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Join The Chant? Pop's Endlessly Problematic Relationship With Politics
David Stubbs , April 21st, 2015 11:35

As senior columnists and musicians complain that younger generations are no longer both musically and politically engaged, David Stubbs argues that rock and pop have never been the defiantly countercultural revolutionary corps that many claim

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With a General Election looming, a question which is in danger of becoming hoary has once again reared up among columnists and more senior musicians. Why, grumble some including Damon Albarn this past weekend, do pop and rock no longer seem to have a political edge? There's a sense, some reckon, of heads-down expediency among today's generation, that however tousled their hair may be or serrated their 'indie' guitar stylings, they are aspirational rather than countercultural. Is there even such a thing as the 'counterculture' anymore, outside of the dreams of 40-and-50-somethings brooding wistfully over their large vinyl collections? What has become of the insurrectionary spirit of rock's halcyon years, before postmodernism set in and hip ironicism usurped an older, angrier spirit of authentic rage? Where is the Doc Marten energy of the old days, of rock music as soundtrack to petrol bombs and stand-offs with cordons of crewcut police?

Time was, we kind of recall, when if you had an edge about you, a vital pulse that was beyond mere pop entertainment, you'd be championed by the NME. And when you were interviewed by the NME, it was an article of faith that you would declare your leftist political credentials, probably appended with a disenfranchised complaint to the effect that none of the political parties were up to scratch. It would be manifest in the taper of your trousers, the shock of your hair and your sound, maybe even the facetious knot of your tie. It was unthinkable that the Conservative leader of the country would know you exist, let alone praise you. Margaret Thatcher openly expressed her musical preference for 'How Much Is That Doggy In The Window'; David Cameron, meanwhile, equally as vile, is a fan of The Killers and Mumford & Sons. He also had a fondness for The Smiths, though Johnny Marr, being old school, immediately protested Cameron's endorsement.

The reality, now as then, is a little more complex, as is the relationship between pop and politics itself which has rarely been satisfactory. Certainly, it isn't an immediate given that rock's pantheon of leftfield heroes were of the left. Ian Curtis of Joy Division not only voted Conservative in 1979 but persuaded the Liberal candidate to give him a lift to the polling station in order to do so. The Jam also proclaimed that they were voting Tory. In doing so, they weren't merely revealing their fundamentally reactionary streak (though Weller, a later staunch member of Red Wedge, certainly changed political hue). If punk was at all politically disaffected, it was by the complacent, moribund mediocrity of the Callaghan administration and the frayed, flared Britain over which it presided. Punk and Thatcherism were united in that respect, had come to administer short sharp shocks, albeit in very different ways.

Eric Clapton's appalling pro-Enoch Powell rant which led to the formation of Rock Against Racism is well known, as is David Bowie's infamous flirtation with fascism and fascination with Hitler that fatuously accompanied his shrewd embrace of Krautrock in the 1970s. But reactionary views were more widespread. Jimmy Page was a longtime admirer of Tory PM Edward Heath, Rod Stewart railed against immigration while most of the rock's aristocracy, the Stones included, were put out by what they saw as the punitively high level of income tax imposed by Harold Wilson, something which even vexed that noted anti-materialist George Harrison ('Taxman'). Jimi Hendrix is assumed to have provided the flaming soundtrack to the anti-Vietnam dissent of the late 1960s but he was only persuaded very late to that particular cause - well into his career, as an ex-paratrooper, he was all for American involvement in 'Nam and even contributed musically to a campaign to drum up new military recruits.

After punk, artists may have paid airy lip-service to leftist ideals but without much rigour, preferring an airy, dopey, Russell Brand-style "Whoever-you-vote-for-the-government-always-gets-in" - style stance. Billy Bragg often ended up being pretty much the lone carrier of the pop-star-as-socialist banner, one who understand that actual street politics is a tedious, door-to-door trudge, minutiae and fudge, whose mundanity inevitably reverberated through his wryly understated, sonically underwhelming music. Back in the 80s, embark on a list which you assumed to be quite lengthy of a plethora of agit-poppers and it would begin and end with Billy Bragg (for those who didn't remember The Redskins).

