Your Guide to Revolution: Mary Ocher’s Short History of Protest Music

The art-pop composer/pop connoisseur shares how Gil Scott-Heron, Noname, Pulp, and more paved the way for the radical message of her new album.

Your Guide to Revolution: Mary Ocher’s Short History of Protest Music

The art-pop composer/pop connoisseur shares how Gil Scott-Heron, Noname, Pulp, and more paved the way for the radical message of her new album.

Words: Mike LeSuer

Photo: Kai Heimberg

June 26, 2024

Most protest music doesn’t sound like the polished, largely instrumental art-pop soundscapes Mary Ocher composes. During its lengthy instrumental stretches, the new album from the Berlin-via-Tel-Aviv-via-Moscow artist, Your Guide to Revolution, perhaps feels most akin to Divide and Dissolve—another largely vocalist-free tirade against oppressive systems, albeit with far more aggression spilling out in the form of pounding drone metal. Instead, Revolution feels mostly upbeat: it’s wonked-out pop music, riffing on everything from Spaghetti Western soundtracks to space-age funk minimalism, with an interlude naturally paying homage to Laurie Anderson.

Yet all of this, ultimately, is exactly what the album title promises (not to mention its accompanying booklet). Earlier this month, the album landed in a long and winding lineage of protest music, which Ocher herself may be better suited to spell out for you between her undeniable ear for anti-establishment composition and her own experience inviting the IDF to “fuck off” as a teen (more on that below). The self-appointed pop connoisseur put together a playlist for us undoubtedly confirming that title, taking us as it does through 100 years of “resistance to racial inequality, colonialism, class, war, and the idealization of consumerism” in the form of song. Check that out below, and listen to the album here.

Odetta, “Long Ago, Far Away”
In 1965, Odetta recorded a superb collection of Dylan covers. This is one of them, and in my opinion it exceeds the original by far. It’s about perpetual inequality and the hypocrisy of covering it up again and again throughout history. 

Pulp, “Common People” 
While there are certain, more obscure tracks further down the list, this one is a classic pop anthem about class. Which is a topic dear to England in particular, where you can identify where someone’s from by their accent, but also which class they belong to.

Mort Shuman and Shawn Elliott, “The Middle Class (Les Bourgeois)”
This is a Jacques Brel cover from the ’60s Broadway musical Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. It seems quite appropriate to put it next to Jarvis and co. The original in French is much more elegant, but this one has certain urgency that reminds me of later acoustic-punk poets (John Cooper Clarke comes to mind, or David Peel, featured later in this playlist), but since I myself am not fluent in French and I guess many of the listeners may not be, I thought this version may be a bit more suitable.

Mary Ocher feat. Your Government, “Sympathize” 
Cheeky, cheeky—this is the first single from the new album Your Guide to Revolution. The topics discussed in many of the other songs are part of my writing universe (there will be a few other, very different ones further below). This one is about the cynical, hypocritical for-profit political system in the West, and the trivialization of civilian deaths. It was written a good three or four years ago, but feels just as relevant right now, unfortunately.

Francis Bebey, “The Coffee Cola Song” 
Not many realize that this light and jaunty song by Cameroonian songwriter, journalist, and radio personality Francis Bebey is, in fact, a protest song. It’s about the clash of the colonizers with the African villagers, who keep “dreaming of war” and money “to buy coffee-cola”—cola being the de facto symbol of Western prosperity just about anywhere (be it Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, or South America). This year at the Venice Biennale the Serbian pavilion exhibits the broken promise of Western “freedom” in the form of, you guessed it, cola

Tom Lehrer, “Pollution” 
Lehrer, who belongs to an educated elite, wrote a series of clever, sarcastic songs that mock US politics and conventions. Here he describes (with a somewhat-questionable by today’s standards Hispanic accent) an apocalyptic US where the air and the water are poisonous and warns visitors to refrain from breathing and drinking, which is quite ironic considering that these kinds of warning are traditionally issued to Ameircans in certain other parts of the world. The prophecy doesn’t seem very far-fetched, though.

Mary Ocher, “Across Red Lines”
This one is about the absurdity of national pride and a sense of belonging to a place. I grew up in Israel, where I certainly did not feel I belonged and felt tremendous remorse and anger over the way our government has been treating Palestinians for decades, creating different classes of citizens. I’ve been writing about it since I was a kid and eventually left the country at age 20.

Noname, “Namesake”
I really don’t know very much about the artist, but it’s just a wonderful, wonderful track. It’s also fairly contemporary. It’s about the hypocrisy of popular culture and the connections between big sports and the arms industry. It’s just really great!

Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
This one’s a proper pop hit, which I normally find terribly dull, but it has great content. On the surface, it may seem that Joel considers that he—and his generation/Americans/white people in general—is not responsible for the atrocities of the 20th century, as the list of chronological mishaps goes on (and at an admirable speed!). The subtext seems to suggest that this mysterious “we” is somehow, after all, linked to absolutely everything. 

Billie Holiday, “Strange Fruit” 
This is one of the better-known tracks from the first half of the 20th century (1939, to be exact). It wasn’t written by Holiday, but by a white man named Abel Meeropol, inspired by an image of a lynched Black man hanging from a tree. Racism was not a common topic in music before the 1960s, and often it would be described in coded language or via symbols. A later song like [Roberta Flack’s] “Angelitos Negros” from 1969 is another fine example (the poem it’s based on was written in 1942).

Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” 
Another classic protest piece, Scott-Heron wrote quite a few great pieces on race and inequality, and this is perhaps the most poignant and well known of them. It’s about the refusal of mass media and popular culture to embrace the much-needed social changes which would’ve been brought from down-up, and most likely by force (in line with the ideology of the Black Panthers and Malcolm X, which gained new popularity following Martin Luther King Jr.’s tragic assassination).

Malvina Reynolds, “Little Boxes”
Another great song about class, [as well as] oppressive family values and middle-class society—packing individuals into little boxes, predestined some to become doctors or lawyers. Malvina Reynolds started performing in the Bay Area already as an older lady. I covered this song in a semisecret collection of home recordings (available only on Bandcamp). 

Mary Ocher, “The Curtain”
This one has certain similarities to old Soviet hymns, which traditionally used to bear a rather glorifying flavor to the ideology of the state, but this does quite the opposite. It pretty much spells out that the (suggested) government’s pursuit of “justice” is, in fact, for power—purely for power’s sake...and the Curtain being the censorship it imposes. 

Mary Ocher feat. Mogwai, “Zone (A Tale of a Mourning Mother)”
“Zone” was written from the POV of a child at a war zone, whose grieving parent is trying to (psychologically, at least) shelter them from the experience of the horrors of the war. Like “Sympathize,” it was written a good three to four years ago—before Ukraine, before Gaza. It seemed we were already heading there, always present, on the edge of happening.

Josh White, “Landlord”
An excellent blues protest number about class and greed. And on the topic of class—since life is becoming increasingly more difficult in all bigger cities, even for those who do not aspire further than lower-middle class—I wrote a little guide with practical survival advice which is released with the new album: “A Guide to Radical Living.”

David Peel and the Lower East Side, “Hey, Mr. Draft Board”
An anti-conscription anthem! As a 16 year old who told IDF to fuck off (it was easy, I was a misfit with green hair who dropped out of high school—they didn’t particularly consider it such a great loss), this song was really quite a hymn! I guess that in the US, one may have also been considered a traitor for refusing to serve their country during the later losing stages of Vietnam. In Tel Aviv, I certainly was, from the age of 16 until I finally left four long years later, repeatedly being questioned until I was nearly 30: “Why didn’t you go?!”