The politics of music

A new book, 33 Revolutions Per Minute by Dorian Lynskey, looks at the history of the protest song movement.

Members of Green Day,  Billie Joe Armstrong, left,, Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt, right,  pose for a photo between interviews in their Toronto hotel room, Thursday September 23, 2004. They have a new album out, "American Idiot," their first in four years.(AP Photo/CP,Adrian Wyld)
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Hear the phrase "protest singer" and a certain type of image often comes to mind - a 1960s Californian hippy with a garland of flowers atop their lank hair, an acoustic guitar, and a highly strung voice railing, or rather wailing, against the Vietnam War, and demanding peace, love and understanding.

Yet these days it could as easily be Tunisian hip-hop or the Egyptian rock band Wust el-Balad playing their anthem for freedom in Tahrir Square. A new book by the British writer Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions Per Minute, makes the case that the political pop song is one of incredible breadth, worthy of as much respect and analysis as any other. Across a mammoth 864 pages, we are given the in-depth stories behind 33 historic protest songs, their fellow travellers, and the underlying political moments, issues or campaigns that went with them.

"I want to make the point that political songwriting is as big, and fertile, and sprawling a form as the love song," he says, speaking from his London home.

It's a persuasive argument – the variety of songs covered in the book is remarkable. Of course, there are limitations necessitated by time and space – but even while focusing on western pop (with a brief detour for three chapters on Chile, Jamaica and Nigeria – because Victor Jara, reggae and Afrobeat made a particular impact on the western world), and beginning with the earliest advent of popular song, this is still a huge book. To cover the history of protest song outside the West would be "a whole other book", he observes – and another very long one at that.

The book begins with Billie Holliday's version of Strange Fruit in 1939 - before that, American protest songs were written for specific, already politicised audiences, such as picket lines or party meetings. Their goal was to rally the faithful, written in a folk tradition common the world over, often with contemporary lyrics written to fit familiar, existing melodies.

Lynskey's book takes us from the harrowing injustices of racial segregation and lynching in the American deep south, through Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's The Message, up to Green Day's American Idiot. There are many recurring themes, but the overarching message is the varied nature of the music that might be considered protest music. The book's undoubted strength is that it gives a fair reading to bad music with good politics, and good music with bad politics – though the 33 chosen are all songs he loves; powerful songs, irrespective of whether the songwriters behind them hold PhDs in political theory (a spoiler: most of them don't).

"There are all kinds of good songs about love, but some of those songs are lyrically, quite stupid about love – but nobody minds," he laughs. "Nobody says 'well they're wrong about love; they're wrong about human interaction'."

The chapter on Bob Dylan's Masters of War is one of many highlights – with so many to choose from, Dylan's diatribe is surely the pinnacle of 1960s protest song, a perfectly articulated, snarling encapsulation of pop as the voice of the people, a rallying cry for the masses against their venal masters. Hearing Dylan almost spit the words "you play with my world like it's your little toy" is a much-needed reminder that the 1960s meant so much more than is often conveyed by rose-tinted Woodstock montage videos or media hype over Beatles rarities and reissues.

A fine example of a protest song far from this stereotype is Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Two Tribes, a song played on daytime radio, in shopping malls, and in clubs around the world to this day, usually heard as an uncontentious bit of 1980s pop. That it articulated a great fear of global nuclear destruction, the two tribes being America and the Soviet Union, was certainly not hidden, but the protest came in a very different musical form to Dylan's. It was, Lynskey thinks, a decade where protest pop was so common it was almost instinctive, irrespective of what kind of music you made, or who you were.

"In the 1980s, that was just what you did if you were in a band – and a lot of them were bad songs. With quite obvious foes like nuclear war, or apartheid, writing songs about them was just a natural response. Simple Minds wrote terrible political songs - but that didn't stop them doing it; they thought, 'we're a big band, we care about things, so we should express this'. Most of the great political songwriters historically were not great students of politics, they weren't radicals."

For all the continuous power of political pop, from Strange Fruit onwards, it is only in the final bit of the chronology that Lynskey observes a withering and disempowerment of the phenomenon. Green Day's American Idiot heralded "the protest song revival that never was". With George W Bush and Tony Blair leading the widely unpopular invasion of Iraq, and nebulously, "the war on terror", as well as overseeing a shrinking of civil liberties and the Bush administration's widely criticised inertia over Hurricane Katrina, there was a notable paucity of musical response.

Kanye West may have said of the latter "George W Bush doesn't care about black people", but that's about all he did. When protest pop existed in the 2000s, it never caught alight. Lynskey observes sadly in the book's epilogue: "I started this book intending to write a history of a still-vital form of music. I finished it wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy."

So what happened? As Lynskey establishes from the offing, the term "protest singer" is itself contentious, and often unpopular with those it is ascribed to. To an extent, musicians have always been afraid of looking shrill, or earnest - wary of being seen to take themselves too seriously, and getting ideas above their station. Lynskey's book quotes a common complaint thrown at Phil Ochs in 1964: "I came to be entertained, not preached to." Yet musicians' reluctance to be seen as political seems much stronger in recent decades than it was in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Has the need to sell records in a shrinking, fragile marketplace instilled a kind of self-censorship in the pop music of the 1990s and 2000s? The Dixie Chicks' criticism of George W Bush led to a huge backlash against them from the Republican right; they were accused of being unpatriotic, and the ensuing controversy greatly tarnished their image, especially for fans of their previously uncontroversial country-pop. Lynskey doesn't think conspiracy theories can be given much credence.

"After 9/11, there may have been some fear of speaking out, but I don't feel that there were all these amazing protest songs going unwritten in the past decade simply because people were scared. If you have the inclination, you're probably not going to flinch from it for simple careerist reasons," he says.

Political pop is self-perpetuating, Lynskey thinks, and when it slowed down and started to dissipate in the early 1990s, the protest impulse was lost. "Musicians just got out of the habit," he says. "It's like if you stop exercising, and then you know you haven't exercised, and it becomes harder and harder to get back into it. If Coldplay, or Snow Patrol, or Mumford and Sons had that urge, they'd do it."

It's apt that 33 Revolutions Per Minute should be published just when revolution and protest is once again sweeping the world. As recently as this year, things look to be changing: from the rap in Tunisia documenting and inspiring the rebellion against President Ben Ali, to the playing of working-class "grime" music in Britain's student and youth riots this winter. So is a new era for political music looming, to coincide with it? Lynskey is more optimistic now than when he was writing his epilogue. "My hope is the book might give people the idea that there's nothing to be scared of. My dream is that somebody in a youngish band would read the book and go 'actually, there are loads of ways to do this' - you don't have to be didactic, you don't have to be annoying."