Sound­tracks of strug­gle: Ian Maleney asks if we are still ready to rock the sys­tem?

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

It’s a common com­plaint that mu­sic to­day just doesn’t have the po­lit­i­cal edge it used to way back when. For some, the golden age of protest mu­sic is the 1960s – the bal­lads of pre-elec­tric Dy­lan, the worker’s songs of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, even the right-on hip­pie lean­ings of the Wood­stock gen­er­a­tion be­fore they dis­cov­ered money and co­caine in the 1970s. For oth­ers, the ul­ti­mate in protest is the punk of the late-1970s and 1980s, the sneer of John Ly­don, the sin­cer­ity of Billy Bragg or US hard­core’s mix of overt se­ri­ous­ness and ridicu­lous­ness.

A few decades on from those hal­cyon days, per­haps it’s worth tak­ing a look at what protest mu­sic means to­day. What are we look­ing for (and so of­ten, ap­par­ently, fail­ing to find) in protest mu­sic now? What is it sup­posed to do in our time?

Sounds of a protest break­down

We can break it down into some broad cat­e­gories. There’s protest mu­sic that con­firms our pre-ex­ist­ing opin­ions about the is­sues of the day, an­thems which makes us feel we’re not so alone in the world and that our voices to­gether might achieve some­thing. There’s protest mu­sic that in­forms us about things we might not have been aware of – a par­tic­u­lar op­pres­sion, a cer­tain ex­ploita­tion – awak­en­ing a new and tan­gi­ble po­lit­i­cal aware­ness in the process. There’s also mu­sic that calls into ques­tion our every­day be­hav­iours, our re­la­tion­ships, our ac­tions and in­ac­tions. Then there’s plenty of mu­sic that slips be­tween th­ese de­scrip­tions or some­thing like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Go­ing

On? which could fit all three. We also have to ask what we mean by mu­sic. Is it pos­si­ble to be po­lit­i­cal with­out words? With lyrics, it’s usu­ally quite easy to un­der­stand what’s go­ing on; the mes­sage is there, loud and clear, for any­one who wishes to hear it. With in­stru­men­tal mu­sic, the po­lit­i­cal edge may be im­plicit, some­thing which needs to be de­coded or un­der­stood in a spe­cific way. You can look at ex­am­ples such as Boards of Canada or God­speed You! Black Em­peror, where the ti­tles, the im­agery, the sam­ples, add up to a par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal mes­sage. The im­me­di­ate dif­fer­ence is in the di­rect­ness; where in­stru­men­tal mu­sic can be like a game of cha­rades, act­ing out what the artist wants to say, lyrics can just come straight out and say it. How­ever, each route leads to a dif­fer­ent method of un­der­stand­ing, some­thing like the dif­fer­ence be­tween know­ing and feel­ing.

Word up

Each has its strengths, its time and place. The lyri­cal route can soon date and sound cheesy, while the more ab­stract route is of­ten de­rided as pre­ten­tious or not un­der­stood as po­lit­i­cal at all. Take techno, which is rarely un­der­stood th­ese days in terms of sub­ver­sive pol­i­tics. On the level of con­tent, techno started out stamped with the im­print of racial pol­i­tics, of­ten mil­i­tant in tone. On the level of form, it en­cour­ages – like am­bi­ent mu­sic – a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent way of re­lat­ing to sound, time, place and even other peo­ple. Ex­tended rep­e­ti­tion does a par­tic­u­lar thing to the brain that forces it to think dif­fer­ently, and chang­ing the way we feel or think or be­have, our pat­terns of con­sump­tion, is a po­lit­i­cal act.

Per­haps one ma­jor change in the na­ture of po­lit­i­cal mu­sic, as in mu­sic in gen­eral, is the revo­lu­tion in how that mu­sic is pro­duced, pub­li­cised and writ­ten about. Up un­til they be­gan to prop­erly splin­ter in the 1980s, the mu­sic in­dus­try and its at­ten­dant me­dia were im­prop­erly mono­lithic. The mu­sic in­dus­try it­self – by which I mean the ma­jor la­bels, big­ger indies, book­ing agents, pub­li­cists – is in­her­ently con­ser­va­tive and of­ten out­right op­pres­sive. The sim­ple rea­son for this, and all mu­sic in­dus­try ac­tiv­ity, is profit.

This kind of thing ap­plies equally as much to the mu­sic press, from the first is­sue of Rolling Stone right through to to­day. What’s left of the mu­sic press now, whether print or dig­i­tal, desperately chases ads and clicks at what­ever cost nec­es­sary. Few out­lets now have ei­ther the cul­tural au­thor­ity (self-imag­ined or oth­er­wise) or raw bud­get to fa­cil­i­tate en­gaged, long-form cul­tural jour­nal­ism that might bring the mu­sic’s po­lit­i­cal heart to the fore. The pace at which the main­stream me­dia op­er­ates now leaves no time or space for ideas gen­er­ated there to make a real im­pact on the wider cul­ture. Our abil­ity now to hear almost ev­ery­thing at will, in an en­vi­ron­ment un­medi­ated by in­sti­tu­tional opin­ion, of­ten means we form opin­ions in a vac­uum – alone, with head­phones on, typ­ing. There are pos­i­tives to this, but when a cul­ture – or pol­i­tics – be­comes ephemeral, in­di­vid­u­alised, com­mer­cialised, it loses a par­tic­u­lar type of power. This is why there is a war be­ing waged on pub­lic space and why DIY venues, col­lec­tives and pub­lish­ers are so im­por­tant.

Fight the Power

So the ques­tion we’re left with is this – why ex­pect a con­ser­va­tive, profit-seek­ing in­dus­try such as the mu­sic in­dus­try, or the press, to pro­duce the kind of work that would un­der­mine their own power? Why ex­pect them to cre­ate work for a gen­uinely crit­i­cal, en­gaged au­di­ence when all they’re in­ter­ested in is fur­ther con­sump­tion?

What’s im­por­tant is the mu­sic’s abil­ity to gen­er­ate “dis­cus­sion” – by which they mean

Pho­to­graph: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Punk po­lit­i­cal: Johnny Rot­ten on­stage with The Sex Pis­tols in San

An­to­nio, Texas, in 1978.

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