Heroine Blues: On Dorian Lynskey and Sara Marcus

Heroine Blues: On Dorian Lynskey and Sara Marcus

Heroine Blues: On Dorian Lynskey and Sara Marcus

Whoever sings them and however great they sound, rebel songs can’t do your fighting for you.


The labor demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin, began on Monday, February 14; it took just a week for the protest singers to arrive. On the following Monday, opponents of Governor Scott Walker’s unionbusting legislation were sung to—and at, and with—by Tom Morello, lead guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, who also performs acoustic “rebel songs” as the Nightwatchman. On the bill as well was Wayne Kramer of MC5, a short-lived but influential Detroit band remembered as much for its part in the unrest surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention as its free-jazz-influenced garage rock.

Two months earlier, in Tunisia, 22-year-old Hamada Ben-Amor, who records as El Général, uploaded a video for his song “Rais Lebled” to the Internet. Shot with a hand-held camera, the video shows Ben-Amor rapping in impassioned Arabic over a relentless rhythm loop. In English the song’s title is usually rendered as “President, Your People Are Dying”; one available translation includes the lines “This is a message from one of your children/Who is telling of his suffering/We are living like dogs/Half of the people living in filth/And [drinking] from a cup of suffering.” The clip went viral in Tunisia even as the artist was arrested in the coastal city of Sfax and then jailed in Tunis. Along with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, an act of protest against the corrupt government of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, “Rais Lebled” has been cited as a catalyst for the popular uprising that toppled Ben Ali’s regime, and has since been heard and sung in Cairo and Bahrain.

Here are distinct, if not incompatible, expressions of protest through music. One, predominantly American, revives musical styles, modes of dissemination and even particular songs and performers associated with the Old and New Left. Despite its scripted quality, such music links contemporary struggles to a broad cultural inheritance. (Some Madisonians needed no reminder, singing “Solidarity Forever” well before Morello and Kramer’s appearance.) In the other mode, that of “Rais Lebled” and the Francophone rap that became the soundtrack of the 2005 riots in Paris’s banlieues, hip-hop is the musica franca, especially for a young generation more likely to learn lyrics from a Facebook link than a broadside, or Broadside.

These recent songs from the barricades lend an air of premature obituary to parts of Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute, a history of protest music that is also a lament for its demise. Lynskey, a music critic for the Guardian, does not claim that contemporary pop is entirely quiescent, and he remains alert to signs of life, which he has been chronicling on an associated blog. Nevertheless, his book’s key assumption is that the sociopolitical engagement that once flowered in popular music has withered away. To the degree that the term “protest song” evokes warhorses like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Fixin’-to-Die Rag” and “Ohio,” this assessment will sound like a boomer’s version of “They don’t write ‘em like that anymore,” a generational complaint that usually means “I can’t hear ‘em like that anymore.” That charge, in its baldest form, does not stick to Lynskey, who tracks relevant strains of punk, hip-hop and even disco, of which the dismissal as “bubbleheaded” he deftly counters with Carl Bean’s gay liberation anthem “I Was Born This Way” and the subtler subversions of Chic’s “Good Times.” As Lynskey notes, “There are as many ways to write a protest song as there are to write a love song.”

One benefit of such catholicity is the amount of space Lynskey devotes to American and English black artists, thereby complementing well-worn material on 1960s and ’70s rock figures with a fresh, thorough treatment of inner-city soul (“ghetto songs”). His account of punk-era London and the Rock Against Racism campaign attends equally to the Clash and the “dub poet” Linton Kwesi Johnson, whose 1979 album Forces of Victory is an essential document of racial tensions in Brixton. While the overall focus is Anglo-American, survey-length chapters cover the birth of Rastafarian reggae, Nigeria’s Fela Kuti and Chile’s Victor Jara, whose execution by the Pinochet regime in 1973 is a stark reminder of the risks that singers of conscience may face.

