Music doesn’t stop wars. It doesn’t stop greed, corruption or any of the other things that the politicians and power brokers do (I know there are some musicians who actively lobby but I want to talk about the music itself). It can shine a light on the world though. Whilst the powerful control everyone, the musicians say those powerful people don’t speak or act in my name or my interests and as powerless as most of us are that’s often all we have – the knowledge that we’re not alone.
Anyway, I saw a ‘greatest’ list of political songs a couple of years back. Frustrated by the fact the only post-1990 band was Rage Against the Machine and by the much more recent controversy over the Ding Dong Song when there is so much great politically motivated music out there, I decided to add some of my own greats here. The disturbing thing about this list is how many of these songs could be re-released tomorrow and seem contemporary. I’m well aware I’ve missed a lot of great songs out of this list pre-1989 but I can’t put everything in! Most of these songs were released after 1990 but I’m going to turn the clock back for the first couple.
I wasn’t listening to Chumbawamba when they released their 1987 Never mind the ballots but I’m linking (it won’t embed) to a Part 1 video (with lyrics) of that one here because it’s just so good, lyrically and musically, even if later efforts were more anthemic.
A major presence in my teens, in 1989 Carter USM had released Sheriff Fatman, about slum lords.
Some more social commentary from Disposable Heroes of Hiphopcrisy with Television.
James have written some great political songs. Their Gold Mother album is best known for the single Sit Down but it also included Government Walls, which echoes down through 20 years to secret trials
Their next album, Seven included the anti-war Mother. I’m sad to say the video has censored the word “fucker” out.
Later, in Whiplash, they attacked tv culture, among other things, in Lost a Friend
and focused on corporate greed and the helplessness that creates apathy in Greenpeace (which unfortunately isn’t available on Youtube for mobiles).
The Manic Street Preachers have always liked political themes and each time I hear more about tax avoidance, bonuses, LIBOR rigging and incompetence and risk taking Natwest Barclays Midland Lloyds pops back into my head.
The Levellers are another politically active band and I certainly can’t get Sell Out out of my head these days.
Disturbingly one of the comments on Gene’s Good as it Gets on Youtube (also on vimeo if you’re using a mobile) says he thinks it’s about two people’s work schedules clashing! I’m glad to see someone’s explained it’s about New Labour’s sell out after the 1997 election. It’s one of a few songs along the same lines on Revelations.
Apologies for going with a blatantly obvious choice but Electioneering is just the perfect expression of the frustration we so often feel after elections.
Ocean Colour Scene’s Profit in Peace was released in 1999.
Other traditional style songs with an anti-war message, released since the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions include Wilie Nelson’s Peaceful Solution
and Kris Kristofferson’s In the News
Chemical Bros’ Left Right is a great song written after the invasions about the difference between the people who start the wars and the people who fight them.
Meanwhile, Blues Explosion’s Hot Gossip attacked the war on terror propaganda in the US
and Faithless came out with the almost bizarrely catchy Mass Destruction
Another almost annoyingly catchy contribution was the Flaming Lips’ Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, which seems to feature backing vocals from the Muppets
From the zany to the ethereal, Simone Felice touches on the wars and various other issues in his songs, including The Duke & the King’s haunting One More American Song
One thing I haven’t mentioned is punk. Obviously, punk didn’t die in 1990 and I can think of one person who would be annoyed if I didn’t mention Propagandhi here, even if I’m not into them musically speaking. Anyone looking to defend the modern era of political music is bound to mention Pussy Riot too. To me, Pussy Riot stand apart from many bands because everything about them is connected to protest. That’s all well and good but what I’d like to see is more bands mixing political content into the wider range of work they do. Banking crises, coalition government, recession, unemployment, inflation, welfare, education and health service reforms are all subjects previous generations of artists have written about and they’re all relevant today, with the addition of the collapse of the Eurozone and a collapsing justice system for more potential content.
