May 24, 2013 by brettdgale
A political song can be a dangerous thing for a songwriter to undertake. Get it right and you have the potential of a masterpiece that could change the world (or at least inspire others to). In short, you have “This Land is Your Land”
Get it wrong and …. well, you have the bizarre LL Cool J, Brad Paisley combination Accidental Racist – a dog’s breakfast of a song that in attempting to proselytise for racial tolerance ends up as an apologia for the Confederate flag and all it represents. (One listen and you end up saying WTF? That’s a black guy defending slavery!)
And that’s not to take into account the inherent musical tensions that can easily lead you to create an overly preachy second rate pop song or, even worse, (if you want to be taken seriously that is), a rip snorter of a rock track whose political lyrics are so obscure you may as well be writing a love song.
I’ve been musing on this a bit lately, what with the Dropkick Murphys’ recent tour down under and the timely death of Thatcher. I’ve been musing on what conditions make for the creation of great political songs and whether or not the time of the political song is past.
Luckily, The Guardian’s music critic, Dorian Lynskey, has done most of the heavy lifting for me with a superb tome chronicling the history of the political song in 33 Revolutions per Minute: A history of protest songs from Billie Holiday to Green Day.
Leading us from the haunting Strange Fruit – a song about lynching (Southern trees bear a strange fruit/…/black bodies swinging in the southern breeze); to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger; through the well known protest songs and singers of the Sixties; to the Seventies of The Clash, the Dead Kennedys, Billy Bragg; onto The Message and Fight the Power; arriving at (almost) the present and our almost total lack of political music.
If you believe in the power of music to inspire or if you just believe in really great songs with a deeper meaning than “yeah, yeah, yeah”, Lynskey’s book is an enjoyable must read.
These songs transcend the trap of the political, for them, as Lynskey writes, “the political content is not an obstacle to greatness, but the source of it.” Each of the songs Lynskey chronicles, (and the book heaves with dozens not just those for whom the titles of each chapter are named), fairly seethes with a rage against the machine.
And that’s essence of the protest song. By definition it is against something. It is in fact a protest.
Perhaps that’s why right wingers can’t really write political songs and when they do they sound like songs from the eponymous title character of the film Bob Roberts: (Some people will work / Some never will / But they’ll complain and complain and complain and complain and complain / Like this: / It’s society’s fault I don’t have a job / It’s society’s fault I’m a slob / I’m a drunk, I don’t have a brain)
Yet it’s not just about the negative. Protest songs are about looking forward to positive change. To truly succeed they also need a call to arms (sometimes blatantly as in Give Peace a Chance) or at least a subtler cleverer prompt to action (Bruce Springsteen’s American Skin (41 Shots)).
Although Lynskey doesn’t characterise it this way it seems to me that there are two great eras of protest music. The 30’s and 40’s of the great depression, southern racism and labor strife; stopping stone dead with the suffocating political correctness of the Cold War and jumping time and space to the 25 year period from 1964 to 1989, the years of Vietnam, civil rights, gay rights, the anti-apartheid movement and opposition to Reagan and Thatcher. As Lynskey has written elsewhere, “Thatcher’s ascendance galvanised a generation of dissenters” a point wittily chronicled by my good friends over at the Laundromat news.
In Australia in this period we of course had groups like Midnight Oil, The Saints and Spy v Spy singing about similar global issues the threat of nuclear war and environmental destruction as well as homegrown threats like the corrupt dictatorship of Joh or our appalling treatment of indigenous Australians.
This era of creativity has again ground to a shuddering halt as we entered a new age of right wing conformity and fear.
Lynskey ends by writing “I began 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.” It’s a sad note that I must echo.
Have we run out of great events? Of things that make us angry? Of parts of the world we want to change?
Consumerism and technology have made us fat and lazy – we’d rather get involved in clicktivism than take to the streets (btw Kony is still out there and thriving for all you laptop protesters).
And while Australians are content to whinge about the cost of living it’s a sort of aimless whinge, a spectral shadow of protest, ethereal in its self indulgence and its aim to look after number one.
Great protest music it certainly doesn’t inspire.
In a world where the saccharine performers of The Voice command popular musical attention is it any wonder that the vast majority of couch zombies won’t be galvanized to action?
This brings me to the Dropkick Murphys one of the few contemporary bands to consistently add a political message to their corpus. In their favour it must be also said that they are one of the few groups of people around, whether musicians or not, who are still happy to publicly support the work of unions as well. All power to you boys and your brand of Boston Irish protest punk.
Dorian Lynskey’s fine compendium reminds us of a time when music had power. Watch this video of Dropkick Murphy’s lead singer and bassist Ken Casey attacking a Nazi skinhead and perhaps all is not lost.