Reeling in the Real: Pale Eyes’ sweatshop Reviewed

Pale Eyes - Sweatshop

Ben McCarthy and Lisa J. Smith, formerly of Archivist (see my earlier review), have formed a new project called Pale Eyes, producing a debut album called sweatshop. It contains songs for the new age of anxiety, in which we feel the claustrophobia of globalization, and the disgust of complicity. Frequently confronting you with ugly feelings, Pale Eyes produce electronic violence; and broken hip-hop, time of fractured joint, when it won’t be long before we all come tumbling down. Their music and lyrics also perform a vivisection on the heaving mass of human need, and its peculiar anatomy of melancholy. sweatshop is comparable, and every bit as important and striking, as The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual. Pale Eyes’ debut is about futility, but also about facing up to that pointlessness. The heavy use of sampling and synth processing stitches together a whole from the disparate, leaving frayed edges that threaten to unravel, embodying the failure to repeat.

The opening track “waves & radiation” is a plunderphonic sound collage of tension, starting with a metronome and ending with “if I didn’t have my art, I would be madder than I am.” It is musically reminiscent of Portishead’s “Machine Gun,” and neatly introduces you to the ideologies working within the entire record, including memories of real protest, and the mental and emotional implications of our current world order.

It’s followed by “kltr kma,” the title of which makes me think of Massive Attack’s “Karmacoma.” It features an earworm chorus, and the breaks mirror the cracking of the pretence of the human pose. McCarthy alternates between rapid-fire wordplay and elastic, cyclical vocals that ply your brain, while Lido Pimienta moans behind him in a fractious, urgent way that reminds me of Sue Denim. McCarthy sings:

These bloody needs the body’s fee;
you must be hungry just to be.
It was the sun that taught your lungs to breathe
for a mesh of metaphor with a mouth for the meat. . . .

So take the fist and take this kiss,
and take our common helplessness,
cause the very very body you resist
is the flesh upon which all this subsists.

Pales Eyes continue to interrogate this schizophrenic human reality that belies the figurative sense of a universal, whole humanity in songs such as “empathy exhaustion (also sprach Sarahthustra)” and “the consolation of action.” A collaboration with McCarthy’s sister, Sarah (who I assume to be the Sarah of the final track “Sarah says”), “empathy exhaustion” is all sharp dissonance tied together with a weaving double helix of a melody line, carried ethereally by Pimienta. The lyrics are begging for release from the fatigue of a debt-laden, neoliberal existence, cleverly tying moral debt to the general debtfare lives of this generation. This track is followed by “the consolation of action,” which takes its title from John Gray’s Straw Dogs, an excellent argument against the idea of Humanism, and its unwavering belief in redemption through progress. (Of course, Pale Eyes is not the first band to draw on Gray’s work; Vanilla Swingers crafted a concept album inspired by it, and the Manic Street Preachers have also referenced Gray in recent years.) In this track, as in Gray’s book, there’s a friction and fear of letting go of the “need” for action and changing the world. The idea is one that I feel is at the crux of Gray’s thesis, one which I return to again and again: “The aim of life was not to change the world. It was to see it rightly.” The attempt to reconcile this possibility for a new paradigm with our own reality leads to additional feelings of lack and guilt. The sacred profanity of this wrecked psychological space blurs into poetry:

wake up the grace has fled
amplified daily dread
first day of the rest of your life
breaking across your head

have you been misinformed?
do you really not know what you do?
what were you crying for?
sweatshop livestock auto-tune?

Pimienta’s vocals are primal and fragile as the minimal sampled background sputters and clatters behind her. Lagging with the weight of conflicting culpabilities, McCarthy languidly sums up the earlier verses with the brilliant phrase “porno kingdom cum,” and then debt anxiety creeps in again as he follows it with “we cannot afford this wealth.”

There are more efforts to ease this cognitive dissonance and its discontents. “figure/ground” is achingly beautiful and soulful, easily oscillating between a foreground of smooth woodwind sound and a background of stuttering, glitchy beats liberated from Radiohead. Trapped between order and entropy, McCarthy’s vocals are striving yet dropping at the end of each line, lapping at and slowly eroding his own footing. In “philosophka,” access, and the choices it presumably offers, only succeeds in smothering you with the ghosts of the “what if” and the circling paranoia of always missing something. Embattled by expectations, McCarthy quietly sings, “Spoiled for choice don’t make me free, this is a necessity.”

