Rebecca Solnit Picks 13 Songs That Will Remind Us of Our Power to Change the World, Even in Seemingly Dark Times

Image by Shawn, via Flickr Com­mons

Apoc­a­lypses have always been pop­u­lar as mass belief and enter­tain­ment. Maybe it’s a col­lec­tive desire for ret­ri­bu­tion or redemp­tion, or a kind of ver­ti­go humans expe­ri­ence when star­ing into the abyss of the unknown. Bet­ter to end it all than live in neu­rot­ic uncer­tain­ty. Maybe we find it impos­si­ble to think of a future world exist­ing hun­dreds, thou­sands, mil­lions of years after our deaths. As Rebec­ca Sol­nit observes in Hope in the Dark: Untold His­to­ries, Wild Pos­si­bil­i­ties, “peo­ple have always been good at imag­in­ing the end of the world, which is much eas­i­er to pic­ture than the strange side­long paths of change in a world with­out end.” What if the world nev­er ends, but goes on for­ev­er, chang­ing and evolv­ing in unimag­in­able ways?

This is the baili­wick of sci­ence fic­tion, but also the domain of his­to­ry, a hind­sight view of cen­turies past when wars, tyran­ni­cal con­quests, famines, and dis­eases near­ly wiped out entire populations—when it seemed to them a near cer­tain­ty that noth­ing would or could sur­vive the present hor­ror. And yet it did.

This may be no con­so­la­tion to the vic­tims of vio­lence and plague, but the world has gone on for the liv­ing, peo­ple have adapt­ed and sur­vived, even under the cur­rent, very real threats of nuclear war and cat­a­stroph­ic cli­mate change. And through­out his­to­ry, both small and large groups of peo­ple have changed the world for the bet­ter, though it hard­ly seemed pos­si­ble at the time. Sol­nit’s book chron­i­cles these his­to­ries, and last year, she released a playlist as a com­pan­ion for the book.

Hope in the Dark makes good on its title through a col­lec­tion of essays about “every­thing,” writes Alice Gre­go­ry at The New York Times, “from the Zap­atis­tas to weath­er fore­cast­ing to the fall of the Berlin Wall.” The book is “part his­to­ry of pro­gres­sive suc­cess sto­ries, part extend­ed argu­ment for hope as a cat­a­lyst for action.” Sol­nit wrote the book in 2004, dur­ing the reelec­tion of George W. Bush—a time when pro­gres­sives despaired of ever see­ing the end of chick­en­hawk sabre-rat­tling, wars for prof­it, pri­va­ti­za­tion of the pub­lic sphere, envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, theo­crat­ic polit­i­cal projects, cur­tail­ing of civ­il rights, or the dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism the admin­is­tra­tion whole­heart­ed­ly embraced (as Nao­mi Klein’s The Shock Doc­trine detailed). Plus ça change.…

In March of last year, Hay­mar­ket Books reis­sued Hope in the Dark, and on Novem­ber 10th, Sol­nit post­ed a link to a free down­load of the book on Face­book. It was down­loaded over 30,000 times in one week. Along with oth­er pro­gres­sive intel­lec­tu­als like Klein and Richard Rorty, Solnit—who became inter­na­tion­al­ly known for the term “mansplain­ing” in her essay, then book, Men Explain Things to Me—has now been cast as a “Cas­san­dra fig­ure of the left,” Gre­go­ry writes. But she rejects the dis­as­trous futil­i­ty inher­ent in that anal­o­gy:

If you think of a kind of ecol­o­gy of ideas, there are more than enough peo­ple telling us how hor­rif­ic and ter­ri­ble and bad every­thing is, and I don’t real­ly need to join that project. There’s a whole oth­er project of try­ing to coun­ter­bal­ance that — some­times we do win and this is how it worked in the past. Change is often unpre­dictable and indi­rect. We don’t know the future. We’ve changed the world many times, and remem­ber­ing that, that his­to­ry, is real­ly a source of pow­er to con­tin­ue and it doesn’t get talked about near­ly enough.

If we don’t hear enough talk about hope, maybe we need to hear more hope­ful music, Sol­nit sug­gests in her Hope in the Dark playlist. Thir­teen songs long, it moves between Bey­on­cé and The Clash, Iggy Pop and Ste­vie Nicks, Black Flag and Big Free­dia.

While the selec­tions speak for them­selves, she offers brief com­men­tary on each of her choic­es in a post at Powell’s. Beyoncé’s “For­ma­tion,” Sol­nit writes, “refor­mu­lates, dig­ging deep into the past of sor­row and suf­fer­ing and injus­tice and pulling us all with her into a future that could be dif­fer­ent.” Pat­ti Smith’s anthem “Peo­ple Have the Pow­er” feels like hope, Sol­nit says: “it’s right about the pow­er we have, which oblig­es us to act, and which many duck by pre­tend­ing we’re help­less.” Maybe that’s what apoc­a­lypses are all about—making us feel small and pow­er­less in the face of impend­ing doom. But there are oth­er kinds of reli­gion, like that of Lee Williams’ “Steal My Joy.” It’s a “gor­geous gospel song,” writes Sol­nit. “Joys­teal­ers are every­where. Nev­er sur­ren­der to them.” That sounds like an ide­al exhor­ta­tion to imag­ine and fight for a bet­ter future.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear a 4 Hour Playlist of Great Protest Songs: Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Bob Mar­ley, Pub­lic Ene­my, Bil­ly Bragg & More

89 Essen­tial Songs from The Sum­mer of Love: A 50th Anniver­sary Playlist

The His­to­ry of Punk Rock in 200 Tracks: An 11-Hour Playlist Takes You From 1965 to 2016

Langston Hugh­es Cre­ates a List of His 100 Favorite Jazz Record­ings: Hear 80+ of Them in a Big Playlist

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.