social movements. But this movement has been resistant to articulating specific "demands," which have been the driving force of social movements of the past. It is a movement at once global (there are Occupy encampments on every continent, in major cities throughout the world) and local (addressing the concerns and needs of locally situated communities). Through the consensus decision making process, it aims to be a non-hierarchical, horizontally organized movement. And yet people of color and traditionally marginalized people have just concerns about representation and inclusion. For this reason, the "Occupy" name of the movement itself (stemming from Occupy Wall Street) has been questioned as the terminology of occupation has been used historically in conjunction with imperial ventures. (In the case of Occupy Oakland, the general assembly voted to rename their encampment Decolonize Oakland). These apparent contradictions are brought to the fore by Occupiers, debated in general assemblies and confronted through everyday realities within encampments.

Through this paradoxical lens, the responses toward corporate music co-optation may come as a surprise. Can't these protesters embrace the help of affluent and influential artists?

There are also gray areas of Occupy music. Note "Occupy This Album," a compilation of Occupy-related music by well-known musicians, the proceeds of which will be donated to Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy encampments (according to a CNN article,
Producers of the album say all of the proceeds will benefit the Occupy movement. 50% of the proceeds will be donated to the Occupy Wall Street General Fund. The other half of money generated will be distributed evenly among the major occupations across the country, according to Jason Samel of Music for Occupy, who is producing the album.") Are these 1%ers trying to co-opt the message of the Occupy movement? By donating their proceeds, will they insulate themselves from the criticism garnered by JayZ, et al? What benefit do they receive if not financial reward or royalties? To what extent does contributing to the album help them improve their brand identity as artists? I would argue that the authenticity of an artists' contribution to Occupy digital music texts is judged by their "track record" of political expression.

In the tradition of the hip hop mixtape, Rebel Diaz released an Occupy the Airwaves album, supporting their current tour by that name. The album is distributed for "free.99" - that is it can be downloaded for free or users can purchase the album for the price they see fit.

Perhaps the catch is that you have to give an email address to receive the download. For these artists, its not about making money, its about the information economy. By distributing the album for free, they increase their fan base for future promotions. Yet Rebel Diaz (as their name signifies) has a long history of creating hip hop with progressive messages, questioning the political order. Note "An Open Letter to Barack Obama." Given this history, these artists are both contributing their support to the Occupy movement while collecting information (or a minimal amount of money) from user downloads. It appears this is an example of a "two-way street" in terms of sharing. It is unlikely that fans would question the commitment of this notable hip hop group to the cause. For underground hip hop fans, they are unequivocally authentic.

A personal favorite, "We The 99" by Jasiri X is a powerful example of socially engaged hip hop:

For me, this quickly became an #OWS anthem. Unquestionably in the tradition of underground hip hop, the distorted guitar (or syhtnesizer) riff that forms the heavy backdrop of the verses borrows from head-banging rock. The lyrics and images in this video point to the systems of corruption and police brutality exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York in October and November. Filmed on Wall Street, the video is linked closely with its referent - through time and space (perhaps Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope) it signals close involvement with Occupy Wall Street. Whether or not Jasiri X's involvement portrayed in the video is received as authentic would depend on his track record as an artist, and whether or not his previous work employs similar themes. In this example, a possible interpretation notes hybridity of rock and hip hop genres (hip hop itself a hybrid genre and amalgamation of cultures, now global phenomenon). The images of police and protesters employ the visual code of police brutality that has become associated with the Occupy movement.

The albums above have been released through Bandcamp, but a more common distribution model for (free) music these days is YouTube. There are more YouTube searches every day than Google searches. The mixing of music and images creates even more complex cultural codes about the Occupy Movement.

Miley Cyrus's recent release of this video in support of the Occupy movement warranted pointed criticism:

Cyrus, whose networth is reportedly $120 million, is undoubtedly a member of the 1% economically. Her attempt to remix this footage with her earlier song "Liberty Walk" has been received as disingenous. Regardless, it seems that Cyrus and her collaborators are the best example of the dialogism at play between previously apolitical pop and the now "in vogue" reference to a strong political backlash. Contrast this video with Cyrus's "Party in the USA" to see the radical shift. For whatever reason, she has chosen to participate in the spectacle of Occupy even though her work is more generally associated with the spectacle of consumerism. For Debord, these spectacles might be considered inseperable. Baudrillard might regard this as an example of the hyper-real inasmuch as it creates the experience of the uplift of protest movements without the necessity of physical participation. A twelve-year old in her bedroom in Nebraska can experience the simulation of participation through this simulacrum. The same may be said of all Occupy digital music texts, but this is probably the most pure example of simulacrum because Cyrus has not offered material support from the video's release or signaled a fundamental change in her musical identity.

