Music & Politics: A Lost Relationship


Written by Ellie Moore
23 Monday 23rd March 2015

Broaching the topic of young voters over breakfast, my nostalgic mum declared that she feels sorry for my generation. “We were whipped into a frenzy by bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols,” – cue the dreamy-eyes – “We felt that we had a voice, and that what we had to say mattered. These days, you’ve got Ed Sheeran, Adele or Sam Smith droning on about lost love. Very few mainstream musicians get angry about real issues anymore.”

She has a point. And it set me wondering whether perhaps this is what’s needed for us ‘young’ folk to start appreciating our right to vote like we used to – drivers who don’t belong to a party. We’re generally quite cynical of the government and have an interest in political change, but don’t necessarily see voting as the catalyst to this. We’ve not got the roaring and rebellious bands paving the way for reform, spurring the power of the people and encouraging them to speak their mind, vote, and make a difference. We’ve got muppets like Russell Brand harping on about deceit and discouraging all those who look up to him from using the system to let our political preferences be known. Music has a resounding effect on popular trends, fashions and opinions among young people more than any other demographic. Bands like Coldplay and Radiohead are all very middle class and comfortable. Where are all the angry young men and women? A new, passionate, politically driven music movement wouldn’t be great news for the Tories, as the nature of the angry, tormented musical beast is always going to be left of centre.

There were the protest songs of the sixties, the angry punks of the seventies and…then what? Music was a form of resistance against established power, often showing its effectiveness as a force for social change. The U.S. in particular has bred plenty of revolutionary musicians and songwriters penning political messages through story-songs that have enthused interests and changed minds.

Billie Holiday turned executions in the South in to ‘Strange Fruit’ hanging from trees. Aretha Franklin inspired Civil Rights Movements in the 60s by bringing her gospel sounds to protestors in the streets, encouraging everyone to stand up and demand ‘Respect’. More recently, Bruce Springsteen has continually touched on an ever-growing regulated and corporate world, referencing identity struggles and inhibitions for those living within it. Victor Jara created songs about Chile’s struggle with military dictatorships, sparking the Nueva Cancion (New Songs) movement that inspired South Americans to rise up and replace them with democracies.

Pre-millennium Britain had a roster of talent to add to this list. The Clash released ‘White Riot’ aiming to encourage disaffected young white people to riot like their black peers at the time. Their album ‘Sandinista!’ featured an extensive list of songs inspired by political issues outside of Britain; notably, ‘The Call-up’ was a prolific rumination on 1980 US draft policies.

Rock historian Mikal Gilmore recalls a 1977 music festival in Belgium where 20,000 people were separated from their idols by a ten foot-high barbed wire fence. Joe Strummer leapt from the stage in efforts to knock it down. They’d rather run the risk of the audience getting on stage than condone holding them back like caged animals. They were the only artists at the festival who made any noise about the set-up. According to Gilmore, this was their political and social gumption in a nutshell; ‘fighting the good fight that few others would’.

Who will be the next Springsteen, Franklin, or Clash? And why aren’t we hearing their young voices on the radio today? Ultimately, I don’t believe it’s the means by which we vote or the failing campaigns that are the problem. I think it’s that we aren’t enthused by the concept of voting in general, that we don’t necessarily see how it makes any difference if we do or if we don’t.

So, as the election looms and we all try to encourage younger generations to appreciate their right to vote, perhaps we should ask the question: What would Joe Strummer do?

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