Music and politics: The times they are a-changin’

11 Mins read

John Lennon once said: “Music reflects the state that the society is in. It doesn’t suggest the state.”

This statement seems to makes a lot of sense. Artists grow up in a certain background and they reflect their thoughts through music. Looking back at certain eras, we can instantaneously match their popular music to their politics and culture.

The 60s and 70s was a time of the revolution. The end of the Cold War, threats of a nuclear conflict and the ongoing war in Vietnam made politics in music inevitable. We had the Beatles singing of Revolution, Rolling Stones begging to Gimme Shelter and Marvin Gaye simply asking What’s Going On?

Since then the world hasn’t stopped ticking. Social events, cultural shifts and political changes meant that constant inspiration fuelled musicians to speak out.

However, looking at the majority of music today it could be said that someone has hit the brakes. Not suddenly but gradually, slowing down the political outcry to a steadily dull pace. So where exactly is the state of politically fuelled music today? What can we learn from our current music trends about our political and cultural landscape?

An interesting observation was made by Matthew Trammell in The New Yorker. He wrote about how music under the Obama administration focused on taking us into outer space. Sounds strange until he recites the biggest songs of that decade: Rihanna’s Diamonds, Katy Perry’s E.T., Nicki Minaj’s Starships or Locked out of Heaven by Bruno Mars.

The correlation is kind of creepy when you think about it. Trammell proposes that “Obama pop is left as a well of escapism, a public record of joy that didn’t bother with gravity.”

Naturally, he compares the music made under the last term’s presidency with the current one, because of course, Trump is the biggest story on the planet ever and always will be.

While looking at songs such as Bad and Boujee, Rockstar and Black Beatles, Trammell becomes hopelessly depressed and comes out with the statement: “Big pop feels heavier, with little time for optimism.”

Sadly he doesn’t make it hard for us to agree with him, at least with the music he has chosen to contrast. It seems, in the pop world, music has become more cynical since the election of the new President; as Trammell concludes “these are songs about stomping through the night, not exactly conjuring tomorrow.”

After reading Trammell’s article it could be said that society was generally happier in the Obama years. It could also be said that Trump’s presidency sunk society as a whole into a bitter mood. One thing is for certain, and that is that there was an active change in the political climate and the music mirrored this change.

In an attempt to better understand this shift Artefact spoke to Dave Randall, Faithless guitarist and author of The Political Power of Music. Randall described this change in power as “the success of the populist ‘right’, and more alarmingly the ‘far right’.”

Not only did the Republican party assume power but Trump’s strong, right-wing views created an upheaval in much of the United States. Mass protests and demonstrations broke out across the world many of which were animated with music and dance.

Obama’s presidency was, by contrast, a lot more liberal, therefore society was far more complacent. As Randall puts it, “activism was at a low ebb, with some people believing that we could now leave things to the President.”

So where are things going? Well, Randall does say that politics is now polarising, people no longer want that centre ground of the Thatcher and Blair to the Clinton and Obama years. We see this with the election of Trump and the vote for Brexit. Unfortunately, most of the politics is seen to be polarising to the right, with feelings of nationalism and sometimes even hate to outsiders.

Using Dave as an example, a lot of musicians are, inherently left wing, “those of us who identify with socialism and the left are optimistic that the new world may soon be born.”

A new world sounds a little drastic but when thinking about the economic background of many musicians it begins to make more sense. If you are born into a working-class family it’s understandable that you would follow similar political ideologies. So under the rise of this aggressive right wing, a new world sounds pretty appealing, to be honest. Randall ends with a prediction: “I think we will see more, not less, overtly political progressive music in the coming period.”

It would definitely be a welcome change from the music of the mainstream we hear today. Not saying that there is anything wrong with current pop music but a little less predictability and more meaning would be refreshing.

One artist to adhere to this model is Andy Worthington. He is an activist, journalist and musician. He is someone who really fights for what he believes in, using writing and singing, as a means “to make the world a better place,” as he puts it. It may sound cheesy but, in all honesty, we’re all striving to do the same, just none of us are actually making the effort to change.

Andy Worthington

Andy Worthington at the Supreme Court [Andy Worthington]

Worthington’s band is called The Four Fathers and they make rock and reggae roots music commenting on corruption and noteworthy events around the world. He spoke to Artefact about his two newest songs and his views as an activist and freelance investigative journalist.