Lupe Fiasco has also been a big supporter of the Occupy movement, as demonstrated by his Twitter activity. His "End of the World" video is touted as an unofficial #OWS anthem. Similar to Cyrus, he uses images of police brutality and impassioned protest to make his song even more politically evocative:

Lupe's involvement in the movement has been met with less criticism than Cyrus. Again, this can be accounted for based on his record as an artist. He has not shied away from controversial themes in his music. Listen to the introduction of his album The Cool ("Baba Says Cool for Thought") for an intense example. Yet he is considered by many die-hard underground hip hop fans as an industry insider, and therefore "part of the problem."(Ball, A Mixtape Manifesto)

These types of music video remix created by super-stars like Miley Cyrus and Lupe Fiasco rely heavily on image, while the musical and lyrical content of these releases is less pointed. (For Lupe, it seems his lyrics were created as a direct response to the movement, while Cyrus simply resampled her older material that was vaguely related.) What accounts for this type of borrowing? For one thing, it's cheap and relatively easy. These artists can participate in the information economy that comes from increased recognition, much like the virtually unknown artists above. And they can do it easily and quickly.


Parody has also been used to powerful effect by little-known artists and media producers. Here are two examples:

This video parodies Gloria Gaynor's disco hit "I will Survive," now a pop music standard imitated at karaoke bars across the world. In addition to a redrafting of the lyrics to create an Occupy theme, this video employs images of police brutality to associate it with the movement. The image of young women pepper-sprayed on Wall Street is an infamous example, as well as the students at UC Davis. There is also something ironic and campy about this video. It's hard to take seriously the girl with the hipster glasses pleading for involvement in the movement. In this case, humor is certainly at play, despite the serious subject matter, a clear parallel with Bakhtin's carnivalesque. The dialogism here seems to be beyond beyond political messaging. Though there is a strong political message, it is also an ironic message with a hint of sarcasm. Perhaps the producers of the video aim to articulate simultaneous messages of horror and disgust with police, while encouraging protesters not to take themselves too seriously. In this regard, it is one of the more complex examples of dialogism here, although on this surface it may seem like two-dimensional hybridity.

This video is a parody of the famous Coca Cola commercial "I'd like to buy the world a coke." Produced by "The Other 98%," it has been used at guerrilla projection events, such as the "Occupy the Koch Brothers" guerilla drive in, held at the Convention Center in Washington DC during a Koch Brothers fundraiser. For a generation of baby boomers who experienced this advertising first-hand, this reversal of the commercial message to undermine the undue influence of corporate interest in politics is certainly striking. The original Coca Cola advertising campaign might have been ahead of its time in the '70s, incorporating post modern notions of globalization and multiculturalism in advertising. For this reason, this example of parody may be deemed post post modern, signaling the pendulum swing toward the repoliticization of a previously commercialized media text.

The symbols of the Coca Cola company (logo, song, tag line, etc.) are remixed here to target the Koch Brothers. In this example, the Coca Cola brand is being occupied. Ironically, Coca Cola itself has been targeted for the same corporate greed linked with the Koch Brothers. This kind of culture jamming is not new, but perhaps practicing it at a new scale (live projection rather than just on a builboard or subway advertisement) is a new form of protest for savy media producers. It is important to mention that the original call to Occupy Wall Street was circulated by Adbusters (citation, Wikipedia), an organization that specializes in remixing ad campaigns.


Police brutality images are associated with the Occupy movement for a reason. Images of 1960s and '70s civil rights and anti-war protests became associated with these images. Infamous images from the marches in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama became synonomous with the violence Black protesters faced when seeking equal rights. The shooting at Kent State also became an image of police violence against protesters emblazoned into public consciousness.

For more on image in Occupy media texts, see my blog post from week 5.