Lynskey’s working definition of the protest song stresses subject matter and perspective: “a song which addresses a political issue in a way which aligns itself with the underdog.” This does not greatly narrow the field, especially when applied to “The Ballad of the Green Berets” or “Okie From Muskogee,” songs from the right that express cultural beleaguerment. Lynskey is also sympathetic to an aesthetic conception of protest music: any music that feels liberating might hold in reserve, and perhaps release, revolutionary energies. This claim is a touchstone of rock discourse: if someone says that Eddie Cochran’s (or the Sex Pistols’) “Somethin’ Else” is not only about a car and a girl, this is why. Lynskey is too focused on the overt political content of songs to fully adopt this view, but it colors his at times impressionistic prose and his judgments of musical merit.

* * *

The vinyl-centric title of Lynskey’s book is honest: Lynskey hears, and tells, a history of protest songs through their recordings. (A short appendix glosses pre–twentieth century broadsides and spirituals.) This choice of period and format is his to make, but it cannot justify one class of omissions. To claim that Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” (written in 1937 as “Bitter Fruit,” but little-known before Billie Holiday added it to her Café Society repertory two years later) marks the point at which “the pop song fully embraced politics” is to ignore “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”; Jay Gorney and E.Y. Harburg’s plaint of a jobless ex-doughboy “standing in line/Just waiting for bread,” introduced in the 1932 Broadway revue Americana, is hardly obscure. Though Harburg would later allege that network radio had been pressured to “lay low on the song,” it gained national exposure at the height of the Depression through hit recordings by Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. The song’s lyrics unmask the illusions of patriotism (“Yankee Doodle-de-dum”) through the soliloquy of a discarded veteran and worker (“once I built a railroad/now it’s done”), and its main melody, based on a Russian-Jewish lullaby, as well as its martial bridge animate its political concerns as vividly as the unstable, blues-derived harmonies that underpin “Strange Fruit.” If that combination of elements does not satisfy Lynskey’s demand that a full-fledged protest song “shoulder an explicit political message into the arena of entertainment,” neither does “Born in the USA.”

“Brother” would merit attention even if it were a sui generis novelty. It was not. The same themes appear in numbers from pre-Code Hollywood musicals, most notably Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “Remember My Forgotten Man” (from Gold Diggers of 1933) and Gorney and Harburg’s “Dusty Shoes” (from Moonlight and Pretzels, also released in 1933). Leftist ties and sympathies were common among musical-theater composers active in the 1930s and ’40s, including Marc Blitzstein and John Latouche, and Harold Rome, whose score for Pins and Needles, a labor-themed revue mounted by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union in 1937, included the meta-protest “Sing Me a Song With Social Significance.” Harburg’s later stage musicals included the anticapitalist fantasy Finian’s Rainbow, whose “Old Devil Moon” is better remembered than “When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich.” Lynskey mentions Blitzstein and Earl Robinson (Latouche’s collaborator on “Ballad for Americans”) in passing, nods to Fats Waller and Andy Razaf’s “Black and Blue,” and, in a footnote, to Irving Berlin’s “Supper Time” (a lesser-known song about a lynching), but other than that, 33 Revolutions Per Minute recycles the myth that before rock, only musicians with a folk, blues or jazz pedigree were interested in or capable of setting their convictions to music.

One reason Lynskey singles out “Strange Fruit” is its strong association with a uniquely compelling performance and performer. Of the songs heading each of his book’s thirty-three chapters, Lynskey identifies only one, “We Shall Overcome,” by its authorship, which is multiple, in the folk manner, rather than by its best-known recording artist. The bias toward a song’s fixed incarnation obscures one crucial factor in protest music’s slow fade-out. Of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads (1940), Lynskey writes approvingly, “Here were protest songs you could hear rather than read”—a sentence that might be completed with the qualification, “without having to play or sing them yourself.” Early twentieth-century labor and socialist movements used the collective singing of propaganda songs to foster other forms of community participation. Whether transmitted (and altered) orally or in the Wobblies’ Little Red Song Book and similar coterie publications, songs like Joe Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave” (“You’ll get pie in the sky when you die”) and slain Gastonia striker Ella May Wiggins’s “A Mill Mother’s Lament” were not popular music of the now-pervasive commodity-based variety. Nor were they “folk music” in a strict folkloric sense, although the battle to reserve that term for songs of indeterminate authorship (and of any or no political stripe) has long been lost.

