By Kayleigh Tompkins
In the age of Instagram, it is clear that humans have declared a triumph of the individual over concern for wider society. Nowhere is this attitude more clearly demonstrated than in popular music, providing example after example of a shift towards the centrality of the ego in the modern world. Mainstream bands and artists appear to be turning away from social and political issues in favour of lyrics about love, sex and the trivialities of life. In return, society appears to have stopped listening.
In 2008, David Cameron claimed that one of his favourite bands was The Jam and nostalgically recalled listening to ‘The Eton Rifles’, a song rife with lyrics about class warfare and social inequality, whilst he was studying at the eponymous private school. The song had basis in the Right To Work march which broke off in 1978 to attack pupils from the college. “All the rugby puts hairs on your chest/what chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” bewailed Weller, commenting on the futility of attempts at resisting privilege and class structure in late 1970s Britain. In a similar fashion, American politician and vice presidential candidate in the 2012 election, Paul Ryan, listed Rage Against the Machine as one of his favourite bands. Guitarist, Tom Morello, responded with a scathing attack: “Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades”.
The misunderstanding of Cameron and Ryan can almost be deemed an appropriation of protest culture; a way of sanitising, in this case, the working-class, leftist voice. Whether born of ignorance or deliberate misappropriation, their comments are endemic of the treatment of protest music in wider society.
The decline of the popular protest song, or any song with political associations, can be traced with a rather crude examination of the top ten songs of the UK official charts top 40 of 19th February 2015, and the same chart on the same day in 1980. In 2015, five of the top ten feature lyrics that are clearly about love, two about partying, two about sex and objectification (“My hobby’s her body, that pussy’s my lobby/ I’mma eat it, I’mma eat it”) and one about a father/son relationship. Hozier’s track ‘Take Me To Church’, in part challenging religious attitudes towards homosexuality, is the only one which can be excused this charge of self-absorption.
In 1980, whilst there are still unashamed love ballads to rival even Ed Sheeran’s levels of sugary goodness, there are three songs which contain lyrics which are politicised to a certain extent, or at the very least highlight issues outside of the self. This includes Kenny Rogers’ number one, ‘Coward of the County’ which discusses rape and revenge. Similarly, ‘Someone Looking at You’ by the Boomtown Rats paints a picture of 1984 style government surveillance. The song then goes on to explicitly reference moments of political action, in this case Bob Geldof’s participation in a Greenpeace anti-whaling rally in Trafalgar Square: “They saw me there in the square when I was shooting my mouth off/About saving some fish”. ‘Too Much Too Young’ by The Specials, a pretty awful diatribe against teenage pregnancy, constitutes the third. Admittedly, the song isn’t a great example of the band’s socio-political awareness, but the fact that they’re on the artistic radar is important; it demonstrates that the type of band who sang songs about the urban decay, deindustrialisation and unemployment of Thatcherite Britain as they did in ‘Ghost Town’ had popular appeal.
It’s not unreasonable to think, then, that politicised music or songs associated with social issues have fallen out of favour with popular consumers. This is, of course, working on the assumption that these charts are broadly representative of the music consumption of a wide segment of society. Piracy and the rise of Spotify in particular are additional variables with the potential to skew results. Nonetheless, the rise of the individual is remarkable. If the consumption of popular music can be taken as a reflection, at least in part, of the wider society that consumes it, then we are living in a depressingly apolitical era. But perhaps we’re being too harsh on the consumer. Maybe there is just no strong political framework in which to express social discontent.
The 60s and 70s saw the birth of the New Left in the UK; a redefinition of left-wing politics after the confused responses of the Communist Parties of Great Britain and the USA to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This marked a rejection of the authoritarian nature of pre-war leftist parties and gave birth to a movement centred around grass-roots personal politics: civil rights movements, second-wave feminism, gay liberation, student protests, and community action. Even the serious challenge posed by Thatcherism and the accompanying rise of neoliberalism provoked heated responses from bands. Punk rock was born out of a discontented youth. At the softer end, Morrisey was writing ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’, describing her death as a “wonderful dream”and repeatedly asking “when will you die?”
With the continuation of neo-liberalist policies under subsequent Labour governments (New Labour), the framework in which protest music could be created slowly fizzled out, replaced by an apathy towards a political system which appears increasingly alienated from ordinary people. The protest songs of the left appear to have been betrayed by those that previously provided the framework for their expression. Moreover, with the implementation of austerity politics in recent decades, fewer and fewer people find themselves in a position to enter the arts or find an appropriate outlet for protest. The Britain of 2015 is one with a rising number of zero-hour contracts, redundancy threats and food banks. Time is now spent surviving rather than spiking hair and listening to the Sex Pistols. The voices of those with the most to protest about are lost due to the inaccessibility of expensive art schools. This trend towards a more privileged, middle class arts scene is reflected in the rise of stars such as Eddie Redmayne (Eton College) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Harrow) in TV and film. The process of gentrification appears too in music, with the likes of bands such as Mumford and Sons (St Paul’s/King’s College School) and Coldplay (Sherborne School) dominating the charts. Labour MP Chris Bryant’s recent tussle with James Blunt (also Harrow) illustrated this neatly. Bryant, also privately educated, commented that:
“someone like Stanley Baker, the son of a disabled miner in the Rhondda, who rose to be one of Britain’s greatest film actors (Zulu), would have found it even harder to make it today.”
The protests may have died down since the 20th century, but that does not mean that social issues have been solved or political satisfaction achieved. Without such a framework, on what lines has popular discontent thus been expressed? Referring to popular cinema, Dixon hypothesises in his book The Films of Jean-Luc Godard that “people today go to the movies not to think, not to be challenged, but rather to be tranquilized and coddled.” The same is true for music, utilised for escapism, for entertainment rather than expression and challenge.
That’s not to say the protest song has totally died in the UK – with tracks like ‘Uprising’ Muse seem to be making a valiant attempt to show a socio-political awareness, but they make their sentiment inaccessible by shrouding their lyrics in references to 1984. But whilst the protest song lays low in the UK, Russian feminist punk rock protest band Pussy Riot prove that it is still capable of having a global impact. After playing their anti-Putin ‘punk-prayer’ in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the group’s condemnation of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who the band accused of being a dictator, made an indelible mark upon Russian, if not global, consciousness, a stark contrast to the UK today.
It is hard to tell which of these causes and symptoms has resulted in the apolitical popular music that dominates the charts today. What’s for certain is that Bob Marley’s call to ‘”Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights/don’t give up the fight” seems somewhat absurd in today’s context as austerity Britain continues to push down those with the most to protest about.