Category Archives: Politics

‘No More Heroes’: The death of musical protest

NB: For each artist I’ve mentioned I’ve linked to a YouTube video of one of their political songs (and included a Spotify playlist here: http://spoti.fi/GIc8M1), so you can have a listen while you read, should you be so inclined. All except for Bob Dylan, because apparently he, or Sony Media Entertainment, don’t believe in this whole YouTube thing. They’re right though, you know. YouTube will never catch on…

‘What ever happened to protest songs?’ The thought has stayed with me for a couple of days now, ever since my media player’s shuffle – my eternal nemesis and occasional best friend – threw up ‘Tomorrow is a Highway’ by Pete Seeger. In the UK, amid unemployment, record public spending cuts, NHS reforms and ‘granny taxes’, some people are rather miffed. There have been strikes and street protests, opposition groups such as UK Uncut have formed, and those opposing cuts use media – old and new – to fight their corner. Around the world, from the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring, people are fighting for rights and justice. But there’s something missing.

Every resistance period in the latter half of the 20th Century had a soundtrack. 1960s to early 70s America, the era of McCarthyism and civil rights and anti-war protest, produced an incredible number of powerful, enduring political songs. Their writers and singers crossed pretty much every genre boundary: Folk and Country (Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Richie Havens), Soul and R&B (Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Edwin Starr), Rock and Pop (Creedence Clearwater Revival, Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles, The Doors), and even Reggae (Jimmy Cliff, Delroy Wilson).

Later periods of protest similarly saw politicised music. The late 70s – early 80’s saw a wave of ska and punk bands who railed against the politics of the day (The Clash, The Specials, The Beat, and the Sex Pistols being the most obvious). As the decade progressed and Thatcherism hit full-swing in the UK, so did musical opposition, with Folk once again all playing its part in popular resistance against Thatcherism (Rory McLeod, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg). International political events were covered too, with songs about South African apartheid, the Iranian Revolution and the Cold War. Similarly the late 80s to early 90s saw the renaissance of Hip-Hop-as-activism, highlighting popular anger against police brutality and social injustices affecting black communities in the US (N.W.A., Public Enemy, 2Pac, KRS-One)

So, given the many problems and crises of the 21st century so far – two disastrous wars easily comparable with Vietnam, the global recession, climate change – where is the soundtrack? Why are there no popular songs dedicated to the Occupy movement? Or songs from Western musicians about the Arab Spring? The only political music since the millennium that comes easily to mind are the pro-American country singers in America such as Toby Keith, and the admittedly long list of songs about 9/11. Though there were some protest songs in the 00’s, and taking into account the powerful effects of nostalgia on memory, none can be said to have the achieved mass-popularity or enduring status of previous eras.

In fact, what political music the decade did produce tended instead tended to come from older artists, filling a gap left by the politically apathetic or uncertain current generation of artists (Billy Bragg again, UB40). Those songs made by our generation’s musicians that are ostensibly political (e.g. Muse) are self-consciously presented by artists without discussion of context or agenda, meaning that any political message comes through as confused and oblique.

A possible reason for the lack of political music is the increasing commercialisation of the industry. The argument goes that, as record companies want to increase their profits as much as possible, they aren’t going to risk allowing bands to make overtly political statements which could divide their audience. Commercialisation is not new to music, however. After all, the most successful song of the Woodstock summer of 1969 was ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by manufactured bubblegum-pop band ‘The Archies’. The availability of modern non-commercial outlets (including YouTube) and the ease of self-publicity and promulgation through social media mean that the opportunity is there for artists to break away from commercial interests and create political anthems for our age. But why is this not being used? There are notable exceptions, such as the ‘Andrew Lansley Rap’ which protested NHS reforms last year and the work of occasional Rap-Satirist Dan Bull, but these are few and far between.

There are also examples of bands which try to promote a political perspective, but their artists now tend to use their celebrity to carry the message more than their music. Those who try, such as Bono or Chris Martin, have been successful in many of their aims, but are often sneered at and attacked for perceived excesses of piety and holier-than-thou attitudes. Our society loves to hate celebrities, and so the inevitable outcome of trying to use fame to promote a political viewpoint is now that people will thrill to find a way to discredit and point out inconsistencies and hypocrisies.

Maybe this can help explain why protest music has died. Having seen cycles of protest and disaffection for so many years, maybe society has simply stopped believing that things will be different. Perhaps we are also more selfish than at any point in our history. In the UK, the most powerful civil disobedience of the last 10 years has not been a protest or a demonstration – it has been a riot. And though the UK riots of last year had manifold subtle political and social causes, the ultimate direction behind it was not to change the status quo, or even to vent anger and frustration. Instead, the protest centred on ownership: trainers, televisions and trolleys full of food from Lidl.