Guthrie’s emergence as a solo artist after the breakup of the Almanac Singers in 1942 altered the terms of musical protest. He was not the only singer adopted as an authentic “voice of the people” by the intellectual left: Aunt Molly Jackson (a Kentucky miner’s widow) and convict Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter were pressed into similar service. But as a prolific writer and gifted showman, Guthrie was uniquely equipped to capitalize on the solo platform. He crafted a public voice, widely heard on radio and record, that built on real experience and righteous anger, and balanced ideological partisanship (though not party membership) with an Americanism we would now call “relatable.”

Both everyman and star, Guthrie inaugurated a shift in attention from the protest song to the protest singer. Among later “folk entrepreneurs” (an unsentimental phrase coined by R. Serge Denisoff), Bob Dylan is the most significant of Woody’s children, but not because of his early emulation of Guthrie, or even for the songs inspired by his fitful political allegiances. Rather, it’s because he relinquished one of his idol’s roles—“voice of the people” (in Dylan’s case, “a generation”)—to embrace another—self-directed, individualistic artist. Breaking his “wedding vow” to “equality” and SNCC in “My Back Pages” before trading topical for sonic dissent at the Newport Folk Festival, Dylan became the first popular musician to make not speaking out a mark of artistic ambition. (With Barry McGuire’s clumsily rhymed jeremiad “Eve of Destruction” charting alongside Highway 61 Revisited, he had a point.) Moves in the opposite direction have also been made in the name of artistic integrity and maturity. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971), for which the singer, previously cast by Motown as a “play-safe Romeo,” demanded to choose his own material, musicians and production schedule, is typical, though the musical outcome was not. Here, the distance between social consciousness and self-expression narrows, and Gaye’s implicit criticism of the Fordist record-making practices of Motown head Berry Gordy is no less poignant than his vocal dismay about poverty and pollution.

In many of the post-September 11 songs and incidents that round out Lynskey’s narrative, protest becomes indistinguishable from renegade personal statement, which has no expectations of efficacy or solidarity. Far from preaching to the choir, Steve Earle’s “John Walker’s Blues,” which dared to give a voice to the face of the “American Taliban,” and the Dixie Chicks’ (nonmusical) onstage criticism of George Bush, were heretical darts launched at conservative audiences. (These episodes may reinforce the argument of Joshua Clover’s 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About, which traces the shift from collective to individual expression in several pop genres at the end of the cold war.) Yet M.I.A.’s disquieting guerrilla aestheticism and The Legendary K.O.’s mash-up of Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” with the same artist’s famous television outburst after Hurricane Katrina (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”) have found receptive ears, as has “Rais Lebled.” The future of politicized pop is likely as unpredictable as its past is various. Lynskey’s epitaph for “the age of the heroic activist-musician,” while of a piece with his personality-driven approach, clashes with the dream, stated on his blog, of a “huge, undeniable protest song coming straight from the heart of popular culture.” Lynskey hasn’t absorbed one of his book’s key lessons: stars rarely speak in the underdog’s voice for long.

* * *

Compared with the events chronicled by Lynskey, those recounted by Sara Marcus in Girls to the Front, a painstaking reconstruction of the 1990s punk-feminist movement known as Riot Grrrl, may not seem earth-shaking. The demand by high school– and college-age women to “twist go stand jump be anywhere i want NOW”—in the words of an early manifesto—while watching their favorite bands does not have the ring of calls for school integration or an end to apartheid. Nor are revolutionary cells born out of slumber parties.

Such accusations of triviality and parochialism hounded Riot Grrrl throughout its brief official existence, especially after it caught the attention of trend-sniffing journalists. Popular media coverage tended toward condescension (“It’s a Grrrl Thing,” said Seventeen), highlighting thrift-store fashion and scenester cool over the music, much less the politics. For many, Riot Grrrl has become a footnote not only to the rise of Nirvana, whose frontman Kurt Cobain was as much of a fellow traveler as any platinum-selling boy could be, but also to the broader mainstreaming of alternative rock. Marcus combats this received view, arguing that Riot Grrrl revitalized standing feminist concerns about privilege, autonomy and (perhaps paradoxically) community. “The most passionately held political divisions in American life were being played out on the screens of girls’ lives” during the early ’90s, Marcus writes, as legislators chipped away at young women’s abortion rights through parental notification laws, and the Supreme Court, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, came one vote short of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Riot Grrrl’s epicenters were bicoastal. One was the Pacific Northwest, home to Olympia’s nontraditional Evergreen State College and its supportive, even uncritical, artistic community. The other was Washington, DC, a stronghold of both grassroots activism and the ascetic, self-policing strain of hardcore punk known as straight edge. With important exceptions, the American punk underground of the time was a boys’ world, on stage and especially off. Though decried by the flagship DC band Fugazi, aggressive, cathartic slam-dancing was a ritual for many male concertgoers, leaving anyone unwilling to be elbowed or worse in the vortex of the pit literally marginalized. The women for whom this scene was “supercharged with significance” were well positioned to understand its dynamics as a microcosm of their frustrated search for a safe place to stand, physically and psychically, within the culture at large.

