A Wobbly Riff on Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute

33 Revolutions Per Minute

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.

Mississippi Goddam – Nina Simone

Breath of a Nation – Big Flame

Zombie – Fela Kuti

You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve – Johnny Boy

Heartland – The The

Use a Bank I’d Rather Die – McCarthy

Of Walking Abortion (Live at the London Astoria, December 21, 1994) – Manic Street Preachers

Fight the Power – Public Enemy

Crisis in the Credit System – Petit Mal

Cocaine Socialism – Pulp

Another Bloody Election – Killing Joke

Resisting Tyrannical Government – Propagandhi

White Riot – The Clash

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I Might Die Without These Words Having Left My Mouth: Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny’s Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose Reviewed

Let’s get one thing straight right away: Beth Jeans Houghton says that her music is “not bloody folk.”  That’s cool with me; she can be a petulant artiste if she feels like it.  Even though her eagerly anticipated first proper LP with band The Hooves of Destiny, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, is sprinkled with the melodic sensibility of good indie pop and the glitter of glam rock, it is based primarily in the traditions of folk.  I certainly find the comparisons between her and singer-songwriters like Laura Marling to be a bit misguided and personally see her work as being more similar to that of Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan, but again, that doesn’t mean there aren’t tendencies and patterns to her sound.  Let’s put it like this: I am not usually very inclined to listen to or really appreciate much folk music, but Yours Truly grabbed me and held me from my first listen and I’m happy to say that I have yet to be released from Houghton’s musical and artistic grip.  That could be read as hyperbole to some, but such is the beauty and freshness of this record, I feel.

Still based in her native Newcastle, Houghton is a visual mishmash in her ever-changing wigs and bizarre, often circus-like wardrobe.  The songs on Yours Truly are reminiscent of being under the big top too, all swirling horns and pulsating piano.  Houghton originally surfaced in 2009 with the alternative folk Hot Toast EP and then quietly fell under the radar for a while, resurfacing now with an album that reflects the years of work evidently gone into it.  Even as she’s cavorted with the likes of American freak folksters Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom as well as London band Tunng, Houghton’s continually keen to shirk those pesky classifications that lump her in with the rest of this nu-folk scene.  I don’t blame her at all, actually; Yours Truly is the most transcendent album I’ve heard in, well… a long time.  It deserves its own moment.

Opener “Sweet Tooth Bird” hits all at once: the snare drum and horns in combination sound a bit like a marching band, but Houghton’s voice tempers that rigorous sensibility with its languorous huskiness.  The fast-paced clip established on this song doesn’t take a real break for the rest of the album, instead waning moderately on less frenetic tracks, but otherwise “Sweet Tooth Bird” is an energetic and accurate indicator of what’s to come.  Here Houghton sings about a bird she’s shot and killed.  That, along with a passage of soaring piano topped with dementedly warped vocals, lends a surreal sense of unease to the song.  The beautiful “Humble Digs” trundles along steadily with the aid of some well-placed banjo, but where the track really stands out as special is halfway through when the banjo subsides to make way for a stately procession of horns and choir.  It’s an unexpected touch that comes out of nowhere, but it is exactly moments like this where Houghton’s songcraft rises above that of her peers.  Her voice deftly lifts out of the phrase with a charming little bend, and the folk perfection of the verses continues, this time with added strings and vocal harmonies for emotional emphasis.  “Dodecahedron” opens with the surreal line “Last night I dreamt of dodecahedrons/My eyes were bleeding with crimson sight,” delivered liltingly atop a subdued, syncopated background of bells and horns.  The song becomes more powerful, however, when Houghton stops singing words and stuns with a baroque-pop vocal figure that fades away to sparse drum beats.  Again a chorus joins her for the second to last line, her voice harmonizing high above the earthy voices below.

“Atlas” picks up the pace again with a rousing drum figure and keeps up that pace, excepting a couple of places where Houghton sadly sings “Ride swift through the houses like blood rides through me, red wine and whiskey are no good for me/Dissecting the atlas for places we’ve been, your list is longer but you’ve got more years on me.”  “Nightswimmer” is accented by ethereal harmonies and skittering drums, meanwhile the lyrics are about how love is like drowning, exemplified with the words “You’re only my only love/And I can’t keep my head up above.”  There’s also an intermittent little fluttering flourish in the background that ends the song on a mystical note.  “Liliputt” begins deceptively softly with haunting voice and ukulele, but soon quickens and gallops away on an achingly beautiful string line.  The pause midway through for the refrain “These hooves have had their day/If I stay I won’t survive” is disarming in its intimacy, but it resurfaces at the end of song with a different lyric and wreaks emotional havoc all over again.  So far I haven’t been able to listen to it without tearing up.  I’ve also embedded the video below, partially to give a glimpse of Houghton’s visual aesthetic and partially to share another song from this incredible album.  I also love the idea that in it she’s apparently being haunted by figures from classic paintings.

“Veins” begins languidly with a warm soul groove that suits Houghton’s voice perfectly.  Suddenly it morphs into frantic indie pop powered by forceful piano stabs and multitracked harmonies.  The final line “nothing’s ever going to be the same” is carried out by a lively violin melody.  “Carousel” seems to be named for the revolving, circling quality of its music.  Indeed, it is the sound of a funhouse, complete with a maniacal, mechanical cackle that abruptly stops as if a door’s been shut and hollow metallic bells and chimes.  This is complemented with an ornate violin and piano interlude that soothes away the spookiness.