Grenfell is one of these songs, and as you guessed it, it’s about the fire at Grenfell Tower in London. Worthington said he woke up on June 14, 2017. to an image of an inferno, he knew something had gone horribly wrong. After researching into the incident it didn’t take long for him to come across a tenants group blog.

Worthington described one post: “There was a really strongly worded post in November 2016 saying that we think something terrible like a fire is going to have to happen before they take any action.”

He says that there was a self-certification process instead of having some objective check whether the work was safe. This resulted in 71 people dying horribly for something that shouldn’t have happened. This is what moved Worthington to write the song, he wanted to “memorialise the people that died and point out that we need accountability for what happened, and I think that we still do.”

Worthington shows us a creative process, a process which drives music to mirror our society by expressing the events that have had an impact on us. But what does it actually mean to write a protest song? Does writing a song about the fire of Grenfell rehouse the locals or compensate the victims? A better question would be, do protest songs have an impact structurally on society?

One aspect could simply be raising awareness about the issue. For instance, Worthington tells us of an artist, Lowkey who wrote a song called Ghosts of Grenfell. “Lowkey is not part of the mainstream music world, but he has this huge grassroots following,” Worthington said.

He believes this is significant because Lowkey is just like the residents of Grenfell, he is from that area and of the same economic background, his fanbase was small yet he still managed to reach nearly 800,000 people online.

The video itself shows how an injustice has been done and above all just as Worthington did himself memorialises the victims. The purpose of protest song remains the same as it did all those years back in the 60s: to get some accountability for the victims of injustice.

As Randall pointed out we live in a time of the ‘populist right’, this has come to mean that unfortunately a certain amount of hate amounts towards other races and nationalities.

It’s interesting that under Obama it seemed as if racism was finally an issue of the past or at least it was getting that way. Similarly, Worthington highlights the fact that America electing a black President is symbolically huge, so Trammell’s theory of pop music being linked to escapism and joy makes perfect sense.

Worthington thinks there has been a big shift in mood, musically, politically and racially. He talks about how he was in the States the night before Trump’s inauguration: “I had these friends that put together this organisation called ‘refuse fascism’ about what they perceive is the threat of Donald Trump and of Mike Pence.”

The ‘refuse fascism’ organisation put on a concert with a load of New York’s top jazz musicians. He noted that the majority of those musicians weren’t white. “I could see that they knew what it meant to have a white racist in the white house.”

Just like that, a sombre atmosphere descended across the country. The jazz musicians Worthington mentioned couldn’t have been a better metaphor for the rest of society. This is even more evident when looking at the size of the list of the musicians who refused to perform at the President’s inauguration. From Kiss to Kanye West, musicians were mirroring the thoughts of the people who were generally rejecting the new President, granted from the more left side of the spectrum politically. 

This throwback of racism doesn’t stop in America. It’s sad to say that we too in the United Kingdom have opted out of our self-made problems by blaming international immigrants. Worthington wrote the satirical song I want my country back (from the people that want their country back).

He said the song is about “the people blaming what they perceived to be wrong with the country is not the fault of the EU, its the fault of domestic government policies put in place over the years.”

Since the 1980s communities around the UK have been treated with contempt by the government. Worthington understands that these people have a right to be angry but this anger was then directed at foreigners coming into the country because immigration rates have risen over the past years. Whereas the anger should have been directed at the government.

Worthington is not the only one, Mark Beaumont writes about a rise in post-Brexit punk austerity anthems. He mentions Vant, a London four-piece who’s album Dumb Blood tackles everything from “Syria, US gun laws, global warming, religion, the rise of ‘an accidental Nazi generation’.”

The frontman Mattie is not ashamed to discuss these issues saying the band is not political per se but in today’s world of constant internet information overload it’s hard to avoid it.

“You can’t scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feed without stumbling on articles that have relevance and importance, so kids are way more switched on, but it only exists online.” He urges people to engage in active protest once more. If this isn’t reflective of the digital society we live in we don’t know what is.

As well as keeping us connected, the world of digitisation has seemed to engulf us into a world of materialism. Possibly this could be a reason for a perceived dip in politically fuelled music.

“We live in a very atomised, diverted time, everyone’s got a phone, you don’t have to be bored anymore,” Worthington says. This means people are less worried about what is happening around them, leaving the decision making to a very few group of people. This produces a younger generation following social media idols who glamorise wealth over promoting a positive message.  

“I think a lot of the thrust of popular culture is about materialism and getting rich and that really isn’t going to change the world,” Worthington tells us.

