PRotest Music


It was the tenth anniversary of the Iraq War protest (the biggest demo in British history) the other week, prompting a spate of reflections about whether the 2 million strong march really achieved anything. Most conclusions gravitated towards no, which then leads into a debate about whether or not protests are an entirely moribund form of political expression.

Laurie Penny in the New Statesman went as far as to suggest that the failure of peacefully shuffling from one rally point to another to change anything has put young people off mainstream politics altogether.

Penny goes on to suggest that alternative movements are thriving as a consequence.  Presumably, she means community organisations focused on changing lifestyles, not policies, such as the transition towns or direct action groups like UK Uncut.
Frankly, this is incredibly optimistic. There are only a tiny number of people who have heard of these organisations, let alone engaged with them.

Its more likely that most people just dont give a shit. Or more accurately, theres a general sense that were all being fucked over by big businesses and the super rich, but there isnt anything anybody can do about it.

And while theres football, and box-sets and cool stuff on the internet (check out this footage of fish encroaching onto dry land in order to attack pigeons
and everyone is rubbing along ok, theres not much point in complaining about it. Things could always be worse.

What serious commentators, even in radical/academic literature, tend to ignore is the complicity of culture, and music in particular, in fostering the climate of apathy.
There is no form of modern mainstream popular music that is any sort of force for social change in the UK, which is almost unprecedented over the past 50 or so years.

Obviously 60s youth culture was closely entwined with wider political struggles (eg the nuclear arms race, civil rights and the Vietnam war), not to mention the inferred challenge to sexual repression and racism

Punk was a very conscious go fuck yerself to the establishment.

And even in the late 80s and early 90s, music was integral to the various protests against various causes that flickered sporadically throughout the period.

Ostensibly, the links between the nascent environmental movement; the anti-poll tax riots; the road protests; the campaign against the criminal justice act; and the people who lay in the road in front of lorries transporting cows to Europe werent immediately apparent, beyond the fact that they are all generally progressive causes concerned with making the world a nicer, kinder place to live. Probably the main thing that united them was the people involved and the music they listened to.

Bands of that era like Neds Atomic Dustbin, the Wonderstuff and the Levellers were nt necessarily any good, but they had a pretty mainstream following, and a political message opposing all the bullshit that the Tory Government of the era was trying to pull was integral to their music. Listening to it meant buying into that agenda. The same was basically true of attending a rave at that time, or going to a festival (CND and the New Age Travellers were still integral to Glastonbury throughout the 80s and 90s, for example).

Although there are pictures supposedly showing David Cameron at a free party in the late 80s, the values of the various music scenes kicking around at the time were generally anathema to his kind of thoughtless, money-driven conservatism.
In contrast, there arent really any contemporary artists who make any sort of political cause central to their music.
And this matters.

Though the criminal justice act went through in 1994, the roads building programme and the poll tax were scrapped, and environmental protection measures have been consistently strengthened since the late 80s, when Britain was considered the dirty man of Europe.
Genuinely widespread outrage involving young people who cant buy access to politicians or manipulate the media was a key part of these successes.

Fast forward to today, and the Government is tripling the cost of University, privatising the NHS piece-by-piece and maintaining a bust economic model that allows a tiny elite to rinse the proceeds of other peoples labour, making them even richer while everyone elses wages stagnates.
Some Tories even want to scrap the climate change act, and restart a new roadbuilding programme.

Music is a means of resisting this bullshit, and it is currently failing in that respect. Perhaps as pertinently, if music, as an artform, does not challenge or question the values and practices of society, then it becomes empty and meaningless. Historically, there havent been many worthwhile bands or genres that hasnt been linked to a wider counter-cultural movement. Perhaps thats why so many scenes/artists today feel so lightweight and temporary by contrast.

In the excellent BBC4 documentary Krautrock: the Rebirth of Germany Wolfgang Seidel of Tor Steine Scherben discusses how his band and other experimental German groups like Kraftwerk, Neu! And Tangerine Dream were a response to the cheesy, light-entertainment schlagermusik popular on German TV at that time:

He states that on the surface, schlager wasnt political at all, but thats what makes it political, noting that the Nazi regime invested heavily in a similar bland, inoffensive pop industry designed to sedate the masses.  

Watching the documentary, (its still on youtube) its striking how Scherben and his peers saw their music as an explicitly political statement, and were of the view that it couldnt be in anyway lasting or meaningful if it wasnt.  It would be great if more people involved with creating, promoting and listening to music thought the same today.

Austin Tasseltine