Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Popular Music and Political Dissent

John Harris' recently wrote an interesting piece in The Guardian about the lack of political dissent in popular music. He says that, given our political and economic situation it would be very surprising if popular music didn't provide a response. However, the thrust of the article is that, political dissent has been so lacklustre for so long it seems unlikely that it will suddenly come to life now. Sadly, I think he's broadly correct here, as far as the decline of dissent in popular music goes, the times are not so much 'a-changing' as 'a-changed '.

This trend has many reasons but a key one is undoubtedly that the idea of “counter-culture” as defined by the sixties generation is all but dead now. As Harris points out, “the spirit of protest in pop music is often seen as the preserve of an earlier generation, something we should venerate but not actually reinvent”. To illustrate this point, Harris refers to one of the most talked-about albums in the States at the moment, "Wake Up", by singer John Legend and hip hop group, The Roots. Its reworking of classic "consciousness-raising" songs coming across less as a comment on the times and more, “sepia tinted radical-chic".

Taken at face value, it does seem surprising that nobody is busily re-inventing the spirit of the 60s and the 70s. There are after all, just as many black clouds now as there were then, they had Vietnam and the Cold War, we have two deeply unpopular wars, a financial crash and a deepening environmental crisis. Hard times in the UK after all, helped to spawn punk and the New Romantic movement and the last big recession in the UK was a significant factor in the growth of Rave so it seems reasonable to ask why aren't there analogous movements now. Some people might say that young people these days are simply too apathetic and narcissistic, interested more in escapism and self-indulgence. This however is the same thing older generations have said about the younger generation since time immemorial. Its the same tired cliché and it tells us simply that older people are sometimes bitter and jealous of the young.

The problem is less one of apathy and more one of radical disenchantment and a mood of stoical “realism”. Since the heady days of the hippy generation a lot has changed; Thatcherism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the discrediting of traditional leftist positions and New Labour being four particularly significant (and intimately connected) changes. Since the early 1990s the doctrine of “no alternative” has taken root and Capitalist realism (to use a term coined by Mark Fisher is his book of the same name) is the prevailing ideology. People might not be very happy with this ideology but there is a fatalistic acceptance that what is happening politically and economically is part of history's inevitable destiny.

For evidence of this in popular music, the rise of hip hop to global dominance speaks volumes. One of the big success stories of the 1990s was Gangta rap, a type of music that often reflected a deep disaffection with the wider world and a nihilistic portrayal of it as a Hobbesian war of all against all. As Simon Reynolds wrote in a 1996 essay in The Wire magazine , rather than offering hope that things could change it sold us a version of "realness" which meant a world stripped of sentimental illusions, a brutal Darwinian struggle. Its implicit message was about confronting a state-of-nature where dog eats dog, where you're either a winner or a loser (and probably a loser) In other words it perfectly reflected the “no alternative” doctrine and was thus the perfect soundtrack for the era. It was disenchanted yet radically pro-status quo whether it realised it or not. What's interesting about its popularity is that, despite it being borne out of the historically (very) specific experience of poor African Americans, people of all cultures, races and classes were fans. How did this happen, how did they relate and what were they getting from it? Sure the music was often amazing and you don't need to buy into an artist's world view to appreciate them but could it also be that it captured the Zeitgeist? Perhaps the success of Gangsta rap reflected the phenomena of disenchantment, combined with, acceptance of the status-quo that now seems to be all-pervasive.

Another issue for the more anti-establishment tendencies in popular music is that perhaps its also too middle aged and omnipresent to offer much in the way of radicalism. As Harris says in his article “perhaps a good deal of the story lies in pop's own passage into middle-age and the fact that its various incarnations now span not just most of the planet but almost the entire generational range. Ubiquity may have robbed it of its old counter-cultural charge; as it turned out, perhaps what some romantics call the People's Music is better suited to selling mobile phones than soundtracking revolt”. If music is everywhere and used to sell seemingly everything, is it still a valid vehicle for dissent? If you have seditious thoughts are you really going to use pop music as your platform in a world where Iggy Pop sells car insurance and Jonny Rotten sells butter. If your “alternativeness” will just be co-opted and sold back to you by the very system you're questioning perhaps its better to try something else. Given this, perhaps the politically-committed simple jumped off the pop music bandwagon and did something else.

Despite all of this, it would be nice to see popular music recovering at least some of its Promethean ambitions and perhaps the current situation in the UK is just that opportunity. Perhaps the doctrine of “no alternative” won but what's happening in the UK now is something else. To a lot of people, there is nothing “inevitable” about what's happening, it looks to many like a blatant and opportunist ransacking of the system for the benefit of the few. I doubt we will see a new “punk”, but I hope we'll see some sort of response .

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