A while ago I sat on a train trying to pass the time on my long, boring daily commute and I came across a blog on the link between the political landscape and the music industry. The author suggested that the prevalence of positive, bubblegum pop, boybands and girl groups singing about their love lives and tales of nights out in today’s charts is a sign that things are on the up, people don’t feel the need to use music to voice their political opinions and disquiet. To me, this seemed like a strange argument when the current climate is one of uncertainty and dissatisfaction at the conduct of our politicians, the cost of living and the general state of things in the UK. Billy Bragg once said “all the great political music was made at the height of political confrontations”, so why, in a time of political upheaval the likes of which hasn’t been seen for decades, is everyone so silent? Is it really the case that people believe everything’s rosy or has the music scene become so sterile that, despite living in the age of Brexit, Boris and an impending recession, no one has anything to say.
"Politics is music"...
Throughout the years, music, art and popular culture have reflected the political feelings of the time. From the role of the BBC and artists like Vera Lynn in keeping the nation’s chin up during the Second World War, to the protest songs of the US Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s, and the hopeful, buoyant outlook of Britpop in the 90s after years of Tory rule, pop music has long given the people a voice that maybe isn’t represented in the corridors of Westminster. In the words of Nantwich's own Thea Gilmore, "Politics is music - it always has been and it always will be".
You don’t have to go too far back in UK history to find examples of how pop music and musicians can make a difference. Through the 80s and early 90s, against the backdrop of Thatcherism, the Miners’ Strike, Poll Tax riots and sky high unemployment, bands like The Clash, The Specials and The Sex Pistols became the soundtrack for those who felt disenfranchised and let down by the establishment. The Red Wedge collective, set up by Bragg and including musicians such as Paul Weller, Jimmy Somerville and Kirsty McColl, organised concerts and comedy gigs in support of Labour opposition and songs like Stand Down Margaret by The Beat and The Jam’s A Town Called Malice summed up the feelings of Britain’s working classes who had had to endure four consecutive Conservative governments.
When this gave way to the New Labour era of the mid-90s, we saw the rise of Britpop and a sense of hope that things might change for the better. Bands like Oasis emerged with an infectious bravado and a sense that the working classes could do what they wanted, that it was possible to be successful (a Rock n Roll Star if you like) with everything that comes with it, even if you were from the back streets of Manchester, rather than born in to a wealthy family in Knightsbridge. For a time things seemed hopeful and popular culture reflected this, the stars of ‘Cool Britannia’ were in papers across the globe and, rightly or wrongly, in the words of Pulp’s The Last Day of The Miners’ Strike “socialism gave way to socialising”.
It's Oh So Quiet
However, since this time, there has been little in the way of political noise from our music industry. Since the first Blair government came to power we have seen the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings, wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine, the rise of extremism and a global pandemic but those who are meant to be our modern day poets and musical social commentators have largely remained eerily and ominously quiet.
"Early in my career, people wanted to hear music about protest, about wanting to change things" - Ice Cube
It may not necessarily be the case that we don’t have the bands out there to make things happen, there is also a possibility that today’s artists are too accessible. Do we know too much about our musicians in the age of Facebook and Twitter, where celebrity gossip and 24 hour news are always available with one tap on a mobile phone screen? There was a time when our idols could do things that caused controversy, that shocked us and allowed them to make an impact. When Jarvis Cocker invaded the stage at the Brit Awards to protest against Michael Jackson’s appearance it made front page headlines, this year’s awards were barely mentioned in the media by comparison (not necessarily a bad thing, just an observation). If we think back to the bands and singers that form the backbone of most music obsessive’s record collections they were charismatic and controversial: Keith Moon, Janis Joplin, Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Kurt Cobain all made music that has stood the test of time but they were also opinionated, large personalities that captivated their fans’ imaginations.
In an age where an artist’s every move comes under scrutiny from a media who are forever trying to satisfy the public’s seemingly insatiable appetite for banal titbits of celebrity gossip I wonder if music today suffers because those in the public eye are scared of making a wrong move, garnering bad publicity and ruining their careers. If this is the case it’s a sad state of affairs to say the least.
Where do we go from here?
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Harry Styles will pen a protest song against Priti Patel’s immigration policies, David Guetta might do a heartfelt cover of A Change Is Gonna Come or Ed Sheeran will hand back an OBE because his passionate views on Partygate are at odds with the government’s stance on the issue. I would love to be wrong, I really would, if it meant that we were undergoing some kind of political awakening but the depressing reality is that I fear our mainstream musicians just don’t have it in them. There are exceptions, the likes of Stormzy, Dave and Sault are leading the way when it comes to using their music to raise awareness of the issues that matter but they seem to me to be unusual. We now have a whole generation of music fans, and artists for that matter, who have grown up thinking that music is made by the X Factor, Britain's Got Talent and The Voice and as a result there is a whole chunk of the industry that is stale and uninspiring. People make change happen and music gives an opportunity for ordinary people to make a difference, to form a movement and to come together in a way that nothing else can. It’s just a shame that we seem to have lost our voice somewhere along the way.