First aired on Q (04/27/11)
Earlier this year, activist and musician Bob Geldof declared that the protest song is dead, and that the moment where artists were heralded as ideological leaders who inspired social change is over.
However, Guardian writer and music critic Dorian Lynskey isn't so sure. "PJ Harvey, Erykah Badu, Arcade Fire — they all have political themes in there, and very obvious political themes," Lynskey told Q host Jian Ghomeshi in a recent interview. "They're just not necessarily seen as protest records."
In his new book, 33 Revolutions Per Minute, Lynskey offers a comprehensive history of protest music in Western culture by examining 33 iconic protest songs. He gives a vivid account of how the genre emerged, changed and has grown — and why people like Geldof think it's a genre on its way out.
"To many people [the protest song] is seen as staid, preachy and [an] outdated concept," Lynskey explained. "And I wanted to argue that protest songs took many forms and in fact a lot of the greatest songs ever were protest songs, even if people wouldn't necessarily use that label."
The heyday of protest songs in the modern era was the 1960s, thanks to the Vietnam War and artists like Bob Dylan and John Lennon. But it's a genre that has been around for centuries. War songs and national anthems qualify as protest songs, as do user-generated mash-ups and remixes (such as the famous George Bush Doesn't Like Black People remix you can find on YouTube). Any song that "rallies the troops" qualifies in Lynskey's eyes. These songs just look different today, thanks to technology and changing social attitudes, and those who perform them are (for better or worse) less likely to be considered visionaries.
So why do artists create such music, and why do so many causes require a soundtrack? That need, Lynskey argues, is primal. We can't help it. If we have a cause we want to take up, we find the music to accompany it. While songwriters and performers are often seen as leaders, in fact Lynskey believes the opposite is true: the people turn artists into icons and visionaries. Bob Dylan's celebrity was due to the political movement in the 1960s, not the other way around. Which is perhaps why, in today's social media age, the most popular protest songs are not created in studios by big artists — they are made by regular people with computers, cell phones and ideas, using the technology of today to make a statement.
"The need from the public has to be there first. The songwriters don't lead," Lynskey said. "They follow."