When riots tore up Detroit in July 1967, Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas was shocked to discover that her 1964 hit 'Dancing In The Street' had become an anthem for the city’s violent uprising. It was one of the first examples of a song becoming radically politicised after the fact — the tough jubilation of the music and the unintended ambiguity of the title gave 'Dancing In The Street' sudden, unexpected power, even if it caused Reeves a lot of grief. “My Lord, it was a party song,” she cried.
During last winter’s student protests something similar happened to grime records such as Lethal Bizzle’s 2004 posse cut 'Pow!'. The actual lyrics to 'Pow!' are a patchy mix of gun fetishism, casual homophobia and old-fashioned chestbeating but, blasted out by kettled students in Whitehall, it rose above itself to become a mighty rebel yell. Unlike Reeves, Bizzle was flattered by the attention, telling the Guardian: “It’s inspirational. We don't even realise how powerful we are.”
The songwriter Irving Berlin once said, “Songs make history and history make songs.” He meant that sometimes a song can collide with current events and spin off in an entirely unexpected direction, for better or worse. The period we’re living through has that kind of potential.
After a decade or so in which the art of the protest song and the tradition of public dissent declined in tandem, smothered by what’s-the-point? cynicism (the build-up to the Iraq war in 2003 being a blip rather than a turning point), people are suddenly willing to take to the streets again. A year of unrest is predicted in Britain while events in north Africa and the Middle East already put 2011 on a par with 1968 and 1989.
Even with Twitter and Facebook changing the landscape of protest, there is an almost primal need for a soundtrack to rebellion, if only to raise the spirits and stiffen the resolve of demonstrators facing ranks of riot police.
As the Chilean president Salvador Allende once said, “You can’t have a revolution without songs.” When there aren’t appropriate new songs, demonstrators either turn to the old classics ('Give Peace a Chance', 'We Shall Overcome') or repurpose recent songs. The energy of the student movement demands music to match.
During the major protests outside the World Trade Organisation summit in Seattle in 1999, one activist noticed that “the wild yet focused energies in the streets could never be resolved into a folk song — we were now part of Hip-Hop Nation. The rhythm of the chants was more percussive.”
You could say the current students are part of Grime Nation or Dubstep Nation. Certainly, they’re not reaching for an old folk song when something like the Caspa remix of TC’s 'Where’s My Money', played loud and in context, will get the message across with more wit and more bass. If we do see some kind of protest song revival as the coalition cuts slash deeper, it will not be led by rock bands.
What happens next is up for grabs. North African rappers have recently demonstrated how cheap software and YouTube make it easy to get a topical protest song out there, even under difficult circumstances, and how quickly one can catch light. El Général’s 'Mr President', for example, played an important role in the Tunisian revolution.
And a song like 'Dirtee Cash', Dizzee Rascal’s ambivalent take on the credit crunch, proves that British MCs can write about politics with humour and insight when the mood takes them. But while we wait for new songs to be written, protesters will continue to revive, refocus and reimagine existing ones, creating their own soundtrack for dissent. Party songs included.
Dorian Lynskey is author of '33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History Of Protest Songs', which you can order here