Going back on my previous assertion, I do think there is some validity to Houghton’s being compared to Laura Marling.  I prefer to think of Houghton’s sound, however, as being influenced by artists like Shara Worden and Alison Goldfrapp as much as by Marling.  There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, to be sure.  Anyway, reductive comparisons don’t do Houghton many favours – she’s an emerging artist in her own right and her particular combination of musical styles and distinctive presentation definitely make her one to watch.  All told, this is an album to burrow into, to discover and rediscover, to dance to and cry to.  I can all but guarantee that Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose will reappear at the end of the year on this blog, by then worn in and comfortable but no less magical.

Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny – Humble Digs

Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny – Dodecahedron

Buy Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose from Houghton’s website here.

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I Can Get Through Anything: Imperial Teen’s Feel the Sound Reviewed

I will readily admit that I’m a latecomer to the power-pop wondrousness that is the music of Imperial Teen.  Like, really late.  Will Schwartz (Hey Willpower), Roddy Bottum (Faith No More), Lynn Truell (Sister Double Happiness, The Dicks), and Jone Stebbins (The Wrecks) have been releasing albums as Imperial Teen for over sixteen years now, and their latest LP, Feel the Sound, is the first one whose release I’ve actually anticipated as a fan.  Granted, their last release, 2007’s The Hair the TV the Baby & the Band, is from almost five years ago, and so I feel my ignorance can be forgiven slightly in the light that they are rather sporadic in their output.  But back to the music at hand: Feel the Sound is as joyful and exuberant a pop record as Imperial Teen have ever released, this time with a shinier, more produced sound that suits their buoyantly catchy anthems.  For me, a very near and dear band with a similar approach has to be the New Pornographers, also a supergroup made up of accomplished musicians in their own right, also soaring along on Carl Newman’s ridiculously catchy pop hooks, and also using boy/girl vocals as part of their distinctive sound.  Of course, it’s the differences that count, and while the New Pornographers sometimes delve into darker, murkier territory than their power pop classification accounts for, Imperial Teen have a subtle but distinctive queer sensibility that informs their music and makes it so inimitable.

Feel the Sound opens with “Runaway”, also released as the album’s first single, and a sunshine-y burst of harmonizing string lines flood the intro with retro good vibes before boy/girl harmonies and new wave keyboards join.  The climax hits when all of the multitracked vocals come in for the chorus, and it’s appropriate that this piece of sugary pop escapism is about, well…escape.  “Last to Know” is a mid-tempo number with steady, chugging guitars that collapse with fervent, echoed vocals during the chorus.  There’s a weary resignation about the delivery on the verses that’s suitable to the subject matter: an affair that ends a previous relationship.  “Over His Head” is darker still: musically a more restrained effort with keyboards fleshing out a minor-key, atmospheric sound along with the repetition of the refrain “he’s in over his head”, numerous mentions of darkness, and echoing, elongated sighs that punctuate instrumental passages, this song feels like Imperial Teen have resolutely grown up and are not completely happy about it.  Closing lyric “the best of days will come again” is evidence that despite being poppy, Imperial Teen are not always happy.

“Hanging About” is another atmospheric track, its lyrics obscured by reverb.  Things lighten from the dreary mood of the verses when that reverb falls away for the refrain and is replaced by bright harmonies.  In the intervals between vocal phrases is where they come closest to the Krautrockish, motorik-y sound that is touted in Merge Records’ promotional blurb for the album.  “Out From Inside” rides on a propulsive beat emanating from the bass and drums in combination, and the lyrics again find solace in being overwhelmed.  “The Hibernates” sticks out a bit on this collection, but not for bad reasons: on the surface it’s a sweetly simple pop song with charmingly hushed spoken/sung vocals, but the lyrics are more discomfiting than that, mentioning “blackbird screams” and growing mould.  There’s also a keyboard solo (backed by the sound of chirping birds) two-thirds of the way through that is creepily reminiscent of the song my grandma’s old jack-in-the-box used to sing while you turned its little metal handle and waited for the inevitable fright of Jack himself.  “Overtaken” nicely sums up the atmospheric direction that the band have explored on the preceding ten songs and ends Feel the Sound on an appropriately melancholy note.  Despite the almost aggressive cheer of “Runaway”, this album is more subdued and nuanced than previous Imperial Teen releases.  There’s a need to escape from something bad but the acknowledgement that this escape will yield something better.

I’ve also attached the video clip for “Runaway” as I think it’s a brilliant little video, even just taken on a surface level.  An interpretation of the lyric “I could be you and you’d be me”, in the video party-goers exchange masks with the band members’ likenesses on them, and, in some fun and jumpy editing, switch clothes and effectively do a bit of drag.  Reading a bit more into it, however, the “Runaway” clip, to me, distils what is so unique about this band: on an Imperial Teen record, gender and sexuality don’t really matter.  The band is half queer-identified and half straight, half men and half women, and their lyrics largely don’t touch on those topics at all.  Instead, the world of Imperial Teen is a world of equality, blissfully free from stereotypes and assumptions.  That doesn’t mean Imperial Teen’s world is always happy and carefree, of course – but it is a place where pop perfection is the best and quickest route to contentment.

Imperial Teen – Last to Know

Imperial Teen – Overtaken

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