Sunday, April 24, 2011

Music as a vehicle for political dissent

In his new book 33 Revolutions Per Minute, the music writer Dorian Lynsky pays tribute to the ways that political dissent has been expressed through music.

The book is a history of protest music embodied in 33 songs spanning seven decades and four continents. It includes songs such as Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit", Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's outrage at the killing of Vietnam protesters at Kent State in "Ohio," to Green Day railing against President Bush and twenty-first-century media in "American Idiot".

A review of the book in the Guardian tells us that:
33 Revolutions Per Minute is organised like a giant compilation album or homemade mixtape or iPod playlist: each of its 33 chapters is named for a song, from Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" to Green Day's "American Idiot", via the work of, among others, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, James Brown, Gil Scott-Heron, Stevie Wonder, the Clash, Carl Bean, the Dead Kennedys, Crass, the Special AKA, Billy Bragg, REM, Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine. Lynskey places their music in the context of America's union movement, civil rights, opposition to the Vietnam war, black power, gay rights, opposition to Reagan and Thatcher, the Falklands war, CND, the miners' strike, the anti-apartheid movement, rave culture and opposition to the war in Iraq. It's quite an undertaking.

.............. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering that Lynskey's a music journalist, 33 Revolutions Per Minute is better as a history of pop music than as political history.

....... A book about topical songs was always going to run the risk of being out of date by the time it came to be published. The uprisings in north Africa would be beyond its remit but Lynskey should be cheered by the occupation of the state Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, where they've been singing the O'Jays' "Love Train" and Sister Sledge's "We Are Family", a song that Lynskey says was "politicised after the fact", since its celebration of "the tight bond between the group's four sisters... resonated with black, gay and feminist listeners" – and now with public-sector workers fighting to retain their collective bargaining rights.

Old protest songs have been making a comeback elsewhere, too. Anti-Berlusconi demonstrators in Italy last month took to the streets to the sound of Patti Smith's "People Have the Power"; the British students protesting in London last year sang "Tories, Tories will tear us apart again" to the tune of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart". Putting new words to old tunes has long been standard practice for protest songs; that way they're easier to sing along to. And it makes sense that opposition to the Tory attack on the welfare state should look to the Thatcher era; "Liar Liar" is a form of early-80s revival, too. As for truly new protest songs, it may well be the case that there aren't any being made; but then again it may just be that broadsheet journalists haven't heard them yet.
Reviews of the book can be read here, here, here and here

Lynskey also has his own blog where he writes about contemporaray political events and music.

There are a growing number of websites, blogs and facebook sites that document and describe the links between political protest and music.

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