In “little rain,” apocalyptic fervor dissipates into an honest message to a future generation, in this particular case, an infant son. McCarthy’s vocals are soothing in their melancholic glissandos, as the synth sounds drip and drop, rolling like tears from beneath a blindfold. It’s a refreshing conception of “the child,” resisting the simple purity/innocence/hope for the future trope; McCarthy sings, “I’m disinclined to see you for the dream you are, little boy, for I know what dreams can become.” The further lament of “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies” spins through slices of distortion as it bisects, dissects, intersects, intertexts, sexes, vexes. There is only a superficial catharsis. The self-aware-monster-inside motif, similar to that of Kevin Barnes’s more recent material, does not provide relief or a way forward. “cry out your goddamned eyes at the movies,” along with the track “Trust,” warps Marvin Gaye references into a brittle rendering of passionate resignation.

Rather than a desensitizing lyrical crutch, the extended use of “fuck” on five out of the eleven songs displays a nuanced polyvalence, placing carnality on a parallel plane with ruin, hopelessness, frustration, manipulation, and hostility. You get the feeling that we are all being endlessly violated by circumstance, and that sex and intimacy are just other parts of the broken system. Many of the comedown moments in sweatshop feel like coiling up in an empty, post-coitus position after being consentingly fucked by capitalism.

sweatshop sounds like inner war, the struggling and juggling under the weight of hypocritical, perhaps nonsensical, guilt. It asks the question of how we can truly protest, especially when the technologies that allow for pockets of protest to form around the world are the same that devastate the environment, exploit others’ labour, and depend on the corporate states. As we all move toward immaterial labour, playbour, affective labour, etc., which is often overlooked in terms of capitalistic value, we are ever more implicated. At the heart of this first question, is another one: What do we truly “need”? Perfection is impossible, happiness is temporary, and progress is a myth. Is seeing the world rightly enough? I’m inclined to think so, especially as I see despair as more productive than joy, and depressive people as having a firmer grip on reality than anyone else. When all of the manufactured stabilizers, like the nation state, religion, science, time, Humanism, and monogamous relationships, are removed, there could perhaps be an opening for a new model; however, as sweatshop intimates, we will probably make new fictions to cope. At the same time that so many British musicians are exploring the failed utopias of modernism and social welfare, the Canadian Pale Eyes have moved in a different, less nostalgic, way to try to take up the same challenges. They have also succeeded in penetrating my general numbness, making me feel bad, and then making me wonder why I should feel that way.

sweatshop is released on August 6 via Bandcamp. See the Pale Eyes website for further details and updates.

kltr kma – Pale Eyes

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The Blueprint for Sham Ruins: Manic Street Preachers’ Generation Terrorists Revisited

Manic Street Preachers - Generation Terrorists

For the past seventeen years, the Manic Street Preachers have been repeating their trauma, not only in the context of their songs, but also in the re-telling of their story. Particularly in the last seven years, via interviews in various media, anniversary edition DVD features, retrospective boxsets, and Nicky Wire’s Polaroid collection published by Faber, they’ve been reinforcing their history and legacy. More than most bands, they were born to do this kind of reminiscing and cataloguing. Their entire essence is built upon reflexivity and myth-making. Now twenty years after their debut album, Generation Terrorists, they are returning to the beginning. I’ve already written about my emotional and intellectual experience of the Manic Street Preachers’ first record at The Vinyl Villain, and I’ve written a bit about the band in the context of memory, archive, and monumental ruins, so I hope to achieve something slightly different in this post. On its twentieth anniversary, I want to revisit Generation Terrorists, my second favourite Manics album after The Holy Bible, and deconstruct the extravagant blueprint from which James Dean Bradfield, Richey Edwards, Sean Moore, and Nicky Wire built. There’s an element of the trümmerfrau in this work.

Unlike their two “masterpieces” The Holy Bible and Everything Must Go, which both received anniversary edition treatments one decade after their respective releases, the Manics’ debut album had to wait twice that amount of time. Most don’t consider it a masterpiece; it’s too long, it’s too ambitious, it’s too naïve, it’s too uneven. In his mini-essay, “Assassinated Beauty – An Appreciation of Generation Terrorists” for the twentieth anniversary collector’s edition, band biographer Simon Price observes: “The album you hold in your hand is not a ‘classic debut,’ nor anything so monolithic or museum-ready. It does not stand as an engraved marble edifice, immaculate and immovable, facing us down across the ages with its solemn, intimidating certainty.” In recent radio and online interviews, Nicky Wire has referred to Generation Terrorists as their folly. The architecture of Generation Terrorists is definitely on the side of absurd extravagance, but it’s purpose-built despite its hyperbolic ornamentation, perhaps fooling listeners into thinking the Manics were just another trashy hair metal band. Sham ruins that are, nonetheless, “4 real.”

