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Years & Years Desire still
Still from Years & Years’ ‘Desire’ videovia

Why UK musicians have nothing to lose in being political

In increasingly uncertain times, it’s more important than ever that British pop musicians continue nailing their colours to the mast

In a recent post-Brexit interview, leftwing political columnist Owen Jones sat down with singer Paloma Faith to discuss the state of British politics. “Desperately terrifying” was her summary. Looking back on a week of events that will shape this country for decades, Jones asked her midway through the interview, “You’re quite rare, as a musician, as someone who actually speaks out. Why is that?”

It’s a line of questioning that sits with the general consensus that British musicians today don’t go anywhere near politics. Bands who should be poster children for social change are now seen to be apathetic, if not outright apolitical. In a general election special last year, the NME interviewed various musicians about their relationship to politics, with responses ranging from Johnny Marr calling the subject “a buzzkill” to The Horrors’ Faris Badwan claiming that “voting is for people who don’t have their own imagination… politics doesn’t mean anything to me.” It makes for a stark contrast to the leftwing causes that the publication (and, crucially, the musicians who both read and appeared in its pages) used to champion – this was, after all, the magazine that ran features with Red Wedge, put Labour leader Neil Kinnock on the cover, and gave birth to the Rock Against Racism movement through its letter pages following outrage over Eric Clapton’s drunken, Enoch Powell-supporting rant (“get the foreigners out, get the wogs out, get the coons out”) at a concert in 1976.

So what changed? Are today’s music stars too pampered to have their say? Have they simply not gone through enough hardship to care, or are we surrounded by private school educated stars unwilling to rock the boat? The answer isn’t quite so one-dimensional. To understand the current context, it’s important to shift the parameters of what we actually mean by ‘political’ music in 2016. When people ask ‘Where are all the protest songs?’, they’re looking in the wrong place and asking the wrong question. In her interview with Jones, Paloma Faith cited the usual names of Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and Bruce Springsteen as artists that used their platforms to support political causes, claiming that “musicians of our time currently want to remain ambiguous and use music as an escape”.

“When people ask ‘Where are all the protest songs?’, they’re looking in the wrong place and asking the wrong question”

Yet ‘protest music’ doesn’t have to consist of singing in a field with Billy Bragg, or trying to shoehorn jabs at Downing Street and Boris Johnson hanging from a zipwire into the same chorus. When Stormzy uses Instagram to call out platforms who profit from but don’t support black culture, is this not as political as a bloke with an acoustic guitar turning up at Westminster? Is “A Retelling”, a song written by Kindness for a Red Cross compilation after spending time with Syrian refugee Ayman Hirh, less valuable than a track making fun of Theresa May? Does Matt Healy of The 1975, a band with one of the largest, most attentive and engaged fanbases around right now, telling a crowd that “it’s difficult to say nothing” while on-stage at Glastonbury post-referendum count for nothing? This is ‘political’, despite being a long distance from what many commentators might define as such.

The ‘where is the protest music?’ mentality also ignores the complex issues of identity, sexuality and race that many young artists explore today. Dev Hynes’ latest Blood Orange album, Freetown Sound, focuses on the UK-born, New York-based musician’s upbringing (the record’s title refers to the birthplace of his Sierra Leonean father), sampling words from author Ta-Nehisi Coates and poet Ashlee Haze in a striking exploration of black identity. Olly Alexander of Years & Years is a frontman who’s been looking to go beyond his defined, centre-stage role for some time. The trio started out as a relatively restrained new band, but seemed to get more outspoken about LGBTQ and mental health issues after topping the charts. Their recent video for “Worship” was brave, provocative, and determined to shift the norm – it’s exactly what a music video from a massive pop group can be in 2016. “I think the young generation are really ready to receive these messages. They’re extremely tolerant, imaginative and accepting, so I think there’s definitely space for these issues,” Alexander told Dazed recently, fully aware of his ever-changing role at the top.

“When Stormzy uses Instagram to call out platforms who profit from but don’t support black culture, is this not as political as a bloke with an acoustic guitar turning up at Westminster?”

Paloma Faith’s response to Owen Jones’s question was blunt and funny (“Maybe they’re worried it’ll affect album sales,” she said, “which I can vouch for, it does”), but it also illustrated why so many young artists are willing to stick their necks out. After all, few artists today count on sales as their main source of income, nor do they measure their success purely in terms of chart positions or financial gain – if anything, the activism of artists like Alexander and Hynes has played a major role in their continued success. There’s more value in becoming a voice and putting a personality forward instead of hiding behind a veil of ambiguity. Unless you’re aiming to dish out your new full-length as a freebie with the Daily Express, what’s the harm in saying what you really think? Given the mess we’re in, there’s no use in hitting play and pretending none of this is actually happening.

Of course, there’s still further to go. While it’s refreshing to see so many chart-bothering acts willing to see their success in terms that go beyond chart positions and financial gain, there isn’t really a chart-topper who campaigns consistently for change on a grand scale. It’s unlikely that Ed Sheeran’s third album will be an anti-austerity pursuit, or that Sam Smith’s second full-length will concern itself with saving the NHS. But that’s not to say there isn’t someone capable of assuming an influential role in the future. Political art doesn’t have to be brashly delivered to come front-and-centre, and it seems like a new generation of acts is beginning to seize this realisation. Whether this sparks a wave of change is up in the air – but when things are so royally screwed, what is there to lose?