The Occupy movement rolls on in cities around the world—one suspects that only winter cold will succeed in dispersing the protestors, where tear gas and rubber bullets have failed—and though the Occupiers have made a lot of noise, there's been very little music to emerge out of the movement. This has proved alarming to journalists of a certain age, who've been moved—just as they at the start of the Iraq war—to write Very Concerned pieces on "the death of the protest song." Now, a lot of this is just Boomer thumbsucking about the Kids These Days, and how we were so much cooler when we were young (not that we're really old now, God forbid). But when Rufus Wainwright, one of our finest young songwriters, shows up at Occupy Wall Street only to regale the crowd with an ironic Madonna cover—well, maybe those Boomer journalists are on to something.
It was in this frame of mind that I belatedly dug into Dorian Lynskey's 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs from Billie Holiday to Green Day, which came out in paperback earlier this year—a dense, rollicking people's history of 20th century politics and pop, refracted through the prism of 33 songs.
At least, that's what it purports to be. Lynskey is far sneakier than that, though, and what could have been a collection of loosely-related essays becomes instead a grand, hurtling narrative. The 33 songs that lend the book its structure seem chosen arbitrarily, and sometimes scarcely figure in the text. A chapter ostensibly about Rage Against the Machine turns out to be mostly devoted to Radiohead; Phil Ochs doesn't rate a chapter of his own, but haunts the book's entire first half, his idealism, overreaching and eventual dissolution serving as an elegy for the midcentury's promises of change.
Lynskey's grasp of history is sure, and he deftly summarizes historical moments without patronizing his audience. And he ably captures the quease-making paradoxes that arise at the intersection of politics and pop: the blustering idealism that makes U2 both so beloved and so reviled; John Lennon talking revolution from within an impenetrable bubble of wealth and privilege; white audiences ponying up good money at a Nina Simone show for the privilege of being made to feel hated.
There are some peculiarities and stumbles. Lynskey's day job at the Guardian gives the book an understandable U.K.-centric slant, leading him perhaps to overstate the importance of groups like Pop Will Eat Itself or the Manic Street Preachers—bands that made a huge noise in the insular Britpop scene, but never achieved more than a footnote status stateside. Sometimes Lynskey turns this to his advantage; in a series of chapters on UK punk, he brings to life (for this American reader, at least) the grim, almost apocalyptic mood of working-class Britain in the Thatcher years. And he makes a strong case for the greatness of the anarcho-punk collective Crass—legendary at home, nearly unknown here—both as a band and as a utopian social project, while simultaneously laying out the irreconcilable tensions that made their breakup inevitable.
Later chapters on the rave and Riot Grrl scenes, though, make some unwarranted assumptions. Lynskey's journalistic detachment comes slightly undone; the righteousness of his subjects is rather less self-evident than he seems to think, and the politics under discussion seem rather small and provincial.
Worse still is a short section on protest music in Nigeria, Chile and Jamaica. It's not that the material isn't interesting or vital—if anything, the story of Victor Jara deserves to be a book in itself—but its placement is suspect. It seems shoehorned in to lend international cred to an otherwise Anglophone roster, smacking of tokenism. And implicitly equating the horrors of Pinochet's Chile with the U.K. Criminal Justice Bill is offensive.
Still, 33 Revolutions per Minute is a terrific read. It may in itself constitute a work of activism, as it makes you want to rush right out and listen to the many, many records mentioned in its pages; at the very least, it constitutes the start of a conversation, not the final word. Lynskey, recognizing that, is continuing the project that the book started at the 33 Revolutions per Minute blog.
Jack Feerick has never thrown a brick through a window, but he knows all the words to "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," and has been known to sing it to himself while carrying out his duties as Critic-at-Large for Popdose.