“It is a short walk,” Vladimir Nabokov said, speaking of writers and critics, “from the hallelujah to the hoot.” It’s an especially short walk if you’re a pop singer who’s written a less-than-electric protest song. Think of Michael Jackson and “Earth Song,” or 4 Non Blondes and “What’s Up,” or Sting and “Russians.” Each of them, along with “We Are the World,” will be in heavy rotation on the Pandora channel in hell.
The lively British rock critic Dorian Lynskey — he writes for The Guardian, among other publications — spends some time in his new book, “33 Revolutions Per Minute,” chewing over why most protest songs are heaped with scorn. They can be “didactic, crass or plain boring,” he writes. Those who warble them onstage can seem “shrill or annoying or egotistical.”
Lester Bangs didn’t single out James Taylor’s politics in his hilarious 1971 essay “James Taylor Marked for Death.” (That essay is barely about Mr. Taylor.) But bad protest songs really do make you want to throttle someone.
One good thing about “33 Revolutions Per Minute,” which is subtitled “A History of Protest Songs, From Billie Holiday to Green Day,” is that Mr. Lynskey doesn’t waste much time shooting bad political songs like fish in a barrel. He’s more interested in protest songs — Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” — that make the hair on your neck stand up, even decades later.
In songs like these, he writes, “the political content is not an obstacle to greatness, but the source of it.” He adds, “They open a door and the world outside rushes in.” The song’s message, smuggled into the commercial strictures of mass entertainment, is “the grit that makes the pearl.”
Mr. Lynskey casts a wide net in “33 Revolutions Per Minute,” moving from Woody Guthrie (“This Land Is Your Land”), Nina Simone (“Mississippi Goddam”) and Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”) to the Clash (“White Riot”), Public Enemy (“Fight the Power”) and Steve Earle (“John Walker’s Blues”), along with many other songs he’ll convince you to download in between.
There’s a strong Anglo-American bias to Mr. Lynskey’s canon, he admits, but there are also chapters about the song “Manifesto,” by the Chilean singer Victor Jara, “Zombie” by Fela Kuti and Afrika 70 of Nigeria, and “War Ina Babylon” by Max Romeo of Jamaica.
Mr. Lynskey’s decision to begin his book with “Strange Fruit,” first sung by Holiday in 1939 at age 23 (and written by Abel Meeropol, a Communist), will be controversial among some American songbook geeks. So much came before. But Mr. Lynskey makes a convincing case that prior to “Strange Fruit” protest songs “had nothing to do with mainstream popular music.” Rather “they were designed for specific audiences — picket lines, folk schools, party meetings.”
“Strange Fruit,” as sung by Holiday, “did not stir the blood; it chilled it,” Mr. Lynskey writes. “Up to this point, protest songs functioned as propaganda, but ‘Strange Fruit’ proved they could be art.”
The cruel truth about “33 Revolutions Per Minute” — despite Mr. Lynskey’s lovely writing — is that it is not quite art. It is mostly torpid and colorless, a copiously annotated list rather than a cohesive narrative or an extended argument.
He tends to dump his glittery insights at the beginnings and endings of chapters, and stuff the blah centers with potted historical background. This is a common enough problem in nonfiction books that seek to blend criticism with history, but that doesn’t mean it’s forgivable. Plenty of writers get it right.
Life (like this review) is too short to print boring sentences to prove they are boring. Let’s move on to praise the agile, many-tentacled writer Mr. Lynskey can often be, because I loved bits of this book; you can pluck out the many tasty things like seeds from a pomegranate.
About Cooke and “A Change Is Gonna Come” he observes, wonderfully: “He sings the title four times during the song, his conviction increasing each time, like someone testing a rope to see how much weight it can bear.” He describes Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” as “ancient and malign,” “the most evil-sounding protest song Dylan ever recorded,” a song with “the baleful power of a witch’s curse.”
John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band’s “Give Peace a Chance,” on the other hand, may be “the most ramshackle single ever released by a global superstar.” He refuses, he says, to “smirk at the knuckleheads” who misread a song like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” believing it a right-wing anthem.
That song, he says, “was misunderstood so widely that Springsteen has to take some of the blame.” The contemplative lyrics of “Born in the USA” get lost, Mr. Lynskey argues, because Mr. Springsteen seemed to be “hollering it at you while riding in a tank.”
Mr. Lynskey pays attention to the ways singers suffered for their politics. “Maybe it helped black people, but it hurt me,” Simone said about songs like “Mississippi Goddam.” James Brown lost bookings after recording “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”
Mr. Lynskey has an eye for fetching detail. He quotes Lillian Hellman griping to Pete Seeger about “We Shall Overcome”: “What kind of namby-pamby, wishy-washy song is that?” He provides the startling information that Marvin Gaye “masturbated at length” before performing the vocal takes on his “What’s Going On” album. Gaye wanted to “drain himself of carnal distraction.”
Mr. Lynskey delivers chapters on U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and R.E.M’s “Exhuming McCarthy” and writes well about “how hard it is to project a nuanced message to people sitting in row ZZ of a Brobdingnagian sports venue.”
In end, Mr. Lynskey can’t help noting, the protest song is nearly an extinct art form; few mean nearly as much as they once did. “I began this book intending to write a history of a still vital form of music,” he says. “I finished by wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.” If the Bush years didn’t provoke scorching and popular protest songs, he asks, what could?
There are many reasons political songs no longer resonate. The Vietnam War bound people together as few issues have since. We no longer expect music to change the world, and we’re more atomized in our tastes. In the Stewart-Colbert-Gawker era we’re couch potatoes, and our default mode is sophisticated, needling humor. We’re lazier than ever too. “Placards and sit-ins,” he says, “have given way to charity wristbands and Facebook groups.”
The dry British folk singer Billy Bragg, as if pulling out a battered hammer and a penny nail, has this to say: “Only the audience can change the world — not performers.”