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Thursday, 16 February 2012

Where are the Protest Songs?

Rioting youths, economic chaos, Margaret Thatcher everywhere you look – it’s like the 1980s all over again. Except for the music.

Margaret Thatcher is hard to avoid at the moment. First there’s Meryl Streep giving the Iron Lady a humanity she never showed in 12 years as Prime Minister. And then there are the newspaper columns by grey-haired old Tories calling for a state funeral when Lady T, (or if reports of her mental health are anything to go by, “Lady gaga”), finally keels over.
For many, her death will come thirty years too late. In the days when striking miners were burning her effigy and anti-poll tax marchers were battling the police up and down the country, millions would have celebrated Thatcher’s funeral like the winning of the World Cup.

Musicians wrote songs fantasising about her death. Morrissey dreamed about seeing “Margaret on the guillotine”. And Elvis Costello spoke for many with the lyrics:

“And when they finally put you in the ground
I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down.”

Of course that was back in the bad old days of the 1980s when British soldiers were dying in a pointless war thousands of miles from home, the country was in economic disarray and out of control youths were rioting in our city centres. How times change…

Musicians weren’t just singing about burying Maggie though. They were singing about their lives and the society they lived in, too.

When rioters sent the Liverpool suburb of Toxteth up in flames in 1981, the UK’s number one single was Ghost Town by The Specials, who sang:

“This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can't go on no more
The people getting angry.”

During last summer’s riots, as kids in designer hoodies looted shops for flat-screen TVs and the latest Nike trainers, Cher Lloyd’s Swagger Jagger topped the charts. It opened with the words:

“Swagger jagger, swagger jagger
You should get some of your own
Count that money, get your game on
Get your game on, get ya, get ya, game on.”

I’ll admit, I have no idea what “swagger jagger” means so I may be missing the point - perhaps Simon Cowell’s protégé was making a heartfelt political statement.

Life in Britain in 2012 is like life in Britain in the 1980s in a lot of ways, but not when it comes to music. When the Sex Pistols yelled:

“I am an anti-Christ,
I am an anarchist”,

millions of alienated Britons, bitter about their job prospects at a time when there were three million people unemployed, screamed out with them.

Where are today’s protest songs?

Occupy London and the recent student marches show that people care about what is going on. But their dissent will never get support from the mainstream media. That’s why music is so important. It’s a rallying cry for anyone trying to challenge the established order, just as it was when Billy Bragg growled his anti-Falklands war song Islands of No Return and The Jam railed against social injustice on A Town Called Malice.

I’m not saying Rizzle Kicks shouldn’t “do the hump” or Coldplay sing about Paradise. But who is giving a voice to the ASBO generation? Or the students with debts they’ll still be paying in middle-age and the soldiers coming home in body bags?

If we want music that is going to try to change the world, do we really have to wait for the next Margaret Thatcher?

This post is reproduced from the article in this month's edition of Kingston University's Mouth magazine  www.mouth-online.com 

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