Today, meanwhile, despite the complaint of apathy, there are significant and surprising examples of political engagement. One Direction urging their fans to lobby George Osborne concerning corporation tax is pretty unimpeachable stuff that puts the likes of Robbie Williams gurning and screeching about being "rich beyond me wildest dreams" to shame. Paloma Faith has invited left wing columnist and author Owen Jones to share a stage with her to air his views, as if to make the point that whatever form it takes, 21st pop should not exist in an apolitical bubble. The Enemy, for all their musical flaws, have engaged sensibly and sincerely with with the vexed pop-politics issue in this lengthy Facebook entry.

And mention should certainly go to tireless comrades Thee Faction, who peddle a cheerfully unapologetic brand of crackling anti-establishment rock, with albums such as Good Politics: Your Role As An Active Citizen In Civil Society making no bones about their leftism, although their retroegraphics do carry with them the unspoken implication that an 80s-style Commie Revolution led by donkey-jacketed insurgents feels like a somewhat remote contingency right now. Sometimes, the "where has all the politics gone in pop" line comes with an implicit sneer against today's generation, regarded as quite simply having less about them than previous rock generations and lacking nous, spine, spark. This simply isn't true and the problems they and their own successors will face as the century stretches on are likely to be far more onerous than those suffered by the self-celebrating baby boomers who had a relatively cosy time of it.

Sometimes the fear of mixing politics with pop isn't necessarily to do with any lack of left wing conviction. It's to do with aesthetic qualms, a desire to be implicit rather than explicit, or not to be saddled with the tiresome and invidious role of Spokesman For A Generation. Bob Dylan's career from the mid-60s onwards, in which he seemed to relish in disappointing, exasperating and "betraying" his listenership with his media silences and stylistic shifts, can largely be accounted for by a collective desire to attach a saddle to him and make him a mule for "protest" after 'The Times They Are A-Changin''. He baulked at that, and, when it came to Live Aid, cut one of the more reactionary figures, asking aloud whether more should be done for the American farmer before starving Ethiopians.

No such qualms for Cornelius Cardew, the brilliant, leftwing UK composer who co-founded the 60s free improvisation group AMM, whose fans including Paul McCartney and Pink Floyd. In the 1970s, however, he became increasingly disengaged from the avant garde music scene of which he was a doyen and which he saw as a remote distraction from the urgent class struggle at hand, so much fiddling while Rome burned. In 1974 he hammered out his famous tract Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, before embarking on projects such as the Scratch Orchestra, to make music more accessible than the likes of Schoenberg or Bartok. He also devised a series of what he imagined to be worker-friendly pop songs, drawing on folk traditions, which he imagined would be bashed out on out-of-tune pianos in recreation halls and working mens' clubs of an evening after a hard day's riveting and welding. Unfortunately, these songs betrayed Cardew's fine disregard for an already-existing pop tradition, Slade and the like, who were doing a perfectly good job of cheering up the working folk. Cardew's lyrics, however, were not bellowed exhortations to party but to come to the aid of the party. A perfect example is 'Smash The Social Contract', which cannot fail but raise a smile, especially given the resemblance of its chorus to The Goodies' 'Funky Gibbon', a trio of whom, one suspects, Cardew knew nothing.

Cardew's People's Liberation Music failed to galvanise the common man and stands today as a quaint, even risible cautionary monument to the perils of mixing pop with politics. At the other end the scale, meanwhile, you have Madonna and her airy, airheaded appropriating of the radical lexicon; prancing onstage at Live8 asking if "anybody wants a revolution"? And then, more recently, in a (deleted) Instagram post, praising Margaret Thatcher for her "rebel heart". However, the maxim that pop and politics are best kept apart is a glib, reactionary cop out. I'm not one of those who lauds the Stones for never sharing the transcendent idealism of their 60s contemporaries. For me, this is an absence in their music, a failing, a lack of feeling, something they weren't up to rather than something they magnificently scorned. It's just that the intrinsic nature of pop makes it hard to pull off. In 1986, Simon Reynolds and I wrote a think piece called Indecency for Melody Maker, in which we argued against the conflation of support for a Neil Kinnock-led Labour Party (a pre-disappointing prospect, if not as much so as Miliband today) with a tepid, worthy brand of affectedly sincere white socked white soul that would culminate in Red Wedge, featuring the likes of Style Council-era Paul Weller, The Communards, Sade, The Blow Monkeys. etc. The best pop, however, we argued, was combustible, ecstatic, implacable, excessive, a liability and a probable danger to the order of any perfect state - and fiscally irresponsible, like Adam Ant reputedly spending his first royalty cheque on 48 Harley Davidsons - rock & roll, but from an accountancy point of view, insanity. 48 depreciating assets! No future Chancellor he.

