I recently read a piece in the Guardian newspaper about the changing relationship between music and politics, and who is into which, in Britain. Where once musicians spoke out against the government in no uncertain terms, a recent interview with Britain’s Conservative Party leader David Cameron reveals that he was, and is, a fan of many of the bands who did so in the 1980s. This includes the Jam and the Smiths – decidedly anti-Conservative and anti-Margaret Thatcher bands who laid out their views pretty candidly. This has caused a number of musicians – including Paul Weller, who wrote a number of anti-Tory songs while fronting the Jam – to scratch their heads in wonderment. Here is a great quote from Weller himself about Cameron’s recent admission that the Jam were and are one of his favourite bands:
“It’s like, which bit didn’t he get?” he says. “It’s strange, but the whole nature of politics has shifted, hasn’t it? The stark contrasts of Thatcherism and socialism have gone: you can’t really tell who’s Brown or Cameron or anyone else. I don’t know what Cameron’s for or against, really…'”
Weller goes on to elaborate on the business of fronting an anti-Tory band in the 1980s, not knowing that many of those in the audience would become leaders of the very party being criticized on stage. If Weller had been told that there were probably ardent, or soon-to-be ardent, Tories in the audiences he played to in the early 80s, Weller had this to say:
“I’d have been really, really surprised. I think I pretty much nailed where I was at to the mast. But people come to gigs for different reasons: it isn’t necessarily about what the person on stage is singing. But at the same time, you do think, ‘Well, maybe this’ll change their minds.'”
I mention a cue-card that featured in the video for the Jam’s 1982 single Town Called Malice, which featured the slogan “If we ain’t getting through to you, you obviously ain’t listening”. “How prophetic that was,” he says, drily.
You can read the entire article here.
I think that this brings up a number of issues about how effective a vehicle music is perceived to be in politicizing an audience, and what the dynamics are between artist and audience as far as conveying and interpreting that sort of information. I do think part of the dynamic at work is a generational one as much as a political one. Entire generations of people have grown up in an era where the forces which drive political agendas are less about ideology, and more about self-interest and economic leverage. And perhaps this is why it’s harder and harder to tell whether or not any given political platform is Tory or Labour, Liberal or Conservative, Democrat or Republican. If it serves the non-partisan goal of securing a financial foothold in some way, then it’s fair game. I certainly believe this to be true of the Iraq War, which is as much about defending democracy as nuclear physics has to do with the Three Stooges.
The underlying point of the article to me is that criticizing the government is not the same as it once was. This could certainly account for the decidedly lacking amount of political commentary in pop music and in the arts today overall. But, perhaps the more pertinent point is that where once we knew where the lines were upon which to base political debate, it seems that those lines are now less defined, or even entirely absent. To me, this has sinister implications.
What do you think, good people? Is this article proof that politics and music don’t mix? O, is it the artist’s job to comment on society, no matter who gets or doesn’t get it?