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Monday, June 13, 2011

'33 Revolutions Per Minute': Too Many Revolutions?

Dorian Lynskey offers a history of protest songs

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By Dorian Lynskey's definition, a protest song “addresses a political issue in a way which aligns itself with the underdog.” This is clear enough. But the wide-ranging material in his 33 Revolutions Per Minute (Ecco Press) ultimately proves limiting. The 660-page book is comprehensive and will be a lasting resource for its compilation of songs and songsters, but it also has many moments of over- and under-definition.

Before going any further, we must address the obvious form of this text. The title alone supplies us with the concept of an LP; moreover, we have 33 chapters, each generally exploring a specific song, further referencing the vinyl record album. But there is absolutely no connection between this alluring design and its content. There is no relationship between the LP and a history of protest music. Nothing substantial can be found in the text that connects the form of the book to its subject matter. Referencing the LP to brand and structure the book only panders to a supposed audience who wants to return to vinyl—or to those who instigate nostalgia merely to make a sale.

Lynskey covers more material than imaginable and could have been more discriminating; however, there are insightful areas of the book that bring focus to such matters as the disparity between leftist politics and art, opportunistic versus committed songs and the nature of “subversive subculture” within the protest song idiom.

“For a performer, the biggest problem with protest songs is that they engender smugness. Concert audiences are generally keen to appear on the singer's side, and a protest song intensifies the sycophancy,” he writes regarding Bob Dylan's move away from protest to songs of literary anarchy. Dylan is quoted regarding the knock-off protest song “Eve of Destruction” (one of the most pandering songs in the history of American popular music, or music anywhere, for that matter) as saying, “Half of 'em don't understand what they're trying to say.” Dylan goes on to say, “I'm all for protest songs if they're sincere. But how many of them are?” As “Eve of Destruction” was climbing the charts, Dylan made his break with protest in the summer of 1965 at Newport; Lynskey neatly weaves this often-repeated event into his history with unusual dexterity and finesse.

But Lynskey ultimately sides with Phil Ochs over Bob Dylan, the former having stuck with protest song and the latter sticking something else into his sycophantic audience's ear. He accuses Dylan of “abdication.” The book's thesis, that protest song and fine art don't mix, misses much of how protest lyricism can poetically become the voice of society's castaways.

Lynskey's thorough catalog of songs blinds itself to anything but that which marches to a certain sort of drummer. There is no sense of how protest can strut in ways that are outside of a political march to unity. And in the final analysis, his definition drags far too many artists into the idiom. 33 Revolutions Per Minute is best viewed as an encyclopedia, and not as an inventive one, with as much insight as could be found on a 45 rpm single, not an album.

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