Having become more politicised with age I'd wince at many of my contributions to that piece today, as the real implications of the prolonged Thatcher era have become dreadfully clear and the failure of any opposition to truncate her years in power a national tragedy. Aesthetic qualms and celebrations of excess as paramount feel a touch Imperialism-serving. But there are other ways in which pop can be, has been intrinsically political in a way in which, in the mainstream at any rate, it fails to be today. Experimental, avant-garde, free music (none of these terms are adequate, which is kind of the point), which remains as prolific as ever in 2015 isn't mere art for art's sake; it is made by, and appeals to, the anti-fascist mindset, un-set in its ways, open and accepting of multiple and simultaneous possibilities, a model of extreme tolerance. The continued resistance towards such music, as faced by Sonic Boom, booed offstage when supporting Kurt Vile, indicates a hardened conservatism that, if unlikely necessarily to convert into Conservative votes, cannot help but depress in its hidebound lumpen-ness.

Another way in which pop can be political as in its expression of cultural diversity and multiple identities. Again, on this basis, the 21st century measures up less well, despite measurable progress in this area since the days of Rock Against Racism and The Tom Robinson Band. Perhaps it was easier to make a pop splash when there was something to revolt against but pop and rock seem retrograde since the 80s in this respect. Where in the charts will you find the great numbers of ostentatiously multi-racial groups a la The Beat, The Specials, The Selecter? What chance a song like Rhoda Dakar's 'The Boiler' even scraping the bottom of the charts today? Also, where is the gay pop of yore, the Somervilles, the Erasures, the Frankies, the George Michaels, the Pet Shop Boys, etc, etc? Ironic that they should have flourished in an era when the presiding government introduced legislation to stop the "promotion of homosexuality" but now that gay marriage has been legalised and even the Tories have a float at the Pride parade, pop and rock have reverted to a hetero default setting (and rock to white, male, guitar). It should be a source of embarrassment that David Cameron should feel so comfortable with The Killers and Mumfords and we should all probably be lobbying for multiple options in pop than the One Direction it's going in right now.

Contemporary music certainly hasn't lost its vitality, mind, though what's vital is increasingly driven to the margins. Nor have the youth of today less politically conscious, as spoiled into apathy as their elders like to imagine. The rise in rents and property prices and the fall in both the quality and quantity of jobs on offer are likely to make this a tougher time to be young than any since the war, going forward. Anger will grow, something may give. Mark Steel once wrote that his ideal day would consist of a worker's uprising in the morning followed by a quiet drink with friends in the evening. Real insurrection, when the chunks of pavement start flying randomly, is something to be feared as much as hoped for and with no prospect of any of the major parties doing anything to reverse the ever-widening inequality gap, who's to say this isn't on the cards a few years down the line? And what then will music's role be? Perhaps it will have none at all. Rock and pop have both lost their centrality, can no more presume to hold the barometer of the times than, say, jazz. There'll be no Thunderclap Newman singing feyly about "something in the air" and exhorting togetherness, a la the 60s, whose soon-to-evaporate idealism may strike future generations as weak-minded and ineffectual rather than laudable. Breaking glass and charges against police cordons will provide their own soundtrack.

Alternatively, maybe future music will take its cue from the handful of great, incendiary anthemic moments pop has provided over the last quarter of a century or so - be it the Manics, 'Repeat', Public Enemy's 'Fight The Power' or even Pulp's 'Common People'. As contemporary music has become more fragmentary, mainstream audiences have been inclined to flock together at festivals, arenas for big, beery, familiar singalongs, much to the distaste of squeamish types like myself. Perhaps this energy could be harnessed like wind power. Maybe this is where future pop's political power will reside, from angry collectives unknown or even unborn. And then, it will be time, however reluctantly, to join the chant.

