Tag Archives: Bruce Springsteen

If you are asking ‘Where is all the protest music?’ you aren’t looking hard enough

If you are asking ‘Where is all the protest music?’ you aren’t looking hard enough
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
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”.

 

An open letter to Bruce Springsteen REM, Wilco and Arcade Fire on President Obama

An open letter to Bruce Springsteen REM, Wilco and Arcade Fire on President Obama
by Ian Sinclair
Winnipeg Free Press
25 February 2012

Dear Bruce Springsteen, REM (RIP), Wilco and Arcade Fire,

First a few admissions in the interests of transparency. Bruce, I consider you to be the most important and vital singer-songwriter working today. My deep respect for you led me to write my 15,000-word dissertation on your music for my masters of American studies. I would include Murmur in my top 20 albums of all time. I remember Automatic For The People playing in the background as I fell in love at university. I think Pitchfork Media was spot on when they awarded Yankee Hotel Foxtrot their 10 rating. I love, absolutely love, Anodyne. In short, you have all played a huge role in soundtracking and enriching my life.

Oh, yes. I almost forgot. Arcade Fire. I like your music but have never completely fallen in love with you like everyone else. But you are very much the band of the moment and everyone I know thinks you are touched by the hand of God, so I thought it was important to include you.

I am writing to you all because in 2008 you enthusiastically endorsed the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, playing numerous benefit concerts in support of his campaign.

Speaking to the BBC Culture Show, Bruce described Obama as “a knight” who had come to save the United States from “the disastrous administration of the past eight years.” During his public appearances at Obama’s election rallies, Bruce emphasized Obama’s qualities of “temperateness,” “compassion,” and “understanding.” In November 2011, Michael Stipe and Mike Mills of disbanded R.E.M. appeared on BBC Newsnight and stated they were “huge fans” of President Obama and would be voting for him again come November. Speaking backstage at a concert where he introduced the then Illinois senator as “the next President of the United States,” Jeff Tweedy of Wilco explained that Obama “melted our hearts” when the band first met him in 2005.

Guys, with your support – and the votes of nearly 70 million of your fellow Americans – Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States in January 2009. However, while many of you were openly critical of the Bush Administration, as far as I can tell none of you has made any public criticisms of the Obama administration. Of course this could be because Obama’s actions in the White House do not warrant criticism. But can this be true if former CIA director Michael Hayden is correct when he says “there’s been a powerful continuity between the 43rd and the 44th” presidents?

The former head of Britain’s MI6 is in general agreement with his American counterpart, noting foreign policy under Obama has remained “very aggressive and hardline.” On Afghanistan, Obama has actually escalated Bush’s war, sending an additional 30,000 American servicemen and women into danger. Predictably this has led to an escalation in violence, with the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office recently noting that the number of insurgent attacks grew by 14 per cent in 2011 to 13,983 attacks a year. Similarly, civilian deaths are at an all-time high. How did you feel when U.S. warplanes bombed the Afghan village of Granai in May 2009 killing perhaps 140 people, around 90 of them children? The killing continues. Earlier this month, NATO killed eight Afghan children in a bombing raid. Does Obama’s policy of propping up an Afghan government that runs medieval-like torture systems, including a stretching rack, make you queasy?

Across the border in Pakistan, did you know Obama is just as unpopular as Bush was, with a 2011 Pew Research poll finding 69 per cent of Pakistanis view the United States as an enemy? Turns out Pakistanis aren’t that keen on American drone strikes. Would you be happy if another country was conducting drone attacks on New Jersey, Athens, Chicago or Montreal? The Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently reported drone strikes in Pakistan “have been stepped up enormously under Obama,” averaging one every four days and killing between 282 and 535 civilians.

Did you know the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who joked about using drones on the Jonas Brothers, has now authorized drone attacks in six nations across the world – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Libya? This reflects Obama’s preference for targeted killings – sometimes of American citizens – rather than capturing suspected terrorists, the latter the preferred policy of the Bush administration.

What do you think of the Obama administration’s treatment of Bradley Manning, described by 250 legal scholars in the United States as “degrading and inhumane”? And what to make of Obama’s deliberate attempts to scuttle any serious attempt to get a global deal on climate change?

Back at home, it is widely accepted Obama is running a “Wall Street government.” The signs certainly weren’t good when he hired Timothy Geithner, a key player in the deregulation of finance in the 1990s, as his treasury secretary, were they? “At every crucial opportunity, Obama has failed to stand up for the poor and middle class,” Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs noted last year. “It’s not hard to understand why. Obama and the Democratic Party politicians rely on Wall Street and the super-rich for campaign contributions.” Were you aware Obama was raising far more money from Wall Street than John McCain when you publicly endorsed him? And does the October 2011 Washington Post article explaining “Obama has brought in more money from employees of banks, hedge funds and other financial service companies than all the GOP candidates combined” concern you at all?

All of this is not to say you were not right to support Obama over McCain in 2008, and wouldn’t be right to back Obama over the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. There are clearly real differences between having a Democratic and Republican president, especially for the most vulnerable members of society. But does this mean you should stay silent when Obama carries out the same or similar policies as his predecessor?

“Obama’s greatest achievement is having seduced, co-opted and silenced much of liberal opinion in the U.S.,” argues journalist John Pilger. Your silence during the death and destruction of Obama’s first term is living proof of the political con-trick he performed to win Ad Age’s marketer of the year award in 2008. But do you think the Pakistani mother whose child is killed by an American drone cares whether the attack occurred under a Democratic or Republican president?

Isn’t a key role for artists in any society to ask awkward questions? To hold power to account? To think outside the box? Songs like Born in the USA, Welcome to the Occupation and The Flowers of Guatemala were some of the most powerful critiques of the Reagan administration’s domestic and foreign policies. But this is 2012, not the 1980s. If the narrator of Born in the USA was “born down in a dead man’s town” a generation later, he would have “a brother in Helmand/Fighting off the Taliban.” The Flowers of Guatemala would be renamed The Flowers of Pakistan.

Rather than continuing to support the most powerful politician in the world – what Matt Taibbi calls the “imperial administrator” – isn’t it time you, as popular artists with huge audiences and all the influence this suggests, began to give a voice to the victims of the Obama administration?

Yours,

Ian Sinclair
London, UK