Nicky Wire also lately stated that the Manics wrote their myth before they lived it, an element I alluded to in my observations about The Holy Bible. At the time of Generation Terrorists, they formed an ethos that took the idiotic idiom of cock rock hair metal and turned rock ‘n roll into something worthy of epiphany. They created a rock album and an image that paraded the iconography of the iconoclast, showcasing Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Liz Taylor, crucifixes, and Marlon Brando. They were autodidacts in excelsis, and romantic nihilists. Their soundbites in those first interviews came at you like parallel telegraphing fragments, spoken like some sort of poetry slam contemporary art performance by disaffected zombies who had eaten too many brains—those of Guy Debord, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Karl Marx—and eventually spat out Plath and Pinter. They managed to fit so many aphorisms into the songs themselves, including the phrase that was originally the title of the album (culture, alienation, boredom, and despair) that their songs actually emulated the pithy style of their interviews:

All we love is lonely wreckage
Nagasaki dolls are burning
Classified machines die misunderstood
Everywhere death row, everyone’s a victim
The only free choice is refusal to pay
Death sanitized through credit
You’re going to pay for my intelligence
Too much comfort to get decadent
Lips I kiss just another plague
Repeat after me, fuck queen and country

Richey Edwards and Nicky Wire melded the sloganeering of groups like the Futurists, Situationists, and Vorticists with the taglines of the globalized branding age. Whilst The Holy Bible is a challenge to memorize and sing along with, Generation Terrorists fully allows for breathless collective moments. Many of the songs from their debut are still in the setlist, and they often provoke the largest reaction. Perhaps this enduring appeal is because their first album is the one most built upon youth, and it’s the one with which the band seemed to have the most fun. Though they delivered the same adrenaline rush as Guns ‘n Roses, their rebellion felt more meaningful, more substantial. As much as the musical content is perceived as secondary to the cut-up lyrics, manifestoes, and DIY glam messthetic, it provides an essential backdrop for the incendiary ideas and internal logic of the band. James Dean Bradfield and Sean Moore proved to be more than competent musicians, creating anthemic music that preached anathema. Their sound wasn’t that of the defeated, nor was it the sound of perfection. It was the necessary emotional appeal to support the lyrical appeal to intellect. They were just as profligate in their music as in their ideas and objectives. For musical ambition gone nuclear, listen to the epic album conclusion “Condemned to Rock ‘n Roll,” which features one of the best howls of existential angst and one of the most blistering guitar solos.

Putting Generation Terrorists into its 1992 context sheds more light on why it was a significant anomaly. The Manics appeared to come through a wormhole that bypassed the Second Summer of Love. If you agree with Joshua Clover’s thesis about music post-1989, music began to reflect a brave new world in which capitalism and the West triumphed as Jesus Jones’s vacuously jubilant “Right Here Right Now” played over top of endless footage of the Berlin Wall coming down. Clover argues that the political rap of artists like Public Enemy, which had aimed at external powers, was shifting into the gangsta rap genre that turned anger and violence in on itself; grunge took the anger of punk, and too, focused it inwards, documenting a more solipsistic struggle; and acid house kept revolution inside the head, producing at best apolitical resistance. I think it’s quite telling that the Manics chose to model themselves off Public Enemy and The Clash; they were wholly out-of-step with their times. They also clearly came out of the decade of Thatcherism and the post-punk/C86 genres it provoked, conveying independent ideals in a commercial package. “Motorcycle Emptiness,” arguably the album’s best track, seems like an uncanny hybrid of The June Brides’ “Josef’s Gone” and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “April Skies.” Straddling the gap between Madchester and Britpop, which I would contend were also navel-gazing in their parochialism, the Manics were hardly celebratory, especially about their own country. Coming from a working-class, Welsh background and performing a less normative masculinity, they were outsiders, and championed underdogs of sexism, racism, and classism. In Generation Terrorists, the success of capitalism was not met with self-satisfied merriment. The Manics were kicking out in as many directions as possible with the desperate energy of those who may never get another chance.

