Pop and protest

A few weeks ago I bought a friend of mine a copy of PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’ for his birthday. Last week it won the Mercury prize and, relating to a planned meet up, he texted me and said “And we need a big word about PJ Harvey.” I must admit I felt pretty smug about this. I have a flukily high hit rate of buying Chris albums that gain kudos over time. In retrospect, I look like a man of excellent taste who has his finger on the pulse of popular music. (I’m not. I don’t.)

This is all the more satisfying because we argue about almost everything and he initially dislikes almost everything I give him. I still treasure the text from him that concedes that Guy Garvey is a good lyricist. Although, actually, my most satisfying moment was buying him Jill Paton Walsh’s ‘Knowledge of Angels’, which he dismissed but then taught to his sixth form two years later.

Our most recent arguments have involved The Doors (I don’t care if I never hear them again) and Jonathan Franzen’s ‘Freedom’ which I thought was aimless, over long and arbitrary. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy his company. In many respects, he is my best friend.

So, on Friday, I waited for the subject of PJ Harvey to come up, with a couple of prompts ready just in case it looked as though he was going to talk about football. When it did though, I was taken aback. Chris’s view was that the pop song – and, to cut a long argument short, it *is* a pop album – was not the right vehicle to discuss war. Although Chris is a headmaster now, he was once an English teacher, so – impressed by my own improvisation – I riposted with the world war one poets. It transpires, however, that they *agonised* over whether it was appropriate to record the horrors of war in a contrived form.

Then, yesterday, the very interesting @themichaelmoran tweeted “Pop music had a lot to say about Vietnam, Civil Rights, Feminism, even a bit of Gay Rights. On the trauma of #911? Nothing I’m aware of”. We had a brief exchange culminating in him saying “… pop music abandoned its ambitions & merged with light entertainment”.

This set me thinking about two things: is pop music the right medium for a serious discussion and, given that it might be, has it ever been used effectively. And then maybe if I could reach some conclusion on those questions, maybe I could answer @themichaelmoran’s implied question.

I started listening to – and loving – pop music at a very young age. My dad brought me up on a diet of The Stones, some Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Dr Hook and The Beach Boys which I augmented with some Johnny Cash. Later I was infatuated by Abba and then, my first proper love, ska. But if ska was the fun loving girl next door, I was soon seduced by the heavily kohled and darkly fringed unconventional beauty of electronic music. Later, much later, my tastes became more diverse and then, like many a mid-twenties man before me, I started to look back at what I’d missed.

Now I have probably about four decades of music absorption to call on and I think I’d summarise my experience of protest music as follows:

60s/70s: Give Peace a Chance. Probably some stuff by Neil Young. Tom Robinson.
80s: Biko. Red Wedge. Live Aid. Other Aids.
90s: Nothing I can think of.
00s: Live 8 thing.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s probably a lot more than this and my flippant jaunt through the decades clearly omits some very important work by, for example, Nina Simone. But I’m just talking about my experience. And here comes my conclusion.

Pop music can be incredibly potent. I could probably, without trying too hard, list ten songs that can make the hair on the back of my neck stand up on end. Einstürzende Neubauten’s ‘Wüste’ would be one. Elbow’s version of ‘Mirrorball’ at Abbey Road would be another. But I can only think of one occasion on which that was properly combined with a political theme and that is on Peter Gabriel’s ‘Biko’, which is moving and evocative and, I think, manages to achieve exactly what Gabriel intended, which is to channel the feelings evoked by pop music into a protest.

But, really, I think that is the exception. My belief is that the sixties were defined by a youthful rebellion that couldn’t suffer the war-tainted mien of the older generation any longer. The colour, the freedoms, the wilful experimentation of the sixties was an unconscious and culturally necessary break away from the sadness and sobriety of our war-torn grandparents. Subsequent to that there have been the occasional eruptions of conscience manifested through pop, Gabriel and, more notably, Geldof, and then a smattering of wannabees in the form of U2, Sting et al but, ultimately, the sixties was the generation that simply couldn’t create without rebelling.

Subsequent to the sixties, we have enjoyed musicians who were always, to some degree narcissistic. Why chase a recording deal otherwise? I’m not even sure the sixties musicians weren’t the same: it’s just their writing was directly influenced by their immediate experience. I don’t think that pop is the natural channel for an expression of rebellion (except postured) or, indeed, decent social commentary. I love PJ Harvey’s recent album but I’ve not seen anything to indicate that she endured the same doubts as those world war one poets about whether her medium was appropriate. And I honestly don’t know right now whether that’s absolutely fine or simply an embodiment of that arrogance that chases a recording contract.

