The Clash was my gateway to “political” music. From then on, I became a fan of songs that made me think and carried more meaning than a dance party or a love story. In the words of McCarthy, boy meets girl, so what? Having said that, I don’t know if I ever thought I was listening to protest songs. This realization, then, makes me wonder where the line is between songs about politics and protest songs, or if there’s a line at all. Sometimes I think that political music is more about condemnatory commentary whilst protest songs should be about activism and bringing people together to fight for a cause. To borrow from John Gray, the former is about perceiving the world as clearly as possible; the latter is about changing the world. If this is indeed the case, then Dorian Lynskey’s book 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day would be more often about political music rather than protest songs. Not too many of the songs selected include explicit imperatives nor are they suggesting active solutions. Then again, is the act of inserting politics in pop music—pop music being a contentious concept in its own right—an act of protest? Is intelligent observation in a public piece of art a form of protest? I don’t believe that my favourite band, the Manic Street Preachers, thought they were changing the world through their songs; conversely, they seemed to wallow in their own spectator astuteness and inability to act on an unjust world. Interestingly, Lynskey chooses the Manic Street Preachers’ “Of Walking Abortion” as a turning point in which the protest song “eats itself.” He argues that because the Manics quite explicitly put the blame and responsibility on humanity as a whole (Hitler reprised in all of our souls), “the protest song’s traditional contract with its listener—you and me, we are on the right side—is irrevocably shattered.”
To be fair, Lynskey does address the ambiguity of the phrase “protest song” in his introduction. He frames his discussion by saying that he is “using the term in its broadest sense, to describe a song that addresses a political issue in a way which aligns itself with the underdog.” Ultimately it’s this framework that makes his book such a fascinating and balanced read. He has done an admirable job of tracking the development of the protest song through the twentieth century and its knackered whimper into the twenty-first whilst probing at the protest song’s polarizing tendencies. Though he has broken the book up into thirty-three chapters about thirty-three significant protest songs, he really uses the songs as jumping-off points for analyzing a specific period of protest songs and their sociopolitical contexts. There were many expected appearances, including Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, The Clash, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine, and not-quite-as-expected artists like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Huggy Bear, and Stevie Wonder. Lynskey does not confine himself to Westernized circumstances, and in including songs from Chile, Nigeria, and Jamaica, he provides a much-needed contrast, showing the realities of protest with actual, tangible risk.
Taking Lynskey’s broader understanding of the protest song and its interesting complexities, I’d like to pick away at my own prejudices and explore my own understanding of protest songs and politics in music. If I place the first song in the book, Billie Holiday’s rendition of the Abel Meeropol-penned “Strange Fruit,” next to Green Day’s “American Idiot,” the titular track from their Grammy-winning rock opera, I’m faced with my own notions of what an effective protest song should be. Where do my own conceptions and judgments of authenticity come from?
Holiday’s growl of “bulging eyes” is particularly disturbing, augmenting an already riveting performance. She is powerful in her delivery, voice ragged, angry, sad, proud, and tired, and the simplicity of the backing piano and her pregnant pauses are conducive to an atmosphere of contemplation. I’m forced to focus on the message as I’m led into the full horror of the narrative. The tension within the performance echoes both the racial tension and the incongruity of politics being aired in this sort of venue. Billie Holiday sings with just enough control and possibility of breakdown to do justice to the carefully constructed lyrics. Meeropol’s lyrics are subtle and are all the more unsettling for their subtlety. Of course, Lady Day’s own troubled existence casts a long shadow over the song and its performance, adding further dimension and depth.
Compared with Billie Holiday’s sobering, haunting performance of “Strange Fruit,” Billie Joe Armstrong and Co.’s video seems like an ADHD protest replete with its own snotty green flood of sick. I’ve generally taken a rather negative view of Green Day’s attempt at a protest concept album, viewing it as a superficial take on complex problems. In light of reading 33 Revolutions and pushing myself to think about “American Idiot” beyond my knee-jerk reaction, perhaps my own negativity about it could be stemming from my own contexts for the song and for Green Day themselves. I couldn’t take protest seriously from a band that I associate with high school antics, and their sudden leap into the then-emerging emo aesthetic didn’t help. Their album came across as insular, uninformed whining rather than thoughtful, creative protest; the only apparent politically charged difference between their music and the moody, suburban alienation of My Chemical Romance was the insertion of the titular song and occasional references to America’s war on terror. Green Day painted disenfranchised teenagers traumatized by the American Nightmare in such broad strokes that they came out like cartoonish bogeymen for the Far Right. Whilst there was no chance of it ending up as a misinterpreted “Born in the USA” debacle, for the same reasons, it also felt like a hollow Rock the Vote pose. It’s a blunt take on the ignorant American stereotype unlike the more nuanced stereotype explored in LCD Soundsystem’s “North American Scum.” Although, if your touchstones when making a political record are The Who’s Tommy and musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and West Side Story, you will likely be aiming for the grandiose rather than the subtle. Then again, perhaps bluntness is sometimes the only way to get your message across to a wider market. Where “Strange Fruit” and “American Idiot” do seem similar is in their success of slipping something subversive into what was meant to be mass entertainment. Perhaps I’m more disappointed that “American Idiot,” and its album, was the most subversive protest music the masses could grab hold of in the political climate of the time. On the other hand, I’m very likely misjudging what Green Day’s motives were in the first place.
