Bob saw it com­ing: the times they have changed – changed ut­terly

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - OPINION -

To con­tinue the protest theme in

The Ticket this week, a look at the bleak fu­ture for all forms of popular mu­sic. Over the past three decades, there has been a con­sis­tent erod­ing of po­lit­i­cal themes and so­cial-jus­tice con­cerns from chart mu­sic.

Whereas once it was The Smiths, The Jam and oth­ers – all loud and proud left-wing voices, th­ese day’s it’s the pri­vately ed­u­cated Cold­play and Mum­ford and Sons – per­fect toe-tap­ping fod­der for the po­lit­i­cally naive and the dis­en­gaged.

Stud­ies have shown that, in the 1970s, just one per cent of acts in the charts were pri­vately ed­u­cated. This year, the amount of suc­cess­ful acts with a pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion has hit the 60 per cent mark. Mum­ford, Cold­play, Lily Allen, Florence Welch, Laura Mar­ling – the list is long. The mem­bers of Ra­dio­head met when they were at the £35,000-a-year Abing­don School.

It would be a stretch to di­rectly link a good and ex­pen­sive pri­vate ed­u­ca­tion with the de­politi­ci­sa­tion of popular mu­sic, but con­sider the point made by Sandie Shaw re­cently when the 1960s singing star stated that it would be im­pos­si­ble for her, the daugh­ter of a Da­gen­ham car worker, to re­peat her suc­cess in to­day’s mu­sic world. “At the mo­ment, un­less you are Mum­ford & Sons and come from a pub­lic school and have a rich fam­ily that can support you, you’re on the dole and you’re try­ing to work” she said.

The broader point here is that in pre-re­ces­sion­ary times peo­ple could have day/part-time jobs that al­lowed them pay for mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, re­hearsal space, stu­dio time etc, but with the fi­nan­cial heat now on and the mu­sic in­dus­try no longer spend­ing money on de­vel­op­ing acts, you re­ally need se­ri­ous money be­hind you – and that is not healthy for the cre­ative/per­form­ing arts.

You’d be hard-pressed th­ese days to find lyrics deal­ing with eco­nomic in­jus­tice or class di­vi­sions, but not so long ago, such lyri­cal stylings were com­mon­place. And it wasn’t just Billy Bragg – bands were ac­tivists.

There are other mu­si­cal con­se­quences to th­ese post-re­ces­sion­ary blues. The Klax­ons said last month that be­cause it is so ex­pen­sive to be in a band th­ese days, a lot of peo­ple find it a eas­ier to just buy a lap­top and do ev­ery­thing them­selves. We’ve been long due a cull of in­die land­fill bands, so this can only be a pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ment.

You could ar­gue though that popular mu­sic has an im­per­a­tive to re­flect its times. There will never be a protest song as po­tent and af­fect­ing as Bil­lie Hol­l­i­day’s Strange Fruit, as the world is a very dif­fer­ent place now. But there re­mains so much of con­cert – both lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally – and it is shame­ful that popular mu­sic so blithely ig­nores is­sues that mat­ter.

Peo­ple will tell you that it was through lis­ten­ing to great pop mu­sic by The Blades or The Gang of Four that alerted them to im­por­tant in­jus­tices. The big­gest song of last year? Blurred bloody Lines.

Yes, mu­sic has lost its pre-em­i­nent sta­tus in popular cul­ture, but this is even more rea­son why it needs to re-en­gage. Songs can change the world. As Phil Ochs noted “one good song can bring a point more deeply to more peo­ple than a thou­sand ral­lies”. Time mag­a­zine voted Strange Fruit the song of the cen­tury. It made a dif­fer­ence. The times they have a changed – but not for the bet­ter.

Bil­lie Hol­l­i­day Strange Fruit – the song of the cen­tury

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