Prostitution. Democracy. Suicide. Capitalism. Deception. War. Religion. Disease. Anesthetization. Debt. Discrimination. Incarceration. History. Impotence. Censorship. Alienation. The Manics covered an astonishing amount of ground in Generation Terrorists, using the rhetoric of the jaded and degraded to empower themselves. In the mesmerizing lilt of his Welsh accent, Edwards declared: “Our romance is having total power in that we’ve just got nothing to lose ‘cos we’re secure in the knowledge we already lost a long time ago.” This preemptive strike gave them the upper hand, and allowed them to oscillate between two seemingly opposite postures. They performed as spectators and aggressors, the useless generation and generation terrorists. Impulsion and repulsion alternated throughout every track, articulating imagined audiences and alliances, and drawing you in with inclusive pronouns whilst simultaneously addressing a second person enemy: “You are pure, you are snow, we are the useless sluts that they mould,” “We are not your sinners/Our voices are for real,” and “Find your faith in your security/All broken up at seventeen/Jam your brain with broken heroes/ Love your masks, and adore your failure.” The interesting tension extended to the friction between their decadent performance through meticulously crafted, self-conscious semiotics, and their naïve DIY authenticity and aspirations. Their stance was carnivalesque, but genuine. Working-class bright young things.

When I first started listening to the sprawling eighteen-track album, I found the lone cover song “Damn Dog” to be jarring in its simplistic, stripped down lyrics and riffs, and believed it to be filler. But then I watched the 1980 cult film Times Square from whence it came, as befits the typical education arc of a Manics fan (there’s an extensive reading list as well). The film, which stars Robin Johnson and Trini Alvarado as teenage runaways in New York City in the advent of the Times Square clean-up, is just as significant an influence as the myriad theorists and writers the Manics favoured. Conceived of as a punk rock Saturday Night Fever, the film seems easy to mock, along with the earnestness of the two main characters, Nicky Marotta and Pamela Pearl, the former, a street kid with a criminal record and a passion for electric guitar, and the latter, the depressed daughter of the city official who is spearheading the regeneration of Times Square. With its offbeat spoken word poetry, scenes of urban decay, use of bandit eye stripes, escape from shiny consumerism into a fantasy world of rock ‘n roll fame, and gestures of glamorous (self)destruction, it becomes easier to see the connections between the film and the Manics’ early incarnation. There is definitely more to mine in Times Square, not least the lesbian subtext, which was subsumed and suppressed in the final cut. In addition to pushing boundaries of gender, sexuality, and class, the film interrogates the representation of young people, especially girls. It depicts attempts at their containment, and the pathologization of youth itself (the two protagonists meet at a hospital where they are being monitored for mental illness). Another invented disease, indeed. Nicky seemingly poses a threat and challenge to the status quo because she willfully breaks down the division between private and public spheres, toting a boombox rather than a walkman, living on the streets rather than in a house, playing guitar solos in back alleys rather than attending school. Dubbing themselves the Sleeze Sisters, Nicky and Pamela are essentially generation terrorists. Nicky, who sports a haircut reminiscent of Ziggy Stardust and prescient of Nicky Wire’s, says, “Once you’re famous, you can’t just disappear.” It’s a sentiment that the Manics would come to embody in more ways than one. The final scene of the film in which Nicky Marotta gives an illegal rooftop performance of “Damn Dog” to her adoring female fans, who have dressed themselves in bin liners and excessive make-up, echoes the kind of effect the Manics had and have on hardcore fans, who are very often female.

The twentieth anniversary collector’s edition of Generation Terrorists features four discs, including the original album, b-sides, demos, and a DVD, along with other bonus material like a replica backstage pass lanyard and a photograph of Richey Edwards’s “You Love Us” collage. In my opinion, the most valuable items in the box set are a vinyl 10” of their BBC Radio 1 Rock Show Live Session, and the DVD, which includes a documentary about the making of the album; the rest of the material is another case of underestimating the dedicated fanbase. I would think that many fans would already have collected these b-sides and demos as I did. The DVD itself also features a fair amount of re-packaged material, including official music videos and television footage that most fans would have likely already seen, purchased, and/or recorded. In fact, fans probably have a larger, more diverse archive than Sony would ever release. At this point, the more interesting material might be what those outside of the band collect and create. Maybe there needs to be a sequel to Jeremy Deller’s The Uses of Literacy.

