We live in perhaps the most interesting times in generations. After decades of sterile, stage-managed politics where spin doctors and spads would dictate more policy than the PM, our current political discourse seems more similar to the tumult of the 80s than the recent Blair years. Thatcher in the 80s gave a generation of teenagers a political figure to hate – and the hapless nature of Labour’s opposition gave them only one outlet to direct that hatred towards; music – both its composition and its lyrics – provided that outlet.
Political lyrics exploded in the 80s, previously having been only a fringe idea. Chart topping songs and albums from bands like the Smiths were seeped in politics: and the indie scene was awash with lyrics criticising the incumbent PM. ‘Eton Rifles’ made fun of the public school system and ‘Meat is Murder’ turned thousands vegetarian. The Conservative dominance made people push back with their right to free speech. Previously controversial subjects were pushed onto Top Of The Pops, challenging and expanding people’s worldview.
But it wasn’t just the indie scene which got political: when the pop industry cottoned on, charity aid and cause driven music became more common. Live Aid, Freddie Mercury’s legacy in AIDS campaigning, and the anti-government anarchism of the Sex Pistols – eclectic and far removed musically – were all inspired by political ideas.
So what about now?
There’s an aversion in the pop music industry to produce music which pleases producers and record companies rather than saying anything. It’s clear to see the reason behind that: controversy and challenge are not good for the capitalist’s go-to argument of market stability. A song which decries meat-eating is going to alienate the majority of the population, so why press that record instead of a safe, sterile love song?
Every time, the record label will favour the apolitical safety of well-trodden lyrical themes. They won’t challenge if they are allowed to keep the power.
Any pop artist who does venture into the political boxing ring is inevitably thrown out: it’s unlikely they will dedicate many songs to it. Chanting “F*** Trump” at your gig only goes so far in changing opinions.
When the internet came around in the 90s, we all assumed that it would usher in a golden age of people power: that corporations would no longer hold sway over our lives. That’s clearly not materialised, because the web is still dominated by large companies. Sony and Universal are still the biggest record labels – and whilst a young grime artist might be able to release his album on Soundcloud, it’s going to reach vastly fewer people than the ad campaign for Taylor Swift’s new song.
How do we fix this, if our influence is dwarfed by corporations?
First, promote artists who do make a political message: whatever it might be. I don’t agree with the hardcore libertarian ideology expressed in some of Rush’s work, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it musically – or appreciate the ideas. In the age of the echo chamber, it’s probably even better if you don’t agree with the politics. Challenge has got to come from somewhere. David Cameron, unfortunately, is allowed to like the Smiths.
Secondly, help cultivate local bands and underground scenes: giving them as much exposure as possible. Since the change won’t come from Sony’s boardrooms, we must make it happen in the sticky-floored, low-staged local venues where young bands who aren’t on an executive’s leash can experiment. Write about them. Sell tickets to their gigs. Tell your friends. You’re guaranteed to have some fun at those kind of gigs: so spend your £5 there rather than on Spotify.
Politics in music can be a catalyst for sweeping revolution in a nation’s ideas. ‘America’ by Simon and Garfunkel, used by Bernie Sanders on his campaign ads, perfectly expressed the emotions and thinking behind his movement in 2016. Music can challenge the establishment, ridicule them, and put them in their place: working for us. It only does that if it engages with politics regularly and deeply.
Words by Will Allsopp