Lynskey ultimately shows how varied the motives for writing protest songs can be, and, in turn, how these motives can be muddled and ambiguous. The book is filled with reluctant heroes and spokespeople, and with artists who very humanly contradicted themselves. There is also a fine line between fighting for rights and militancy buoyed by further intolerance, and many artists cross or straddle the line. At the end of his book, he writes:
What right does a musician have to discuss politics? What place is there for serious political issues in entertainment? And the answer is the same as ever: there comes a point where we have to accept that a musician does not have the same responsibilities as a politician, and that music can contain, and derive energy from, ambiguities that an interview cannot.
Our suspicion of the earnest in a popular song may go further than senses of irony, post-irony, post-post-irony, irony that has been posted so much it has somehow arrived at the other end as authenticity. I wonder if we would experience the same discomfort about protest and politics in other forms of entertainment like books, poetry, films, theatre, and visual art. I tend not to think so. In fact, art becomes “high art” the more serious it gets. This line of logic would seem to point to a discomfort stemming from politics being mixed with popular music. How is pop music defined? What are our expectations for its purpose? Perhaps we need to define entertainment first. Lynskey’s usage of entertainment is that which interests or amuses. It can also be defined as discussion of a subject or treatment of a guest. Related to this last meaning, I think there might be an odd expectation to be accommodated and made comfortable as a guest of the music. The delicate catch-22, then, is political music that isn’t considered pop music won’t have much of a wider impact, but if pop music does deal with politics, it runs the risk of going against the escapist entertainment so ostensibly intrinsic to its genre. At the same time, I think that this contradiction is also political pop music’s most exciting potential and power; subversion smuggled into the pop charts is one of my favourite things. Because the idiom of pop music is already an unexpected location for the entertainment of political discussion, there’s an interesting advantage of sorts. I think subtlety is the key in all art forms; the more unexpected the metaphor, the more impact the message has. It’s the transfiguration of black bodies into strange fruit or the comparison of New Labour with the most Thatcherite/Reaganite of narcotics that elevates a protest song into something worthy of both entertainment and further thought. Political songs often work so much more effectively if they have cleverly constructed narratives and messy ambiguity illustrating their points. It’s a large part of the reason why Elvis Costello/Robert Wyatt’s “Shipbuilding” is a better protest song than the reductive sermonizing and Manichean worldview in mawkish, embarrassing songs like Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and Prince’s “Ronnie Talk to Russia.” It also helps to have interesting music backing your lyrics.
There have been several written pieces interrogating the seeming lack of protest songs in the last decade, especially in light of the disastrous Bush/Blair years, and Lynskey’s epilogue points to this decline, citing the fragmentation and “armchair activism” of the digital world as possible explanations. I agree with these proposed reasons; there just aren’t going to be the same type of megastar artist saviours in this atomized world of niche interests and defused/diffused media. I also admit that I’m not one to hit the streets in any kind of visible activism; the most I’ve accomplished is signing online petitions and stewing in my own self-righteous anger. Perhaps Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is also useful in looking at this mediated apathy and impotence; the more information of injustice and collapse we are flooded with, the less control we feel over any of it. We then let it wash over us in the same flow of entertainment; news becomes entertainment, entertainment becomes news. As long as we’re not aware that we’re consuming political matters like they’re meaningless entertainment, we don’t seem uncomfortable about them, nor do we feel like we’re being preached at. Nor do we feel like participating in them.
Aside from this paradoxical disconnection in the face of hyperconnectivity, the world is, of course, still in the midst of myriad protest movements, whether they are the multiple Occupy Movements around the world, The Arab Spring propelled by social media, or website black-outs to raise awareness about SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and all of the other agreements that are a threat to Internet freedoms. However, the common thread to these protests is the use of globalized media technologies, not protest songs. The non-profit Fight for the Future states: “Remember: websites driving political action is how we beat SOPA!” Much like the technology that enables it, protest seems to be more decentralized; however, decentralization may also lead to perceptions of ineffectiveness. One of the main accusations leveled at the Occupy Movement is its lack of focus; it seems to be aiming for too many goals, or perhaps the objective to overturn capitalism in any effective and long-lasting way is too incomprehensible (see Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism). In recent times, we appear to be attempting to fight amorphous, pervasive, seemingly unassailable foes like terror and capitalism itself. When community is virtual, there are immense possibilities, but if the riots and occupations of public spaces are anything to go by, there are also clearly limitations to being a virtually connected group. There’s a need to be a visible, mobile presence in the streets. I think much of the anxiety about these shifting, rhizomatic mobilities is related to the anxiety over the lack of protest songs. Just as it seems difficult to locate the source, and thus boundaries, of these protests, it is now increasingly demanding to find their songs in a world of niche networks.
In his conversation with Jarvis Cocker on 6Music in April last year, Lynskey said that, ultimately, the value of political music for him is in the fact it gets you thinking and becomes more than escapism. I wholeheartedly agree. Just as other forms of art and culture can make you question and be questioned, an effective protest song can change your worldview and perhaps prompt you to change the world, whilst also being entertaining in every sense of the word.
See also Dorian Lynskey’s excellent 33 Revolutions Per Minute blog.