What I do know, having written this, is that I’m not surprised there has been no decent pop commentary on 9/11. In my lifetime, the only decent pop essay on a cultural event or dissent has been Julian Cope’s sprawling ‘Peggy Suicide’. Ultimately, I don’t believe there is a much crossover as we instinctively believe between the commentator and pop musician.

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11 Responses to Pop and protest

  1. Great post Fenner! You should pimp your blog more!
    You might find this interesting and the whole blog/book by Lynskey:

    and this by me on ‘the death of punk’:

  2. ‘But if ska was the fun loving girl next door, I was was soon seduced by the heavily kohled and darkly fringed unconventional beauty of electronic music.’ -love it!

  3. I did a whole series called the #BBCRedButtonProject which reacted to news stories on a weekly basis and I had 10 hours to write and record the song. Type it into youtube for the videos. I’d be interested to hear comments on them.

  4. Elise says:

    QRG sent you the link she sent me, which I would have sent.

    No place in pop for authentic rebellion? I think of “Anarchy in the UK,” “Common People,” and “Panic” (also “The Queen is Dead”) as effective social/political commentary songs of sorts. None of them by bands cravenly chasing a big record deal. It’s true, I’m unaware of any recent pop songs addressing specific events, but I wonder if that’s because I have little interest in political songwriting. Is it because smart pop went indie, reduced its audience, no longer has a platform from which to speak to the general listener? Nirvana had a big audience but heralded an indie pop nihilism. Come to think of it, from Morrissey we also have “Meat is Murder,” “Margaret on the Guillotine,” and, fairly recently, “America Is Not the World,” although how effective they are as protest or songs is debated. There’s also Springsteen… and Lennon’s “Working Class Hero”… and Pulp got rather pointedly political on “Day After the Revolution.” The problem, I think, is lack of a general audience for such songs. Although whether that was dictated by pop’s turn away from protest is a chicken/egg question. (Is Lady Gaga’s “Gag This Way,” sorry I mean “Born That Way,” a pop protest song?)

    As to whether pop is *suited* to political commentary, I don’t know what to tell you. Few poets have managed it either. The protest song belongs to the history of folk, not poetry. One imagines the further the songwriter gets from suffering and witnessing suffering, the harder it gets to write about it authentically. Or even to care to.

    But some still do it. Take a look at this Jon Stewart/Bill O’Reilly debate about whether the rapper Common should be allowed to support a convicted killer of a police officer and also invited to the White House!

    • Hi Elise,

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

      I’m not sure I see any of the songs you quote as authentically rebellious and I think there is a difference between writing about ones own experience and taking on wider themes, tackling issues outside of that direct experience. I think rap is a good example of this: whilst rappers had a lot to protest about, the songs were not protest songs as such. (Although White Lines comes close to the kind of commentary that I touch on.)

      But I go back to Peter Gabirel’s ‘Biko’ as an example of someone who was far away from the suffering he was writing about and by no means a direct witness. Yet he used the pop form perfectly, with a lyrical framework ideally suited to the medium. It’s a genuinely moving song built on those simple chords. In fact, having seen it live, it’s hard to go back to the recorded version, such is the feeling that it evokes.

      But what I am looking for is someone who is exploring the themes of their time, writing of it as they experience it but also taking enough academic interest to be able to provide a context for their lyrics and, to a lesser extent, music. I think Cope does this very well on Peggy Suicide, from the very direct statements about Britain in the late 80s and early 90s to some more impressionistic songs, that still (for me) conjure up the spirit of that period.

      Thanks again,

  5. Elise says:

    Oops “Born This Way”… I was confusing with James Maker’s “Born That Way,” in a sort of Freudian wish-fulfillment slip.

  6. Elise says:

    I guess it depends if you define “protest” (or “pop”!) broadly or narrowly. I did notice an anthology of New York poets who’d written about 9/11 the other day, however, I have to say it didn’t interest me much. Put it this way: the event seemed more important than the quality of the poetry. Which I assume *many* people are looking for in a collection like that, but not me.

    • Ugh. No matter how important the event, I can’t see that bad art will commemorate it in any useful way.

      But for the purposes of this blog, I was really discussing the absence of a response to 9/11 in the world of pop and arriving at the conclusion that I wasn’t that surprised about it.

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