The Sound of Identity

Laurie Wilcockson 17 May 2021
Image credit: Creative Commons

On Thursday last week, Britain got to enjoy the nationwide electoral celebration that was ‘Super Thursday’. We then got to endure an entire weekend of thrilling, adrenaline-fuelled news coverage as England became just a bit bluer than before; Scotland a little yellower with a few flecks of green; and Wales a bit redder and a bit less pink, and ultimately we got to see by the end that nothing much had really changed. These most recent elections were, in many ways, so conventionally uninteresting they seemed to have been forgotten before they even took place (in the Hartlepool by-election, turnout was 42.7% – some 15% below the 2019 election, and in the most recent Airdrie and Shotts by-election it was as low as 34.3%).

However, the election was important in that it proved quite conclusively to Labour voters that class politics was quietly eroding away. The age of ‘Northern working-class Labour’ and ‘middle class Conservative’ is over and has been replaced with Cummings-style ‘Identity Politics.’ The fact that Scotland, Wales, and England are such vibrantly different political colours now is no coincidence: fundamentally, the inhabitants of those countries are now voting for the party that represents their community rather than policy, and the SNP in Scotland, Welsh Labour in Wales, and the Conservatives in England superficially appear to be these parties, at least on a national level.

Music and identity have been locked in an uncomfortable relationship for as long as they have both existed – just look at the fact every country has a national anthem. Jerusalem, for example, is a song that immediately radiates Englishness, although what Englishness actually is remains a very difficult conversation. More often than not, songs associated with Englishness (the same can be said for the US) lean into archaic ideas about supremacy, colonialism, and historical victories against indigenous cultures. Rule Britannia, for example, is a direct memorialisation of Imperial Britain. However, this jingoistic edge has often provoked a knee-jerk reaction from young, progressive musicians, and identity music nowadays is often much more an attempt to ‘reclaim’ a more positive identity.

In 1986, for instance, the Housemartins released London 0 Hull 4, a jangle-pop album that employed English religious music, in the form of backing loops, choral tracks, and lyricism, to create a series of punk-like anthems, attacking the establishment, celebrating British freedoms, and venting the frustrations of the industrial working class (it was written during the Thatcher years, not long after the 1984 miner’s strike). Green Day’s 2004 American Idiot was very much the same kind of album, written against the backdrop of the Iraq war and chronologising the suburban teenage angst of an unnamed main character, Jesus of Suburbia, growing up disillusioned with the monotonous post-democracy era of the Clinton and Bush years. Such music is often lazily labelled punk (see the King Blues’ What if Punk Never Happened), but it appears the ‘punk’ label is frequently applied because of this politicisation, which just feels like arbitrary categorisation. Frank Turner may have a punk streak in some of his music, but his England, Keep My Bones and Grace Petrie’s Queer as Folk are country albums, while Aztec Camera’s Good Morning Britain is new-wave pop. In many ways, identity music should be treated as its own lyrical genre, superimposed over a song’s musical genre.

This is not limited to a nationalistic, Anglocentric Britain identity either. Dave’s Black, which was performed so brilliantly at the Brits last year, stresses the institutionally racist aspects of everyday life that undermine a black identity, especially in London. The fact it was seen by so many as provocative was demonstrative in itself of how correct he was, and how belittling this Jerusalem sphere of musical thought is towards any challenges to its narrative. In Ireland, too, protest songs were equally scorned by unionists throughout the Troubles, such as A Nation Once Again, covered by both the Wolfe Tones and the Dubliners.

Even Sweet Home Alabama falls into this category, although it carries significantly less political weight in the UK, especially in the modern day. It was originally written in response to Neil Young’s Southern Man, which stereotypes all American Southerners as slave owners and racists. Lynyrd Skynyrd felt this was a detrimental image to perpetuate and wanted to reclaim the South in their own way, recognising that while Southern history is still relevant, and more does need to be done, it is no longer a battle between North and South, so much as a battle between racists and non-racists. The Italian protest song Bella Ciao, meanwhile, originated as an anti-fascist anthem from wartime Italy, and thanks to the reinvigoration of its popularity from the international Netflix hit Money Heist, it has since seen a resurgence as an anthem for all disestablishment causes, from usage in the 2020 Indian Farmers Protest to the 2019 Extinction Rebellion protests in the UK.

The relationship between music and politics is clearly correlative, but is it causative? The answer is less clear. For music that fits this ‘identity politics’ genre, there first needs to be a pre-existing identity upon which to draw from – otherwise a song would have no audience. However, music provides a shared experience that builds on that community. Eleventh Night bonfires in Northern Ireland are accompanied by loyalist marching bands; Morris dancing is a part of numerous English local celebrations; and céilidh dances are prolific social events in Gaelic Scotland and Ireland. Even before every international sporting event, the players stop to sing their national anthem. Music makes individuals momentarily see themselves as part of a larger and distinct whole, and this acts to reinforce and strengthen community ties.

Nowadays, this is more important to appreciate than ever because this community-based rhetoric defines our modern politics. Communitarianism is ultimately divisive at its heart, and can be exclusionary, especially when reaching into the realms of nationalism, as is the case in Johnson-era England. Often the best identity music is that which represents a reaction to regimes, rather than a memorial of them, be it something as subtle as the Housemartins’ Flag Day or something as direct and deliberate as Dave’s Black. Such songs give a voice to groups and communities who don’t already have one, and this is what identity politics should be.