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The Best Way to Silence a Drum Circle Award

By Maura McAndrew | 16 December 2011

Jeff Mangum at Occupy Wall Street

Nearly three months in, the Occupy Wall Street movement remains musically undefined—despite the involvement of famous musicians and artists, none of them are out to capitalize on it (with the possible exception of the cheerfully irrelevant Third Eye Blind, or Jay-Z, I guess, though I feel he’s more uninvolved and trying to capitalize). This is a movement insistent on not being pigeonholed, which means, mercifully, that we shouldn’t expect Bono to organize a benefit anytime soon. But this general opposition to leadership and public endorsement has not stopped particular artists from making their support known, albeit on a person-to-person, not media, level. The most exhilarating example of this came on October 4th, just a few weeks into the occupation, when Jeff Mangum emerged from the night to play an impromptu set in Zuccotti Park. No warning, no fanfare, no set list. Just a nod, an inspiring show of support, from one of indie rock’s most famously reticent performers.

For those of us who weren’t there, the set was captured by camera (clamoring to a start mid-way through the first song) for OWS’s livestream: Mangum appears silhouetted against two towering office buildings, a constellation of lighted windows. Opening politically with a Minutemen cover, he then plunges assuredly into Neutral Milk Hotel’s catalog, asking the crowd for their requests and stating simply, “I’m here to serve you.” He sways back and forth with his guitar, belting in his forceful voice, to the young crowd gathered around. They’re too young, perhaps, to have followed Neutral Milk Hotel in the ’90s, but years of contemplative dorm room listens and they’re ready now to sing along. It seems like each one of them knows every word.

Mangum’s set was short but heavy on the classics: “Holland, 1945,” “Ghost,” “Song Against Sex,” “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” “The King of Carrot Flowers Part 1,” and “Oh Comely.” He broke mid-song and between songs to goad audience members to “sing it!” until indeed everyone did. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” hit hard as always, particularly in this heady moment: “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” For a group in this unlikely sort of situation, thrust together in an endless crusade, its sense of wonder and appreciation is fitting. Likewise, the always-devastating “Oh Comely” closed out the set like a perfect anthem—not by dealing literally with the themes of OWS, but by inspiring in the audience a particular unity of emotion, which is really the lifeblood of any movement.

There have been other performances at Occupy Wall Street, but no other has quite captured the same breathless spirit of spontaneity—if Jeff Mangum can show up and perform all our favorite songs, anything seems possible. It’s not clear what impact Occupy Wall Street will end up having, or how long it will continue. But for this moment the movement felt buoyant and alive—even if the focus shifted, momentarily, from frustration to unity and beauty. “You guys have done a beautiful fucking thing,” he said before disappearing back into the night. And it seems the crowd of idealists that watched him has been waiting years to tell him the same.