You only have to have a look at the charts to see this. Particularly the trap scene coming out of Atlanta, these guys are showing wealth and status unlike any other. Tirhakah Love describes this attitude in hip-hop as nihilistic. This is the music of influence right now breaking streaming records constantly.

Just look at Numb by 21 Savage with the lyrics: “Numb the pain with the money.” 64 million streams on Spotify alone. This attitude of materialism and nihilism could be interpreted in a number of ways.

Are they simply trying to escape a life of poverty and murder? Could it be as Trammell predicted, a hopelessness in the face of Trump and the far right regime? Most likely both of these influences apply to make this music.     

Finally, Worthington shares a story of the reality of the music business, perhaps a blockade in the way of true political and cultural reflection. Worthington’s friends in the states, The Peace Poets wrote a song called I Can’t Breathe after a killing of a black man by the police.

He told us how Beyonce picked up on this song and wanted to sample it. However, the day before it was going to be released news arrived that the Black Lives Matter movement had been allegedly involved in the killing of a policeman. So the record company dropped the song as suddenly it became politically contentious.

“I used this example because it’s indicative of the power that the corporate music world has. Don’t do anything contentious because it will affect the money they’re all making,” Worthington says.

Putting the cynicism of a doomed and depressed world behind us for a second, another perspective at today’s music is possible. Anamik Saha is an author and lecturer at Goldsmith University: “I would say that we are limiting ourselves to music being political only if it has a political message attached to it.”

Saha believes that the lyrics, not even the intention of the song, has to be political for it to serve a political purpose. He points to grime music as an example. It can be said that through artists like Stormzy and Dave a political aspect is purposely present in the music.

On the bigger scale, this music is angry and is often about violence and money. Saha argues that it’s these very traits which define the sound as political: “It’s the sound itself and how it represents rebellion and resistance or at least the voice of the marginalised.”  So this is what we can learn from our current society, much like through punk in the 70s, we are trying to rebel from the right wing and austerity.

There are two main ways music can influence society. One would be through “music as a political message, it encourages dialogue and conversation amongst people who come together and form a consensus,” Saha tells us. This is the traditional, Vietnam-style protest song, which tries to be purposely political through its lyrics.

Saha is sceptical about the real impact of this kind of music. He uses Band-Aid 30’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? as an example: “Listening to that now it still felt like this was more of a promotional tool rather than something that’s really going to solve the problem of famine in Africa.”

That’s the problem with using music as a direct means of protest if it’s forced it will not portray an accurate representation of society. After all, music is a commodity and one which primarily aim is to make money.

Saha goes on to say that no doubt the song went on to make lots of money for charity but then there’s the issue as to whether the money was spent on the people that actually needed it. “In the end, it still feels a little weird talking about political songs which exist as commodities. To what extent does that undermine the politics of the song itself?”

The other option is music simply bringing people together. “There might not be a political message attached here but there is an ability to produce forms of community and solidarity,” Saha says. Basically, this is the idea that music is the medium for bringing people together across difference, across time and across space.

Saha gives an excellent example of how non-political music can be used in a political way. 2011 saw a student protest against the abolition of the EMA (the educational maintenance allowance). Where lots of cuts had been made to the money given to kids from lower-income backgrounds along with raising tuition fees for students.

The protest itself took place in Westminster and saw students alongside school kids from various backgrounds and age groups. All these people were new to the protest scene and with them brought their own music.

Two soundtracks which become famous as being related to this demonstration were Pow by Lethal Bizzle and Next Hype by Tempa T. Both grime songs and both songs about violence, but they became soundtracks to the movement because of the nature of the sound, not the lyrics.

“The sound itself was abrasive angry and subversive and energetic and galvanised the people on the protest that day,” Saha tells us. That very protest became known for having galvanised and overpowering the police. 

Going back to the Lennon quote, the music reflects society rather than suggests it. We live in a time of great political change. As Randall said politics is polarising as people become disillusioned with traditional government.

We can see this in our music, as artists produce music drenched in nihilism and little optimism. It leaves many wondering where is the politics in our music, like in the golden ages of revolution.

But as Saha suggests the politics of music is much more complicated than a straightforward protest song. It’s about the nature of the sound which drives people to come together, rebel and question society’s values.   




You can find out more about Andy Worthington on Facebook and Online

Feature image by Mike Maguire  via Flickr CC 

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