It’s been suggested that the past decade has been a wasteland when it comes to political music, with Green Day’s American Idiot and Arcade Fire’s Suburbs cited as rare examples in the LA Times (although this does lead me to suggest they should distinguish between political albums and political songs – Green Day’s whole album is about post 9/11 propaganda, while Arcade Fire’s album follows a theme on modern life). I’m don’t think this is an entirely fair judgement. Others are making political songs but, as they have been throughout my lifetime, they’re outnumbered by pop/r&b pap. Ultimately, I would argue that at no time since the end of the Vietnam war have regularly and overtly politically active artists had big chart success. By their nature pop songs (and their singers) are often vapid (as if we needed further proof of this, Justin Bieber’s comment in the Anne Frank guestbook just gave us a timely reminder) and it’s probably not fair to expect pop acts to suddenly grow a social conscience or even start writing their own songs. That was as true when I was a teenager as it is now. There were then, as there are now, greedy little ego monsters among bands and among the buying public but it would be unreasonable to completely write young people off based on their taste in music. Taste in music is a pretty visceral thing. You could try listening to opera in the hopes of becoming more cultured but if your spine tingles at a rock gig, rock’s your thing. Someone who is completely into dance is perfectly entitled to hate a genre where political content is more common, like folk or punk so it’s not as if I’m suggesting we should forcefeed teenagers political music in the same way we make them read literature in school. Who knows? Maybe the person listening to Justin Bieber reads Marx as well anyway. Equally, I wouldn’t want to listen to political music all the time. It forms the minority of the music I own and listen to but it’s always there, waiting for its moment when history repeats itself.
There do seem to be more older acts (at 35 and up, I’m classing myself as old in the generational sense) putting politics and social conscience into their music than younger ones though. A couple of big names to mention from last year would be Bruce Springsteen and Muse. There could be various factors at play in the fact that younger bands aren’t that politically active. The fact is that being a musician is a job and it’s hard to hang on to your principles when your wages are at stake. The 1990s was a time of Indie labels and they were prepared to take more risks. Big labels are all part of the same machine that feeds us X-Factor and other inane rubbish on tv and shuts down intelligent US tv programmes as soon as they might touch a raw nerve with the conservative right in the US. In that climate, it’s only longer established artists who can stand up to the big name labels. Even if they do stand up to their labels, post 9/11 artists in the USA who took an anti-war on terror and war stance were vilified, even by others in the music industry. They were supposed to toe the party line. Steve Earle, for example, was heavily criticised for John Walker’s Blues.
Of course, it’s also possible that the lack of music with a political and social conscience reflects disengagement on the part of under 30s as a whole. Maybe they’ve lost the ideals previous generations have because it just seems so hopeless. They’ve gone from a pretty cosy looking country during their childhood to utter disaster over the past five years. To give them the benefit of the doubt, I think it’s important to remember that under 21s grew up in an environment where the old political firebrands of the 1960s and 1970s had become muted and were the establishment. They don’t have much of a frame of reference for what activism looks like in politics itself.
I’m also aware there may be hidden gems, tucked away on albums and not released as singles. If they’re by bands I’m not into, I wouldn’t know. An obvious question is whether rap and hip hop artists are writing music with a political vein. I’m not that into rap and hip hop but it seems to me as if there’s a similar breakdown in age in American rap and hip hop. Older rappers still write with actual messages but the younger ones who manage to break through don’t. I had a look on Google to see if other people think British rap and hip hop artists are writing about anything other than partying. Again, the answer seemed to be no for anyone successful and that the labels don’t want them to either. That might be wrong but it’s believable because it gels with what’s going on in other genres.
Having run through the ’90s and war songs, I’ll add some of my choices of economic and social songs since 2008.
The wonderful Felice Brothers (brothers of Simone Felice) came out with the brilliant Ponzi about Bernie Madoff
Show of Hands’ Arrogance Ignorance Greed managed to get airtime on Marr.
I can’t say I think much of his other stuff but Plan B also deserves credit for ill Manors. Just a shame it was necessary to explain on mtv that he wasn’t actually trying to provoke more riots with it.
During the tuition fee protests, the NME and others questioned where the ‘soundtrack’ to the student protests could come from. If, as the NME did at the time, you look at ‘protest songs’, it can be difficult to know what protesters are going to tap into. The obvious answer to that is to write their own. Bandcamp and Youtube make this possible, with Twitter stepping in to spread the word. A complete unknown can go ahead and write an anthem for their generation. Why not? 15 year old Shaye even got national airtime with Broken Britain.
I’m the first to admit that the vast potential for songwriters to be putting political songs out on the internet means that I may very well be underestimating the under 30s. I hope so.
I have to add this one to the list of recent songs. Rita Hosking’s Gulf of Mexico takes my breath away. A gorgeous lament in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill.