Political Music: Powerful or Pretentious?

Listen to the voices of our generation, they call for change.

One only needs to look back a few years to see how, in 1969, Woodstock festival was one of the biggest and most powerful political manifestations of the 20th century, yet it was the most innocent and apolitical event that such people had probably attended in their lifetime. Peace, love, yoga, a few drugs and dozens of concerts under the hot August sun doesn’t sound like the most political demonstration in the context of the persistent protests against the Vietnam War.

However, millions decided that they didn’t have anything else better to do than listen to beautiful music and spread the “hippiest” vibes, dance and sing and be together, showing the world that there was something way better than bombs and letting thousands of innocent soldiers and civilians die in an unnecessary war. That’s what music did, and continues to do. Songs by Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Radiohead or even Black Eyed Peas, to name a few, have become symbols of communities that celebrate their sharing of ideals through the happy environment that music creates.

Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ or ‘Masters of War’ are just two examples of the large body of political music that the Nobel Prize laureate has written during his long career as one of the world’s most loved musicians. Dylan’s songs have represented a whole generation and continue to engage with the youth, spreading the values of peace and discontent that our governments, sadly, keep on rejecting and labelling as childish, ineffective and idealistic. Even John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, one of the most beautiful songs ever written and which can be considered a hymn of peace, has been criticised for representing an attitude of love that we took so long to achieve.

Indeed, we can’t expect music to become the main resource for our government’s policies. However, music has and continues to inspire millions, many of whom are those childish, idealistic young ones that, still, have historically been the generation of and for change. Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’, Radiohead’s ‘2+2=5’ or Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ are examples of the discontent with society that musicians have manifested, calling for change and embodying people’s disapproval with the norms of society.

For decades, political music has been the voice of its generations and has brought people together in periods of struggles, where hate easily grows and discontent emerges.  Especially nowadays, the music industry’s reach and importance has become essential in our everyday life, which means that a successful song can spread a message amongst millions and become a hymn and celebration of the values that it supports. While hundreds of contemporary chart songs contain sexist messages that unfortunately reflect situations that our society faces regularly, political songs are also the reflection of their political atmosphere.

However childish and useless music, as well as all types of art, might be seen by our world’s pragmatism, it does manage to bring people together. From Woodstock to this month’s ‘One Love Manchester’ and the hundreds of songs that have become the beautiful voices of their generations, music has proved to be itself a change, an escape from society’s darkness and a means through which people can share their ideas and ask the world with a common voice ‘where is the love?’. Music might not be the one that can produce change, but it does create a hymn for a community to share their ideals and call for change themselves.

Preaching to the Choir: n Exercise in Pretentious Politics

I can’t remember the precise moment when I went ‘off’ political music, I just slowly stopped listening to it, but I clearly remember the moment I realised I didn’t want to listen to it anymore. Rise Against had just released ‘The Black Market’, a vapid collection of political musings set to music. It seemed symptomatic of all the issues I had with political music. It was overly specific, musically generic and lyrically clumsy. That’s not to say Rise Against don’t have great songs – they do, but often when they move away from politics or are more general in their message.

Long gone are the halcyon days of Woodie Gutherie and Bob Dylan where people would assemble en masse to listen to well-crafted songs of ideals, not clear messages. In a Year 8 music class we were once told to try to dissect ‘Blowing in the Wind’ to find the political meaning behind it. Looking back now, the beauty of the song is the fact that it has no overt political message, it is a song that sums up core ideals of humanity. That is hardly a political act. Indeed, the only political album of the last decade I have found myself enjoying is The Hotelier’s ‘Goodness’, an avant-garde collection frontperson Christian Holden labelled an ‘anarchist, Taoist peace record’. Even though I enjoy it, I am unable to deny its pretentiousness and it only gets away with preaching owing to the subtlety of the message, the politics buried under natural imagery. I cannot, by contrast, stomach the band’s first album, ‘It Never Goes Out’, where the politics is on display clearly and boldly. Opening track ‘Our Lives Would Make a Sad, Boring Movie’ endorses the (albeit brilliant) anarchist principles of class-awareness, ‘de-education’, where children learn from practical experiences that interest them, and the right to a vocation for all. Sound like dry political topics? They do indeed, so just imagine how clumsily they come across in a 3-minute pop-punk song.

Ultimately, writers will imbue their songs with the values they hold dear. That is understandable, preventable even. The issue comes when these go beyond values, into political music. Political music sets out an agenda or an ideology – it is the idea that you should be taught politics by your favourite band. In the era of Gutherie and Dylan, people who were not politically aware would flock to see them in bars and concert halls and politics was genuinely taught; people were made more aware than they would otherwise be. For overtly political bands, their fans already share that ideology. There is no learning to be done and they are preaching to the choir.

In seeing the converted singing back to them, bands get the misconceived idea that it is their music that has politically awoken people. They return this with ever more specific and self-righteous songs and the cycle begins anew. When I spoke to Frank Turner last year, he called his song ‘Thatcher F**ked the Kids’ a mistake for narrowing his audience to only those who agreed with him (or thought they did at least, Frank later turned out to be a libertarian) and excluded others. Perhaps other musicians might wish to take a lesson from Frank.


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Mireia Molina and Nick Mason

February 2021
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