Why Do Most British Musicians Not Give a Shit About the Politics That Affect Their Fans?
In the NME this week, you can find 23 artists talking politics, and the takeaway message is damning.
Yesterday Russell Brand’s interview with Ed Miliband caused a furore, as people tried to work out whether the sight of two people who don’t like the power of corporations but don’t really know what to do about it would be a turn on for voters. You might think that, with a week till polling day, Miliband might have better things to do than hang around a converted loft in Shoreditch. But according to everyone, from The Guardian to the Telegraph to the Financial Times this was Miliband’s only chance to reach young disaffected voters who don’t care about party politics.
Where did this idea come from that young people are all massive fans of Russell Brand, the 40-year-old stand-up comic and former Radio 2 host? Are there loads of kids on the backs of buses loudly blaring The Trews from their phones that I haven’t seen? According to YouGov, the average Russell Brand fan is in fact women, aged 25-39, who already read The Guardian and spend over 50 hours per week online. 18-24, the demographic politicians typically think of as “youth”, actually comes third after fans 40-59.
What young people do care about, pretty much universally, is music. When musicians engage politically, it can galvanise young people in a way politicians can only dream of. Which is why it was heartening to see this week’s issue of NME is dedicated to the election. Sure, that magazine’s readership might not be all that young either, but at least it’s an opportunity for young musicians to engage in a meaningful way with the society that bore them.
On the cover, The Prodigy can be seen wielding their hot take that all politicians are “crooks and liars” and Alex James discusses his relationship with cheese and David Cameron. As expected there. There are also responses from 23 artists on if, how and why politics enters their own work. It’s worth highlighting at this point that 21 of them are white, 19 are men, and 4 are women, so somehow the NME managed to be even less representative than parliament, but it also doesn’t excuse the state of some of the responses.
Let’s start with Chilli Jesson of Palma Violets, a band with a genuinely young fanbase who present themselves as gnarly unwashed tearaways and came to fame(?) playing in squats and parties. “I feel like we’ve got a lot more to write about before the political stuff. During the punk era everyone was writing about it, but everything is so fucking politically correct now that if you say something out of line it’s almost like you’re trying to provoke. When I look back at footage from the punk era, it seems that there was more to fight against. At the moment, I think it's everyone for themselves in a weird kind of way.”
Johnny Marr then bemoans that “Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be many people talking about politics in music,” then follows it up with “I think it’s a buzzkill, and no-one wants to put that out there.”
And then finally to Faris Badwan of The Horrors, who says, “Politics doesn’t mean anything to me. The stuff that gets discussed on Newsnight isn’t relevant to me and it’s pretty much not relevant to anyone [...] I just think voting is for people who don’t have their own imagination. It’s for a different generation.”
I mean, it’s not too hard to work out why Faris Badwan, educated at Rugby, the second most elitist public boarding school in the country (after the one David Cameron went to) isn’t bothered about people languishing in poverty while economic inequality increases. But how did it get to the point that young, supposedly rebellious musicians are so disconnected from the political realities of their fans?
Just to reiterate, that reality looks a little bit like this: young people are nearly three times as likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population and if that figure doesn’t change soon Iain Duncan Smith wants them to start picking up litter to earn their benefits, escalating national poverty finds over a million people in the UK relying on food banks to survive, meanwhile, Britain’s richest have doubled their wealth in the last ten years. I understand that some parts of EU fishery regulations don’t make for great pop songs, but right now it’s so easy to be political in music, when there are such glaring indignities being gleefully forced on those with nothing by a tiny elite of people who all felt each other up at the same boarding school.
Chilli Jenson’s claim that there was “more to fight against” in the punk demonstrate both a depressingly unimaginative refusal of alternatives to society today, and such a obscenely rose-tinted retromaniac version of history that he appears to be nostalgic for the struggles of the past.
I’m not sure what greater issues there are that the communal “we” has to overcome ahead of widespread poverty, working class families facing eviction so their homes can be turned into luxury flats, or the fact that benefit cuts are literally killing vulnerable people, but I’m certain that absolutely none of it validates Palma Violets being compared to The Clash. And Johnny “politics is a buzzkill” Marr seems to have forgotten that he literally made a career off The Smiths’ two defining characteristics of anti-Thatcherism and misery. Perhaps everyone would do well to revisit “The Queen Is Dead” and then decide whether or not it's possible to make a politically charged song you can also throw shapes to.
Of course, you don’t have to write about hot-button election issues to be political. In the same feature, Ghetts makes the good point that grime is inherently political because it vocalises the experiences of those who aren’t often heard: “You could say that grime was political. We were just kids, speaking about things that we were seeing on an everyday basis, so I didn’t really look at it like that. But in retrospect you can see grime was speaking up for a culture that didn’t get heard, and that’s why people took to it.” Similarly, Emmy The Great rightly says, “I’ve always felt that as a female DIY artist, just the act of making music was political.”
But the structural political significance never seems to be reflected by artists themselves, who repeatedly tend to shy away from questions of power and politics, in both their interviews and their lyrics. The main obstruction between modern music and politics seems to be that politics just isn’t FUN, and that’s a reflection of our culture in itself. Every day, we are presented with so much information and so many distractions that some people would understandably prefer to take a BuzzFeed quiz to find out what kind of hummus best reflects their personality than involve themselves in anything reflecting genuine activism. Music is one of the few things that provides people with a genuine sense of relief and enjoyment, so if you spend all week complaining about your shitty job the last thing you want to do with your evenings is listen to/go to see a band whose main thing is go to: “Hey! Remember your shitty job? How shit is that? That’s Cameron’s fault, that is.”
The problem is, if you’re outspoken or people think of you as a political artist, that’s all you are. You’re the one people pay money to see live and then end up rolling their eyes at anything you say between songs, thinking: “Not this shite again...” So it's hard to bridge the gap between party politics, and just pure party. If you lean more to the former, “You don’t make many friends,” as Tom Clarke from The Enemy put it.
For some reason, political apathy seems to be a Very British Problem. There are so, so many artists outside of the UK proving that politically charged music can also be really entertaining music. Just take a look at Lorde’s repeated message of anti-capitalism, the success of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”, Kanye West constantly challenging power structures, Azealia Banks starting the biggest discussion about hip-hop and race we’ve seen this century, or Mykki Blanco’s work for LGBT rights, for example. Politics is everywhere.
So why are we left with Jonathan Higgs from Everything Everything telling us to “Leave that [politics] to the news and charities, we’re a band”? In the UK, many of our musicians - pop stars especially - serve to prop up the power structure rather than seek to challenge it. You get no sense from the top UK artists - Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Ellie Goulding, Rita Ora, Calvin Harris - that they’re at all concerned with the political realities of their own fans. Whether this is to do with Britain's overall political apathy or the increasing amount of upper-class artists dominating our charts, I’m not sure, but to quote one of the best comments in the NME feature: “It’s crucial that people should be politically aware, and it doesn’t have to stop you having fun. It doesn’t take away from what the music’s about.”
That quote came from Bez. As in, Bez, the one that does the maracas in Happy Mondays. Bez who made a professional career out of taking all the drugs. Bez whose Wikipedia page is titled "Bez (dancer)". Bez the leader of the We Are The Reality Party. Bez who forgot to register his We Are The Reality Party with the Electoral Commission, meaning nobody can actually vote for him. Bez who made this advert.
When Bez is more politically righteous and engaged than almost anyone else in the British music landscape, there is a serious problem.
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