John Lennon, The Clash, Marvin Gaye - We are going to Change the World

Alex Worsnip 09/04/2004

Political music was once great. We had John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, MC5 and The Clash all making invigorating protest songs. These days it has declined as a force. Does anyone care about politics in music any more? With a crop of self-important bands coming up, with pretentious lyrics and little in the way of influence, what future for political music?

Political music works because it carries powerful messages. It says amazing things. Political songs have incredible power - the impact of Aretha Franklin's groundbreaking "Think" on the American civil rights movement is well-documented, for example; whereas Lennon must have made pacifists of thousands and thousands of people. Political music is best when it really connects with its audience and says something a generation can latch onto; when its a perfect expression of emotion and opinion; fierce and powerful, with emotional gravitas that works, pretty much, in the exact same way as a good love song does.

The problem of political music lies when bands get self-important. All too often these days lyricists write on obscure issues in obtuse terms which edge towards of game of "spot my meaning". This can lead to empty sloganeering, and this is especially contemptible when coupled with a belief that you can change the world. Political lyrics should be a form of self-expression, not an attempt to subvert listeners. Treating people that way is showing little respect for your own listener: they are not there to be "educated" and to follow the band towards political utopia.

When a political song works, it hits you tremendously. But its the most simple songs that work. Even the Black Eyed Peas with 'Where Is The Love?' struck far more of a chord in peoples' hearts than inaccessible, self-important lyrics ever will. It is the failure to realise this that it rendering overtly political music completely lacking in credibility these days. Just look at the immediate reaction to efforts of the Manic Street Preachers. Don't get me wrong; they've made some good political songs in their times; but their latest stuff has disappeared up its own backside lyrically. Worse are their imitators: Kinesis, Miss Black America, King Adora, Lomax...in varying degrees, capable of good music, but universally lacking in the ability to write lyrics. I know I break from much of this site by saying this, but I firmly believe it. The political impact these bands can have is miniscule, in part because they try too hard.

These days it seems that rock has declined as the main vehicle for political music: gone are the days when it was the politicised and now it is urban music which is increasingly taking its mantle. Mainstream hip-hop may still deal with bling-bling culture all too often, but with the rise of such artists as Dead Prez, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, cLOUDDEAD and even some work of mainstream artists like Ms Dynamite and Outkast, politics in hip-hop are rising. If you think about it, it makes sense: the stream-of-consciousness, aggressive, truth-telling, preaching format of rap works far better than much rock does. It can also be far more eloquant and in terms of its lyrical style. While rock heads for the frivolous pastures of lyrics about sex and drugs, urban music will increasingly take its mantle as the "conscious" genre.

Fortunately rock isn't finished for political lyrics. Kill Kenada, Hope of the States and Radio 4 are all making in-roads, in the tradition of the 80s alternative scene, when bands like REM, Sonic Youth, Husker Du and Wire all made blisteringly affecting political music. Of course, that alternative scene is partly to blame. The understated indie attitude that has evolved seems scared of expressing opinions sometimes: can you see Snow Patrol or Keane ever making something controversial or thought-provoking?

Its important to distinguish between purpose and meaning. Meaning is a great thing for a pop song - purpose seems to lift it above pop music and into something that will fall short of its aim. The best political songs, and the ones which do make a difference, are where people are expressing their opinions because its something thats on their mind, something they want to speak about, something that carries emotional weight for them; not those which are written like an argumentative essay, illustrated with examples, references and awkward, verbose, clunky lines. Thats not a pop song. And in the end, music is about pop songs.