A variety of musical genres have become associated with political protest in the United States. These genres cater to different subcultures, but can loosely be grouped together under the moniker "protest music." Blues, jazz, gospel, Motown, soul and funk may arguably share this history, especially when associated with the civil rights movement. In the 1960's and '70s, folk music was associated with the anti-war movement. In the 1980's punk rock led to a counter-cultural renaissance. Hip hop emerged as a genre to speak truth to power in the late 80s and early 90s. Yet since that time, no genre has been closely linked with political protest. Though other subgenres and subcultures have emerged from the rave scene or idie rock scene, for example, they are not explicitly associated with protest.

As an example of a polyphony of genres, this compilation album created (by occupytogether.org?) via Bandcamp includes several of these genres:

The songs on this album can generally be separated into three genre categories: rock/indie/folk; hip hop; dubstep. As individual tracks, these songs may not seem hybridized. But as a compilation, many genres are represented together. Is this related to the concept of heteroglossia described by Bakhtin? In terms of authenticity, the free distributionof this album suggests that these artists are contributing their wor, not for financial reward, but in true support of the movement. However, they are undoubtedly compensated by some degree in the way of increased recognition. Regardless of revenues, these artists are reclaiming genres that have traditionally been used for protest.

One of the most striking examples of pastiche in Occupy cultural products is a music video remix of Immortal Technique's new single "In A Rich Man's World 1%:"

The song itself samples ABBA's "Money Money Money," while the images of the video track sample just about all the visual described above (advertising/culture jamming, images of police and protesters, nationalistic remixing, a quote from cinema, etc.) This video transgresses categories of image, parodgy, and creates multi-layered cultural meanings. Immortal Technique is by all accounts one of the founders of underground hip hop, an icon of the genre. Not only does Immortal technique comment "on issues such as class struggle, poverty, religion, government and institutional racism,"(Wikipedia, "Immortal Technique"), he challenges the music industry by remaining fiercely independent of record labels. In this case, by bringing a pop sample into an underground hip hop song with subversive political messaging, Immortal technique effectively occupies the pop genre, politicizing a sphere that was previously apolitical. The layers meaning added by the images compound the effects of genre, leading to multiple simultaneous meanings and a sense of parody. In Bakhtin's sense of chronotope, multiple spaces are occupied at the same time in this video.


The examples above emphasize this hybridity, a now normative state of mixed mediums. We have considered artists' authenticity based on their historic track record of political expression. Artists who attempt to re-identify or re-define themselves as politically engaged by using the codes of the Occupy movement may have a hard time doing so when their previous work has been devoid of political messaging. Thus, we can note a "pendulum swing" towards the politicization of previously apolitical artists or genres. This shift is compounded through the mix of images and genres used to create authentic anthems and ironic parodies. These digital Occupy cultural products recall Bakhtin's notions of the carnivalesque, heteroglossia, and dialogism.

Is music still a relevant category? When this essay began, it was focused on Occupy music. However, upon examining sources of digital content, Occupy music became inseperable from image and other forms of media, given that a great deal of Occupy-related songs are released as music videos, mixing a variety of images, sound and types of footage from news media and cinema together. How to characterize and categorize these media texts was problematic from the beginning. In a second draft, I chose to call them Occupy cultural products, but terms like "music video 2.0," "digital Occupy media" or "digital music texts" might be more fitting nomenclature.

Finally, here are some methodological considerations. We are called to consider how scholarship can keep up with a movement developing rapidly in real time. Occupy cultural products are produced regularly, but keeping track of this trove of researchable material proves challenging. Not only indexing "Occupy" related data and information, but also interpreting its significance or placing it in theoretical frameworks is nearly impossible to do through automation. The Occupy movement necessitates teams of dedicated social scientists with powerful computational tools to document and analyze the unique forms of social protest created and recreated globally.

Works Cited

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Ball, Jared A. I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto. Oakland: AK Press, 2011.

Barthes, Roland. "The Rhetoric of the Image." Image, Music, Text. 1964. Web. 13 December 2011. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/CCTP725/CCTP725-syllabus.html>

Baudrillard, Jean. "Simulacra and Simulations." Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster. 1988. Stanford University Press, pp.166-184. Web. 13 December 2011. <http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/irvinem/theory/Baudrillard_Simulacra_and_Simulations.html>

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Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle (1967) (Selections: Sections 1-6, 10-11, 17-18, 24-30) Web. 13 December 2011.

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