The place of political music

Image credit: Merlijn Hoek

In thinking about political music or musicians, most people’s minds turn to the likes of Bob Dylan and Billy Bragg: guitar-strumming troubadours, spreading their liberal message across the land. Doubtless, much of the music produced by these men, as well as countless others, is fantastic. Who hasn’t heard ‘Blowin’ in the Wind'; who isn’t aware of the protest song? 

Well, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ might be the exception rather than the rule, just as Bob Dylan may be – but even much of his early protesting folk is not widely known today. Who really wants to sit and listen to ‘Masters of War’? However pertinent it may be, it has aged – much like a lot of Billy Bragg’s anti-Thatcher 1980s work. Personally, I enjoy these albums, but realise it’s not for everybody. However much one may think that the time we’re living in now is like the 1930s, 60s, or 80s, it’s not, and the political messages to take from those decades do not apply now. Explicitly political songs age much more quickly, and don’t generate a continually new fan base. 

None of which is to say that political music is dead. On the contrary, Neil Young claimed in 2006 that he was the only musician writing protest songs, a claim, The Guardian points out, which came just 18 months after Greenday’s American Idiot was released. And today, Neil Young looks even more out of kilter with modern protest. Beyoncé’s latest offerings, Kendrick Lamar, Grime in the UK – as well as the entire history of hip-hop and rap, disco, and Northern Soul – are all political. 

Grime and disco both do something particularly noteworthy, since their political message is not always quite so explicit as Kendrick’s; they formed and form a community based around music on a non-exclusive basis. Disco through open nightclubs and music to all – black people, women, LGBT+ people – and so music was no longer for the elitist, straight white man. Grime too creates that atmosphere of acceptance and of voicing the lives of Londoners, which is a political act, and does not date quite so quickly as an explicitly anti-Thatcher or anti-Vietnam song.

If we look from grime to, for example, Anohni’s Mercury-nominated album Hopelessness, grime looks far more organic. That is not to denigrate Anohni’s album, which has great moments and surely tackles vitally important topics, but it does not form a community – it simply speaks out interrogatively. Grime, and a lot of contemporary hip-hop, speaks for a section of society with their voice, and not on a single issue.

A moment of community forming naturally around a musical happening was in 1973 when David Bowie played Top of the Pops, performing Starman as Ziggy Stardust in his jumpsuit, the very image of androgyny. Countless artists cite this as their moment of realisation that they did not have to be macho blokes or indeed conform to any stereotype. The mould was completely, innately changed, and that was with a song about a starman, whoever he may be. The political part of the song can reside in the performance as much as in the lyrics. 

Political music is at its best when its listeners are not forced into an ideology. Much political music can be a more liberal version of the most boring man in the pub, droning on uninterrupted with an unshakeable view of a single issue, forever. And that can drain all the fun out of music. Far better to create an inclusive community around a track, album or artist and allow political change to stream out of this new, creative, communal pool organically. 

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