Monday, 13 February 2017

Sounds of the times

This is a blog piece that is still coalescing in my head as I'm typing it.

I've been thinking a lot about music as the soundtrack to our times these last few weeks, mainly because there seems to have been a fresh engagement with political commentary in a music context since Trump was elected.

I think there were stirrings of it last year (Will Varney's 'To Build A Wall' and Aimee Mann's 'Can't you tell?' for example) as well as a number of musical projects/songs that directly referenced Black Lives Matter (Beyonce's 'Formation', the whole of Solange's A Seat At The Table, Lady Gaga's 'Angel Down'...), but post Trump's inauguration, a number of song's have appeared conveying a sense of malaise (Allred and Broderick's 'The Ways', which was released the same day as Trump's inauguration) or else anger (Arcade Fire and Mavis Staple's 'I Give You Power')

I clearly recall, a few weeks ago, in the days after the presidential decree banning those from seven mainly Muslim countries from entering the US, and the subsequent protests around the world it generated, looking at a new music playlist in Spotify and finding song after song after song that just seemed to really accurately represent the prevailing mood. These weren't songs written for that situation, they were just songs that already existed that seemed to fit the mood, songs like Karl Blau's take on 'Fallin Rain' or The Pop Group's 'Zipperface'.

I'm coming to the gradual conclusion that there are many facets to the thorny issue of music and politics.

There are outwardly, explicitly politically motivated songs, or protest songs. (From 'Strange Fruit' to 'This Land Is Our Land' to 'Mississippi Goddamn', to 'Ohio', to 'Free Nelson Mandela', to Father John Misty's 'Pure Comedy', which Piccadilly Records recently dubbed unnervingly prescient, and many, many others)

There are songs that were not written as explicitly political songs, or as protest songs, but which then acquire a political dimension later on due to circumstances. Kind of the proverbial 'Being in the right place at the right time'. The classic example being Martha and the Vandellas 'Dancing In The Street', which became the soundtrack to the Detroit riots in 1967, and the Specials 'Ghost Town', which was number one in the UK charts the same week as most of the 1981 riots were happening.

There are performers who do not have a reputation/image as political artists, who do not write songs that are directly political, but who are engaging with politics on an individual basis. This is a difficult one to write about because it's more of a personal issue for those artists when they're off duty than it necessarily is part of their image when they're performing and I hold the opinion that what musicians get up to when they're off duty is their own concern, not mine. On the other hand, if they write about it on Twitter, it's in the public domain, but it's also still in the public domain in a personal, off duty, capacity, but how realistic is that when the whole way musicians engage with their fans has irrevocably changed in the social media age?

Which is a very long winded way of saying that, while left leaning Kate Bush fans have recently been left reeling by Kate Bush's endorsement of Theresa May, I've been happily digesting Florence Welch's tweet in support of the women's marches and her endorsement of the emergency protest outside Downing Street on 30th January against Trump's muslim ban. This is on top of the way that, in the latter stages of Florence + The Machine's How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful tour in 2016 'Spectrum' became a post Orlando shootings gay solidarity anthem, and the way that Welch handled the bands headline set at British Summer Time in Hyde Park, coming as it did eight days after the EU referendum result and on the same day as a pro EU march next door in Green Park. Can an artist be subtley, personally political rather than outright explicitly, all the time political? How are these decisions negotiated on a personal level by the artist in question? How do fans react to previously unpolitical artists making political statements?

On an easier level, I was pleased to see the return of Harry Potter to protest culture again. He had a definite cameo in the 2010 Student Protests and popped up again on placards at some of the anti Trump protests in January/February. 'Dumbledore wouldn't have stood for it' was a nice touch. This kind of reinforces what I said in 2010, which is that Harry Potter has become a kind of universal protest figure, an anti establishment icon, possibly because the millennial generation hasn't had a lot of protest music to grow up with and because Potter has had a more dominant role in their lives than perhaps music has. That might be too simplistic, but, one thing the Harry Potter books did was install an entire generation of kids with a clear sense of right and wrong and a kind of anti authoritarianism that seems to be standing them in pretty good stead.

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