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Mansell
Apr 21, 2015 12:18pm

Crass? Discharge? Varukers? Dead Kennedys? Godspeed You!Black Emperor?You missed a whole swathe of counterculture left field independence, David. And, if we want to keep it current, what about Sleaford Mods? MOGWAI? A band, to me, lives and breathes politics.
After the mainstream music press couldn't fall over themselves fast enough in the '90s to embrace the ultra-conservative and eager, money grabbing Brit Pop vileness, as opposed to covering anything with any societal concerns, it's hardly any wonder the current generation would even contemplate the idea of political or social revolution in their muzak.
'Big Is Best' has been the mantra for years and everyone has been A-OK with that because everyone is selfish and hopes that, at some point, they'll get 'theirs'
We reap what we sow, and the biggest cash crop this picking season is bland, inoffensive, lowest common denominator cack. Business as usual.

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Mansell
Apr 21, 2015 12:18pm

Crass? Discharge? Varukers? Dead Kennedys? Godspeed You!Black Emperor?You missed a whole swathe of counterculture left field independence, David. And, if we want to keep it current, what about Sleaford Mods? MOGWAI? A band, to me, lives and breathes politics.
After the mainstream music press couldn't fall over themselves fast enough in the '90s to embrace the ultra-conservative and eager, money grabbing Brit Pop vileness, as opposed to covering anything with any societal concerns, it's hardly any wonder the current generation would even contemplate the idea of political or social revolution in their muzak.
'Big Is Best' has been the mantra for years and everyone has been A-OK with that because everyone is selfish and hopes that, at some point, they'll get 'theirs'
We reap what we sow, and the biggest cash crop this picking season is bland, inoffensive, lowest common denominator cack. Business as usual.

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abb
Apr 21, 2015 12:23pm

Ooohhhh fantastic article!!!

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Simon Hewitt
Apr 21, 2015 12:28pm

The second verse of 'Something in the Air' is more firebrand than you imply:
"Hand out the arms and ammo
We're going to blast our way through here
We've got to get together sooner or later
Because the revolution's here, and you know it's right
And you know that it's right"

Otherwise, a great article!

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Darl
Apr 21, 2015 12:32pm

In reply to Mansell:

The scope of this article seems to UK bands who are engaged with contemporary politics in a traditional sense. Secessionary, anti-politics, anarchist influenced stuff doesn't really fit with that. David sets out his stall early in the article, positioning himself against the "Whoever-you-vote-for-the-government-always-gets-in" stance which is perpetuated by anti-statism.

Good point on Sleaford Mods though- definitely the most relevant political band for years and years.

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Apr 21, 2015 1:41pm

The Stones were put out not by high taxes but by their manager's non-payment of taxes for several years. The band saw the bill and though "fuck him and fuck that."

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G.
Apr 21, 2015 4:32pm

So who's the grime editor and why were they not consulted?

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Francois
Apr 21, 2015 7:56pm

As Mansell above mentioned-Crass and the anarcho punk/squat scene which led to all sorts of small collectives, rave as well (arguably the last youth movement which was anti-establishment), with the free party movement and the criminal justice bill outlawing beats for fuck sake! politicised a lot of people

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mousie_dung
Apr 21, 2015 11:23pm

Interesting article, but it just overlooks a huge section of rock acts just for the sake of making the true yet tired "rock music didn't/doesn't change anything" point.

The truth of the matter is, rock music used to get political more often than not, and when it didn't it at least seemed to be pissed off about something. Not saying that all these bands were maoists who battled in the jungle. Just talking about themes like poverty, drug addiction or even freaking non-love life related "sadness" is markedly different from what we have nowadays.
There's no mention of bands like the Clash and Gang of Four in here. No mention of Pink Floyd's "Animals" or Radiohead's "Hail to the Thief". I mean, even in the early 00's we had mainstream explicitly political (to varying degrees) bands like RATM, SOAD and Super Furry Animals.

Here in Latin America, the biggest rock band of the 90s, Maná, used to sing about ecological concerns, Chiapas guerrillas, forced disappearances etc. They had a song called "I Don't Care". All with vaguely Police-like backing music so even little kids like me could like it.