Locking arms and rushing to the lip of the stage—girls to the front!—was one way to establish a presence. Forming bands of their own was another. Some bands, including many of those that performed at an all-female “Love Rock Revolution Girl Style Now” night during Olympia’s subculturally epochal International Pop Underground Convention in August 1991, were hastily formed and little more than notional. Of these, the aptly named Bratmobile epitomized a prevailing cute-but-critical aesthetic. The complete lyrics to their first single, “Kiss and Ride,” run: “If you’ll be my bride/we can kiss and ride/We can have real fun/I can fuck and run.” By 1994, at the tail end of the period Marcus chronicles, members of two other bands, Heavens to Betsy and Excuse 17, formed the more celebrated and musically disciplined Sleater-Kinney.

The standard-bearers of Riot Grrrl during its peak years were the three women and nonsinging male guitarist of Bikini Kill, whose singer Kathleen Hanna emerged as the movement’s ambivalent de facto spokeswoman, a confident, self-exposing performer (“I write the word SLUT on my stomach because guys always think that”) who was too personally magnetic to be fully representative of her constituency. Defiance and seduction are never far apart in Bikini Kill’s best work. Even the anthem “Rebel Girl” complicates solidarity with a powerful erotic charge: “In her kiss, I taste the revolution.” Other songs (“Suck My Left One,” “Jigsaw Youth”) combine blunt depictions of abuse and sexual violence with a fluid approach to narrative and identity, as in the work of the novelist Kathy Acker, one of Hanna’s formative influences. The 1992 EP track “Liar” targets previous generations’ modes of political engagement, and their canonical musical expressions. As one voice numbly chants phrases from “Give Peace a Chance,” another shrieks wordlessly, as if to say: you gave peace a chance, and your daughters are still being raped.

This music is a central focus of the necessarily brief chapter about Riot Grrrl in Lynskey’s book, but in Marcus’s fuller telling, it becomes surprisingly peripheral to the movement’s later manifestations. Though some in its orbit surely hoped to rub shoulders with Hanna and other near-stars, many others were less interested in joining anyone’s fan club than in finding peer support through the discussion groups and nationwide network of photocopied zines that had been integral to the community’s activities since its inception. Marcus was one of these women, a clique-less tenth grader with few if any feminist contacts, who couldn’t have known that the Newsweek article from which she learned of the movement’s existence in 1992 was the result of a Minneapolis zine editor’s polarizing decision to defy a semiofficial “media blackout” imposed in the wake of earlier distortions made by the mainstream press.

Marcus’s early allegiance to Riot Grrrl informs her unflinching dissection of its internal tensions and inadequacies. By the mid-1990s core DC members had alienated themselves from the wider activist community, and a national convention in Omaha, had collapsed under the weight of ungrateful houseguests, coattail-riding new bands and routine late-adolescent rudeness. Marcus’s account of these events, which precipitated the movement’s unofficial demise, is no less painful to read than it was, as Marcus admits, for her to write. Marcus begins and ends Girls to the Front on a laudably hopeful note, directly addressing women who have yet to learn what Marcus and her contemporaries discovered, that “many of our emotional challenges (self-doubt, confusion, sadness) resulted not from personal failings but from political and social forces, and that we could do battle with them as such.” Yet much of the book’s intervening story can be read as a cautionary tale about the limits, and burdens, of the subcultural, with its strange, insular rhythms of inclusion and exclusion. In this respect, Marcus’s book is a necessary reminder that, whoever sings them and however they sound, rebel songs can’t do your fighting for you.

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