Suzanne Moore takes politicians to task in today’s Guardian, triggered by me asking David Cameron about the Smiths at Prime Minister’s questions this week (as I said he “claims to be” a fan). She saysÃÂ “Most of them don’t even like music.”Â and goes on, a tad lazily, to base her argument on the admittedly dodgy choice of songs that accompany senior politicians on and off stage at Labour conference each year. Chosen by party staff, by the way, not politicians. If I’d had my way that Reef song would have been binned years ago. And as for the year they used “If the Kids are United”Â to play us out”Â¦Cringe! But it’s mood music, for mass consumption; it’s not meant to be meaningful.
Suzanne makes a perfectly valid point about the horror of people choosing songs and not paying attention to the lyrics, but that’s hardly confined to politicians. REM’s “The One I Love”Â was a perennial favourite on “Our Tune”Â. “Perfect Day”Â is about heroin, but no-one seems to have told Susan Boyle. The truth is, most politicians are no different to the vast majority of the population, including journalists. Their tastes tend to the bland, to the mainstream. They take the music they’re given. They like listening to it, but it doesn’t mean that much to them.
But it’s not true of all of us. Unlike Ed and David Miliband, who learnt their politics at their Marxist intellectual father’s knee, it’s no exaggeration to say that I discovered left politics through avidly reading the NME every week. In the late 70s/ early 80s, when I hit my late teens, music and politics gelled like never before. The rise of Thatcherism was documented in punk’s explosion of anger; in Joy Division and Gang of Four’s industrial bleakness; in the Specials’ “Ghost Town” topping the charts as inner-city Britain rioted; in Robert Wyatt’s “Shipbuilding” as plaintive soundtrack to footage of the Falklands War”Â¦
But despite this perfect collage of politics/ punk/ pop/ protest, the Tories stayed in power for 18 years. And as they won election after election the anger kind of fizzled out”Â¦ We still hated the Tories, but it was more a dull depressive anger, not a call to arms.
Yes, music was still ”Ëpolitical’ in spurts. Rap of course: Public Enemy, NWA, the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopcrisy. Even Eminen was political, just because he was so damn angry. Britpop was more the personal as political; the working-class swagger of the Stone Roses and the Mondays, and of course Pulp’s supreme articulation of both resentment and pride in being “A Different Class”. (We now have a Prime Minister who claims that “The Queen is Dead” is his favourite album but who camped out overnight in the Mall as a teenager to watch the Royal Wedding. What better time could there be for a Pulp reunion?)
I don’t know where the protest songs of today will come from. There’s stuff out there – obscure bands, the occasional gem – but the Labour Party has for a long time been stuck in a Billy Bragg concert comfort zone. (Nothing wrong with Billy”Â¦ Well, apart from his support for the Lib Dems at the last election. He’s got some grovelling to do.)
Too many of the angry young men of the punk era have become the grumpy old men of today. My mates sit there ranting at the TV. I tell them “I know what I’m doing about it”Â¦ what are YOU going to do?”Â It’s not enough to be armchair anarchists or sofa socialists. Music shouldn’t be something which assuages your anger at what this Government is doing, it should be a spur to action. As John Harris wrote recently in the Guardian,ÃÂ “Someone out there, please pick up a guitar and howl.”
Conor Pope, (a 19 year old student, his Dad’s a former Labour MP who once took part in a stage invasion at a Clash gig, so he’s been well-brought up) blogged the other week on how the kids ‘kettled’ in Whitehall ended up dancing in the street….
“At 7:29pm, after it had been dark for many hours, we were huddled on the cold, metallic barriers outside one of the government buildings, demoralised and shivering. Then the dubstep stopped, and through the sporadic, unfocussed chants we heard the unmistakable sound of ”ËOne Step Beyond’ by Madness pumping through the amps.
Now, I’ve never been a dancer, I’m too gangly, dyspraxic and joyless. But I danced my heart out. Dancing became so much more than I ever thought it could be… It served so many different purposes. It warmed us, far better than any paltry or toxic fires had done. It took our minds off the hunger. It lifted our spirit and unified us. We were protesting through the medium of dance. Madness, The Specials, Rage Against the Machine, The Clash, Hendrix, NWA, The Beatles, A Tribe Called Quest, The Strokes – I could write a whole blogpost twice as long as this about the music alone.
We quickly regained the humour that we’d lost throughout the day (Is “Clegg & Cameron can suck my Ed Balls”Â the most disturbing protest sign ever?) with choices of song. ”ËI Fought The Law’ was a personal favourite. The law had won this time, we knew that, but that didn’t mean they’d broken our spirit.
Every time a song finished, the police had closed in a little bit more… It was like a surreal, menacing game of musical statues. They slowly, but surely, ushered us into a queue and, after seven hours of being trapped on Whitehall and two and a half hours of dancing like I’d never danced before, they let us out.”
There’s a whole new generation being politicised, almost overnight, by the toxic actions of this ConDem government. They’re taking to the streets, they’re occupying their universities; they’re angry and articulate and organised. And the old songs are great. But how long will the new generation have to wait before it gets its own soundtrack? (John Robb tells me there’s plenty of music out there, but all the students I know are listening to their Dad’s record collections.)
Back to Suzanne Moore. She says “I can’t imagine a better world without a better soundtrack”Â”Â¦ Well neither can I. But it wasn’t politicians who put X-factor finalists at number one.
We’re always being told that politicians should be more in touch with, more representative of the people who elected them. In opting for safe, sanitised music, for the triumph of marketed, manipulated, mass-produced puppets over genuine creativity and thrills, well, that’s exactly what politicians are doing.
Those of us who think that musicÃÂ matters, who want our music to be edgy and exciting, to move us, to motivate us, to make us think we can change the world”Â¦ We’ve always been in the minority. And we probably always will be.