Dolores O’Riordan reminded us of the power of pop music protest
I was in a Red Cross van this morning, thinking about the death of Dolores O’Riordan, and the legacy of The Cranberries.
There’s a weird, sterile vibe in those places, not unlike dental surgeries. Fluoro lights and blacked out windows make it uncomfortably bright, people lie in creaky vinyl beds with tubes pumping blood out of their veins, and tinny speakers blast out high-energy commercial breakfast radio.
I always focus on the radio. I think everyone does. And today the radio was playing The Cranberries.
A short news report announced O’Riordan’s passing – though it was old news by this point – the announcer then read a tribute texted in by a listener and threw to a song.
I knew what song they’d play. I think everyone did.
In recent years I’ve preferred their debut single ‘Dreams’. It was a hit, but ask anyone down the street and they won’t be able to hum you a single bar.
But everyone knows ‘Zombie’. And in the close quarters of the blood van this morning, everyone was humming along, regardless of their age.
It has been omnipresent for the past quarter of a century, one of those rare songs that doesn’t sound out of place on triple j, on sports highlights packages, in your parents’ CD collection, or on commercial radio, pumping out of a tinny speaker in a public place.
It went to number one on the Australian charts and came in at number one in the 1994 triple j Hottest 100. It helped the band’s second album, No Need To Argue, sell over 17 million copies worldwide. It has almost 660 million views on YouTube.
And it’s a protest song.
It’s not the most profound protest song ever written. The simplicity of its lyrics even led some critics to accuse the band of trivialising The Troubles in Northern Ireland, for which it was written.
O’Riordan herself admits it’s the kind of song that could only be written with the carefree naivete of youth.
“It’s a tough thing to sing about, but when you’re young you don’t think twice about things, you just grab it and do it,” she told Team Rock last year. “As you get older you develop more fear and you get more apprehensive, but when you’re young you’ve no fear.”
Songs that stand for something are of immediate value. Songs that call for peace are to be treasured.
What it lacked in weight, it made up for in popular appeal. I was young when the song came out. Too young to understand The Troubles, and definitely too young to understand In The Name Of The Father, which came out at around the same time.
But I got ‘Zombie’. I was attracted to the power of its chorus, both those thick, grungy guitars and O’Riordan’s incomparable holler.
I was entranced by the sheer anger in the band’s delivery and the bleakness of its film clip.
And it made me delve deeper; I learned about the IRA, about Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry, about the Easter Rising. It opened my young eyes up to a conflict on the other side of the world I’d never understood before.
Pop songs and protest rarely go hand in hand. Some people like it that way, but I think it’s a shame. Pop music has the power to reach a wide audience and can spread faster than the most incisive thinkpiece.
We can remark flippantly on the imperative wokeness of the world in 2018, we can argue about political correctness til we’ve worn out our iPhone screens; but songs that stand for something are of immediate value. Songs that call for peace are to be treasured.
I don’t know enough about The Cranberries to know whether they saw ‘Zombie’ as a hit. I don’t know how they felt about profiting indirectly from a tragedy. I don’t know what they did with the money they earned from its sales.
But I know that ‘Zombie’ has great value as a cultural artefact, a piece of pop protest that will live on as an easily accessible – if not watered-down – introduction to one of modern history’s most bleak and complex conflicts.
A song everyone knows when it comes on the radio.
Tabloids will speculate on Dolores O’Riordan’s cause of death until it inevitably comes out. There’s a chance it won’t be very nice. Commentators will focus on her diagnosed mental illness and how it has impacted on her life and her career over the years.
These are undoubtedly important parts of her story, but O’Riordan’s ability to illuminate tragedy by writing from the heart and singing from the guts is a far more powerful part of her narrative and her ultimate, immense legacy.