And now...now, when we're REALLY living in the shadow of Madge's fetid bloom and seeing it take hold to an extent never seen, what do we get? Endlessly optimistic synth pop about dancing and making a metric fuckton of cash so I can stick molly up all my bitches' booties And You Can Do It, too.

Not saying we've been brainwashed but...oh what am I saying, we have been.

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Apop
Apr 21, 2015 11:23pm

Enjoyed the article, thanks. Here in the States I have to wonder if what happened to the Dixie Chicks has anything to do with a certain 'lack' of political music over here nowadays.

And the article made me think immediately of Rage Against the Machine. Can you imagine a song like Killing in the Name Of being released today? Tho there's no need, the lyrics are just as relevant 20+ years later.

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Ken Husting
Apr 22, 2015 2:54am

First reason - probably - no more Soviet Union underpinning the European left.
Second - they took corporal punishment out of school and made everyone less violent and pissed off - which was the whole point.
Third - i- the post war generations were harder due to inherited stress responses.

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Sam
Apr 25, 2015 6:09pm

Good article but I would take issue with your reference to The Jam voting conservative. As I remember, this was a Paul Weller (not The Jam as a whole)quote and, though reactionary, was apparently said to wind up those who adopted a leftie stance as part of the punk uniform. And it did become obligatory, which is interesting in relation to your article. So 'we're all voting Conservative at the next election' is a bolshy 70s teenager resisting being pigeon-holed rather than someone who believes in a right wing alternative to Callaghan. And to me it's interesting that when Weller did get off the fence a triteness started to creep into his lyric writing. 'Trans Global Unity Express' off The Gift for example. My mate descibed it as being like 'Blue Mink'. This did set the tone for much of the dreadful, right on, toytown soul of the Style Council. The really good, vicious stuff from The Jam such as 'Mr Clean' or 'Private Hell' came from a point of personal observation. My son is 14, a songwriter and quotes some of these Weller lyrics to me like poems. Because they speak to his discontent, his unease and disquiet. Going on 40 years and they still have that power. It isn't the musician's role to champion causes. I'm one of those of the opinion that rock n' roll died with Live Aid.

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cosmomix dj
Apr 26, 2015 7:26pm

The first ever Pop Festival was an Antiwar political event in Woodstock ,Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner was highly subversive

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David Pascoe
Apr 26, 2015 8:12pm

Further to Apop's comment - political music's problem is that the exponents often find themselves delivering the message to an audience through a medium which is designed first and foremost for the reason of pleasure and enjoyment, rather than discourse, debate or insurrection. U.S. band Consolidated tried to make their gigs into two way discussions with their audience over a range of issues in the 90s , but as an album like Play More Music showed, the kids didn't want lectures from a rock group. That wasn't what they were coming to see them for. In the 90s, political rock all seemed a bit of a right on cliche, a parody. With the Cold War won and the Tory party seemingly imploding under John Major, the hard work had been done. Hadn't it?

http://greasepaintpeel.blogspot.co.uk/2015/01/oliver-consolidated-peel-session-24.html

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abcd
May 3, 2015 6:44pm

People don't believe in left wing politics anymore, which is why almost the entirety of europe has shifted hard to the right.

In response the modern left has doubled down into useless and extremely dogmatic identity politics - see the Facebook comments above for the inevitable stream of "but what about X faction of society!" There's always someone waiting to take a slight at not being explicitly included, no matter how tangental to the point. The left is now all about infighting and apologetics, which makes for pretty uninspiring music.

The modern youth counter-culture exists on the internet in places like 4Chan - uncensored, ugly, amoral, completely unapologetic and extremely right wing.

You would not like what they have to say.

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slothrop
May 4, 2015 7:05pm

In reply to abcd:

Correct. The Internet has had a massive effect on the formative years of 'yoof'. Whereas before bitter types were left to stew alone, they can gather on sub-reddits like 'men's rights' and rage collectively to the point where they can delude themselves into thinking they're a movement engaging in the most cutting edge political discourse.

Interestingly its the groups that were given a voice when pop music was at its most political- LGBT, feminists, other minorities that frequently come under their attack.

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