Video: All the news that’s fit to sing
irishtimes.com features the first of a series of online ‘musical columns’. Temper-Mental MissElayneous, Doctor Millar and other songwriters will sing about Ireland and its crises, to rekindle the social fire at the heart of music
Once upon a time music was the news. Accounts of battles, rebellions and atrocities travelled from place to place in songs. There were patriotic anthems, songs of rebellion and emigrant laments. “Songs were a mnemonic device,” says the American songwriter Jeffrey Lewis, “a way of committing something to memory and passing it to someone else.”
The notion of songs as a repository of meaning, information and identity continued into the 20th century even as music ceased to be a collective endeavour and became a consumer product. Politically charged folkies such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie believed that funnelling the turmoil of their times into a verse-chorus structure could aid political change. In the 1960s Dylan and his folky companions wrote songs excoriating politicians, lauding utopian ideals or wringing dramatic narratives out of news reports. Songwriters wrote about their world. Phil Ochs even released an album called All the News That’s Fit to Sing.
In his book 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, the journalist Dorian Lynskey analyses a half century of socially engaged music. It takes in, among other things, Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol’s eerie depiction of lynchings in the Deep South as sung by Billie Holiday, the cynical utopianism of John Lennon, the compromised activism of Bono, the city visions of Stevie Wonder and Public Enemy and the pragmatic politics of Billy Bragg.
Like me, Lynskey came of age in the early 1990s, when music and politics felt intrinsically linked. “There was a kind of a last gasp mini revival of political songwriting at that time which isn’t remembered,” he says. “There were bands that didn’t weather so well, like Back to the Planet. There was Cornershop. There was the [feminist] Riot Grrrl movement, Rage Against the Machine. All of this was happening when I was in sixth form and going to university. I remember reading about riots in Los Angeles and thinking, Oh my God, this is like Burn Hollywood Burn, by Public Enemy. It felt to me that music and politics were inseparable.”
In recent years, however, it has seemed as if the era of newsworthy music is over. The Occupy Movement stirred up a new generation of activists, but it had no The Times They Are a-Changin’ or We Shall Overcome to accompany its rise and fall. And although some musicians have written about the consequences of austerity and economic collapse, few have reached the public consciousness.
Indeed, in the first edition of 33 Revolutions Per Minute Lynskey wondered if he had written a eulogy for the protest song. He says there has been a crucial change in the ways people consume and understand music. Whereas once young people could learn about the world through their favourite bands, whether it was ghetto life from Ice Cube, Latin American politics from The Clash or vegetarianism from Morrissey, that educational function has been largely replaced by the internet. Music fans increasingly look to music not as a source of identity or information but as a source of pleasant background noise.