Music is important to protest. It carries messages, speaks our minds, and motivates us to action by activating our emotions. Perhaps in some ways political music has been usurped by technology, with social media now the main vector for popular political communication. But there is more to it than that, and I suspect that the same cultural and psychosocial processes that are dampening directed political mass-protest in the West also inhibit its musical representation. Local and global political struggles mean that the ground is furrowed, ready for a new musical movement. Will we see one? Only time will tell.

PS: Clearly this article only really focuses on protest in the West. There is a significant musical component to the message of the ‘Arab Spring’, with the MENA region rising to a mixture of traditional political and religious songs with Rap and Hip-Hop. Sadly my Arabic and knowledge of local music isn’t good enough to delve deeply into this, but I can at least attest that every protest I have seen in my time here (usually pro- or anti-Assad) has involved demonstrators hooking up huge amps and blaring out chants and songs. It appears that the soundtrack of resistance is not silent everywhere.

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Harshtags: #Kony12 and moral cognitive dissonance

The dust has started to settle following the ‘Kony 2012’ social media bomb. Over the space of 2-3 days it exploded over social media sites and almost as swiftly as it arrived it dissipated, with Jason Russell’s breakdown seemingly providing a tragic full-stop to the public part of the campaign. To be clear: I don’t wish to debate the merits of Kony12 as a campaign, but instead want to look at the nature of the debate and what it means for well-meaning people who do not work in the political or development sector.

The most interesting part of the ‘Kony 2012’ charity meme has certainly not been the expert/academic moral debate itself. This has followed the standard patterns of polarisation among commentators. The video has its supporters, including the creators themselves who have earnestly stood up for their message and sought to spread it far and wide. Others have sought to attack it, citing inconsistencies or picking apart the campaign’s aims with almost gleeful relish. Media, too, have enjoyed stoking the fires on this one. I have lost count of the number of articles or news channels who have interviewed ‘real Ugandans’ to show how confused and outraged they are by the video. The media’s insensitivity regarding Jason Russell’s breakdown has perhaps been the nadir of this whole thing.

Neither has the spread of the video itself been that remarkable. It has propagated like a meme, similar to the Red Cross’ social media-heavy post-Haiti earthquake donation campaign, or any number of Avaaz initiatives. These so-called ‘slacktivism’ campaigns have also been the subject of an increasingly dreary debate, often from rival NGOs and their supporters, about whether they are ‘real’ activism and whether they can produce ‘real’ results. Let’s be clear on that – charity social media campaigns are not the same as physical activism, but that doesn’t make them all as offensively useless as many like to argue. There can be few more competitive industries than the charity sector, and certainly no group of people more concerned with feeling superior than those who work in it.

Instead, the most interesting part of #Kony12 must be the ever-increasing uncertainty of the public caught in the crossfire. The speed at which the debates now run means that people cannot afford to pin their support to a social media campaign, because they can be sure that a vehement, devastating critique will be spreading with equal virulence within a day. I’ve witnessed a number of people do a 180° about-face, first posting their “Stop Kony!!” support, and then posting one of any number of articles questioning Invisible Children’s dealings a day later. Many more simply hedged their bets, posting the video or articles with “I don’t know what I think of this” comments, stuck in an ever-deepening hole of moral cognitive dissonance. I’m a guilty-as-charged member of this latter group, partly because I couldn’t get the video to work on the not-exactly-win-ternet here in Lebanon. But it seems like an ever-increasing number of people are just waiting for someone to tell them what to believe, and the rabid competitiveness and self-righteousness of commentators is particularly unconstructive when trying to engage the general public. The danger is that people will  stop wanting to join campaigns, because they know that within minutes someone will turn up and try to make them feel stupid for doing so.

Here’s something we don’t like to think: people only engage in charity because it makes them feel good, and altruism is a myth. Agreed? Good. So if we want to engage non-‘charity people’ in our efforts to make the world a better place, we have to give them something in return, even if that thing is just a warm, fuzzy feeling of having done a ‘good thing’. Campaign organisers such as Invisible Children have a responsibility to ensure that their initiatives are open to challenge. Debate is vital for ensuring that initiatives are helpful and accountable. But the pompous glee with which some people publically attack campaigns (and I’m certainly not just talking about Kony12 here) goes well beyond reasonable critical debate, serving the critic’s ego but stripping away the positive kick other people get from being involved in something they feel is meaningful. An ever-increasing culture of cynicism and pessimism is perhaps the greatest common enemy of campaigners everywhere. We must be careful that the feelings of ‘righteousness’ that serve as our own reward for working in this sector do not come at the expense of other people’s attempts to change the world for the better.

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