The Manics often say that they inspired more dissertations than bands, which is apt, but also unfortunate. I desperately wish for a contemporary band that could match the kind of intelligence, outrageousness, naïve passion, and self-belief that Manics espoused in 1992, but it seems that newer bands who strive to build a more complex, intelligent musical concept either fade into obscurity before they get anywhere, or they struggle on without even a cult following. There are some interesting bands with cult followings and distinct, eccentric images, including the likes of British Sea Power, who has swapped politics for nature obsessions and a quirky antiquarian sensibility. However, the closest to a current band who can offer a lifestyle choice, so to speak, is The Indelicates, who combine intelligence and politics with accessibility, producing a complete world and set of ideologies unto themselves. Interestingly enough, they are in the process of releasing their own musical commentary on social pathologies: Diseases of England. A recent interview with Saint Etienne highlights the lack of contemporary bands to come with an entire worldview, manifesto, and aesthetic. The boring bands who could only talk about their effects pedals have been replaced by the boys in their bedrooms hitting keys on their laptops. You would expect that the current climate of global economic crisis, rampant neoliberalism, mind-numbing, patronizing entertainment, and ongoing threats to freedom and access in the digital environment would produce more bands with an overreaching agenda of anger and passion. Where are the regeneration terrorists? I don’t want an innocuous rock band named after inoculation. I don’t want bands to sing about the fact their generation has nothing to say. In the landfill indie landscape of the recent decade, the Manics’ rubbish looks positively beautiful.

Generation Terrorists wasn’t about being wise and mature, it was about youth and stillborn energy. It was absurd madness proselytized in public. Folly can be defined as mania and rage, sin and harm, glamour and foolishness. Folly is most often associated with the young, and unnecessarily discounted or excused for that reason. Despite this, follies also often remain timeless attractions.

Motorcycle Emptiness – Manic Street Preachers

Generation Terrorists (Live at Hull Adelphi, 1991) – Manic Street Preachers (earlier version of “Stay Beautiful”)

Damn Dog – Robin Johnson

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Myxomatosis #15: Quiet Batpeople

I’m so happy that The Thick of It is back for another series. It’s one of the best shows on television, and from what I know of public relations (I had to take some courses for the communications program I was in), it’s fairly accurate in all its absurd logic. I love the grasping cast of always pathetic, occasionally sympathetic, characters, who usually end up racing down a corridor in an ungainly fashion to save their own careers. I love the barrage of ruthless, soul-destroying insults amidst the landmine of f-bombs and twisted mind games. And of course, I love the watery-eyed sociopath, Malcolm Tucker, the Alistair Campbell of Armando Ianucci’s carefully crafted circles of hell.

One of my favourite scenes for this series is during a brainstorming session for a name for good everyday citizens:

Ollie Reeder: You know, the people who deal with the little stuff… um… Wombles, Honest Wombles. Everyday Wombles?
Malcolm Tucker: Sorry, I’ve just got to take a call…
Nicola Murray: Um, ‘straights’ –
Ollie: No!
Nicola: No… no, of course, sorry.
Helen: Commuting champions.
Nicola: Interrailers, human interrailers.
Ollie: Human interrailers? That’s interrailers. Uh, everyday superstars, all… all British supremes –
Malcolm: That sounds like a racist tribute band.
Nicola: Ordinary people, with s-… with… something special about them. With a special power.
Ollie: Please don’t say special. Don’t say special.
Nicola: No but – you know, but like sup… uh… people as superheroes.
Ollie: Iron People… Spider People –
Nicola: They’re just regular citizens, but they have this… p – that one special quality that makes them like Batman, Batpeople. Um… Quiet Batpeople.
Malcolm: [Glaring] Quiet Batpeople?

In honour of this brilliant piece of satirical television, I’ve made a mix of “spin” songs. I could never do the show justice with a description, so I’ll just include this handy YouTube video compilation of the various nicknames bestowed upon the characters.

Download Myxomatosis #15.

Original Spin – Mother Mother

Spinning Top – XTC

Tailspin – The Divine Comedy

Spin the Bottle – The D’Urbervilles

Spin – Darling Buds

Spinning Around – Kylie Minogue

My Head is Spinning – Pet Shop Boys

Spin Spin Sugar – Sneaker Pimps

Sangria Spin Cycles – Flying Lotus

Spinning Away – John Cale and Brian Eno

Spin – Anthony Adverse

Spinning Wheel – Shirley Bassey

Der Spinner – Nina Hagen

You Spin Me Right Round (Like a Record) – Thea Gilmore and Mike Cave

Spin That Girl Around – Euros Childs

(Song For My) Sugar Spun Sister – The Stone Roses

A Spindle, a Darkness, a Fever, and a Necklace – Bright Eyes

As the Bell Rings the Maypole Spins – Dead Can Dance

Spinner – Brian Eno and Jah Wobble

Like Spinning Plates – Radiohead

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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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