If you are asking ‘Where is all the protest music?’ you aren’t looking hard enough
by Ian Sinclair
4 September 2017
Every now and then an opinion piece is published in the press lamenting the lack of political songwriting today.
A couple of assumptions lay behind this much repeated concern about popular music. First, ‘political music’ is taken to mean music giving voice to left-leaning, anti-establishment politics – AKA protest music. Second, that the Golden Age of political music ran from the 1960s to the 1980s, from Bob Dylan’s broadsides against the military-industrial complex and American racism to John Lennon’s feminist Woman Is The Nigger Of The World and a slew of anti-Vietnam War songs. Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi echoed the concerns of the emerging environmental movement, while artists such as Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder soundtracked the racism and economic disadvantage experienced by African Americans. In the UK Pink Floyd released bestselling albums making uncomfortable statements about consumerism and suburban living, while Canadian Neil Young sang about colonialism from the POV of first nationers on epic tracks like Cortez the Killer and Pocahontas.
With the turn to neoliberalism still being contested in society, Thatcher’s Britain was also a fertile ground for protest music, including songs and public statements made by The Smiths, working-class hero Billy Bragg and The Jam (see Going Underground and Town Called Malice). Robert Wyatt’s version of the anti-Falklands War song Shipbuilding hit the top 40 chart in 1983, while Ghost Town, The Specials’ spooky hymn to urban decay, reached number one two years earlier. Social and political concerns were also important to many of the bands that dominated the international stadium circuit during the 80s. On the electrifying Bullet in the Blue Sky U2 denounced US intervention in Central America, Tracy Chapman and Peter Gabriel sang about apartheid South Africa, and Bruce Springsteen gave a voice to working-class families struggling to make ends meet in Reagan’s America.
However, by the time New Labour was at the height of its power in the late 90s British popular rock music had come to be dominated by deeply bland music. Coldplay, Keane, David Gray, Dido, Travis and Robbie Williams all sold millions of records by saying nothing at all, to paraphrase another nondescript songwriter popular at the time.
Fast forward to today and a slew of hipster-friendly rock acts endorsed by the Guardian, Q, Uncut and Mojo magazines are in the ascendency, though they seemingly have nothing coherent or substantive to say about what’s going on in the wider world: Fleet Foxes, Australian experimentalists Tame Impala, Grizzly Bear, War on Drugs, Spoon, Wilco and Kevin Morby to name but a few.
Dominating the Latitude, Green Man and End of the Road music festivals, these bands are very obviously influenced by classic rock artists like Dylan, The Beatles, Young, Springsteen and Pink Floyd – but the influence seems to be solely musical, with their heroes socio-political concerns largely disregarded. US singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, who is often compared to the great wordsmiths of the past, has released sixteen albums since 2000, with pretty much every song on every record focussed on the never-ending ups and downs of his romantic life.
(As an aside, I should say I am a fan of nearly all of these bands – my critique is not coming from a position of ignorance or antipathy).
Of course, there are exceptions to my argument – Radiohead’s twenty first century ecological dread and critique of late capitalism (see Idioteque and all of their seminal OK Computer album) and PJ Harvey’s musical exploration of the UK’s foreign wars come to mind. However, these artists tend to be disconnected from the broader trends and fashions of popular music. For example, Asian Dub Foundation’s incendiary 2000 album Community Music attacking Blairism, corrupt cops, nationalism, racism, corporation-led globalisation and warning of an impending financial crash, stuck out like a sore thumb at the time and has been quickly forgotten since then. And let’s not forget Springsteen and Young have made two of the angriest political albums in recent years with Wrecking Ball and The Monsanto Years, respectively – a fact that should shame their younger musical peers.
Finally, these OAP rockers highlight a key third assumption behind the original lament about politics and popular music: it really only applies if you define popular music as mainstream ‘rock music’ or ‘guitar music’.
There is lots of exciting and interesting protest music being made today – just in different genres and away from the mainstream. Rapper Plan B’s 2011 riots-inspired Ill Manors is arguably the greatest British protest song of the last decade. In the US R&B star Beyonce’s message of feminism and black power has reached a mass audience with her hit 2016 album Lemonade, while hip hop’s man of the moment Kendrick Lamar’s Alright is sang at Black Lives Matter rallies. Kanye West’s 2012 track New Slaves draws a connection between slavery and the involvement of profit-seeking corporations in the US criminal justice system today. Across the border, on her latest album Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq sings about the rape of indigenous women and lands in Canada. Elsewhere, on her electronic 2016 album Hopelessness the brilliant Anohni turned her attention to Obama’s drone wars, climate change, toxic masculinity and the death penalty.
Finally, the Morning Star’s favourite singer-songwriter Grace Petrie has been skewering the hypocrisy of the British establishment since 2010 – and, amazingly, still doesn’t have a record deal. As she sings sarcastically on last year’s I Wish The Guardian Believed That I Exist, “We’re not on the radio because they don’t want to know and by this point it’s really pretty clear that the mainstream music press they just couldn’t care less”.