Protest Music: Top of the Class?

...a song really can change things.
Plan B

Following nearly three months of rioting and civil unrest in the UK, the song that continues to be inextricably linked with that time, Ghost Town by The Specials, reached number 1 in the charts. The date was 11th July, 1981, just two weeks before the wedding of Charles and Diana, but also the day after the first Handsworth riot in central Birmingham. The song’s themes of unemployment, social decline and disaffection resonated with the population at large, and the song became the unofficial soundtrack to those events.

Fast-forward thirty years and a similar situation grips the UK: an unpopular Conservative government, recession, high unemployment, and once more, riots break out. However, in the summer of 2011, where was the soundtrack? Where was the timeless piece of pop music that captured the essence of what was going on? Nowhere to be seen. In fact, the chart-topper as London burned last year was Cher Lloyd’s bratty Swagger Jagger.

Moreover, the notion that protest music, or at the very least music that speaks to us and provides something relatable to our environments, would be near the top of the charts in this day and age seems impossibly antiquated. Today’s pop is instant and disposable; fixated with material gain and the trappings of “the club” rather than daring to say something profound or challenge the status quo.

So, if protest music is supposed to be the voice of the people, what happened? Protest music has a rich heritage, based primarily in folk. There’s a lineage that runs from Woody Guthrie and his predecessors, through Bob Dylan and the Greenwich Village scene, to Billy Bragg. But now it seems like that line has reached a dead end, with Bragg still arguably the biggest name in anti-establishment music, and he’s now in his mid-50s. Yet folk music is more popular as ever, with Johnny Flynn, Noah & The Whale, Laura Marling and, of course, Mumford & Sons all enjoying varying degrees of success. While these acts may have studied their folk history and pilfered many of the tricks and tropes, one thing they haven’t carried forward is folk’s willingness to speak up in an attempt to effect social change.

If we need our folkies to stand up and be counted more than ever, why aren’t they? One potential reason is a trend that’s becoming more and more prevalent in today’s musical landscape – particularly in Britain: privately educated pop stars.

While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with being privately educated (and, of course, the pupils themselves likely have little say in the matter), you’re less likely to rebel against the system if you’re a product of it and have benefitted massively from what it has to offer. Johnny Flynn attended an independent school in Hampshire, Laura Marling a Quaker boarding school, and Marcus Mumford King’s College School, a member of the Eton Group.

But it’s not just folk where the balance is shifting. A study by now-defunct music monthly The Word found that the majority of acts in the charts nowadays are privately educated. This is in comparison to a week in 1990 where 80% of the artists appearing were products of the state education system. Even at the turn of the century, it wasn’t that uncommon for a band such as Manic Street Preachers to bother the top reaches of the charts with songs that explored political concepts and referenced historical events or literary figures. Nowadays, the silver spoon brigade has taken over. Jessie Ware, Florence Welch, Jack Peñate, Pixie Geldof and The Maccabees’ Felix White all attended the prestigious Alleyn’s School in South London. For the interested, it’ll cost you a frightening £14,601 to send your darling sprog there for a year. We’ve been told countless times that the bottom’s fallen out of the music industry and it now seems that the returns are so poor for emerging talent that only the privileged few can afford to make a decent fist of it.

But if the majority of chart acts are privately educated, what of the others? To discover why musicians don’t want to speak out, to wear their ideologies on their sleeves or to even display a modicum of intelligence in their songwriting, you have to go back to two brothers from Manchester.

Blur, Pulp and the Manics were switched-on, literate pop stars in the 90s, but from the vantage point of 2012 we can observe that Oasis won the war. Punk showed you could be dumb and clever at the same time, but the legacy of the Gallagher brothers is landfill indie and lad-rock: devoid of imagination and with nothing to say. Kasabian, The Fratellis, The Enemy and their ilk – bands who, even when trying to make something approaching a cogent point, cannot articulate it well enough to stop it coming across as an ill-informed whine. People say Oasis were musically derivative and stole all their best ideas. True as that may be, their biggest crime was to spearhead the culture where it became encouraged to celebrate your ignorance and shun anything – or anyone – different. It’s difficult to envisage a situation any time soon where a coherent, thought-provoking piece of agit-rock is going to come from, say, The View.

Rock n’ roll is no longer the counter-culture. It’s been with us for over sixty years now, and is so ingrained into the mainstream that a generation gap has ceased to exist. Families attend festivals together, and it’s not uncommon for parents and children to have similar musical tastes. While this is fantastic on many levels, it doesn’t give today’s potential rock n’ roll star much to rail against and vent their frustration with. The primary example of someone trying to go against the trend here is Frank Turner – a successful troubadour with an extraordinarily broad-brush approach to problems and solutions, and an overriding suspicious of class-induced guilt. Where did Frank attend school? Eton College, alongside Prince William.

So, who in the UK can provide the voice? American hip-hop always had a social conscience before it became preoccupied with ghetto fabulousness and in the UK, grime took that template and exposed what was really going on in the ignored corners of the country. Grime may not be the chart force it once was, but looking at hip-hop, Plan B has gone from the crooned soul of Strickland Banks to gritty realism on iLL Manors. The fact the title track – a song which explicitly references 2011’s riots and the possible underlying causes – was a #6 hit earlier this year is remarkable given the current climate and potentially points the way to a different path, provided there are further artists waiting in the wings to pick up the baton.

Mr. Drew aside though, the future for social commentary and protest music isn’t looking promising, at least in the UK. Look further afield and you’ll find the tradition of storytelling through song making a difference. Alongside modern communication mediums like Twitter, protest music had a big part to play in the Arab Spring, with Egyptians opposed to the regime of Hosni Mubarak singing anti-government anthems long into the night. Dissenting voices in this country tend to make themselves heard these days through the mediums of petition or marching, finding strength in numbers. If some musicians obsessed with the minutiae of the everyday and the benefit of a life lived could pen something insightful to give that dissent a tune, a whole movement could become more cohesive. This isn’t to suggest that music is the solution to all life’s ills but in the right hands, pop is an exceptional marketing – and recruitment – tool. It may sound an over-simplification to suggest it, but a song really can change things. Advances in technology mean everybody has a voice, now we just need people to sing and make theirs heard.

Words by Joe Rivers

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