When ‘folk’ music was created by the middle class collectors and publishers of working class music in the C19th one part of the bowdlerising process was the leaving out of the more political songs, as well as overtly sexual content. As the tradition became commercialised through the gramaphone, radio and mass media the political songs still hung on in there. But at the same time the bowdlerising tendencies of the middle class managers of the media and culture are still there to weed out the radical content of popular song.
The commercial pressure to supply a strong market demand has to contend with product that might upset the basis of the conditions on which that market depends. One way that the political instincts of working class tunesters is undercut is by the simple practice of dilution and sifting to the periphery. The harmless pop pap is bolstered and promoted out of all proportion to its value as art. Its production values can be lushed up with loadsamoney to hide the inner vacuity. This deluge of light entertainment then waters down the political messages of music until it is practically colourless. But deeply coloured stuff still bursts through occasionally. You probably have your own memories of stuff that grabbed your attention.
One of the first moments in which pop burst out of its commodity bubble in my life was when The Who first played ’My Generation’ on Elkan Allan’s ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’ TV show in 1965. The rising and visceral sense of self esteem I felt in my suburban living room as Roger Daltry belted out the immortal lines ‘Why doncha all f…f…f… fade away’ probably cannot be appreciated in the current era when saying ‘fuck’ a lot on TV can the signature of a celebrity chef’s endearing charisma. Was this a political song?
Or was it much earlier c 1958 when George Reptowski in Herne Hill played me the Kalin Twins hit ‘When’, but the flip side which was ’Three o’clock thrill’ (with a girl named Gill) that wasteh focus of his excitement. He brought my attention to the chorus which was ”Oh Yeh! Do you wanna bunk up?!” Had the media establishment not noticed?! Stimulating and intriguing stuff for a ten year old at the tail-end of the Fifties – not just because of the mention of sex but because of what it told me about the media.
What would be the proportion of songs political in an unmediated cultural output? It would undoubtedly relate to the political needs of a moment. But as the enclosures of oppression bite so does the cultural repression that is part of it. So we can assume that by its nature political song has always been under some kinds of restraint and restriction.
One of the most widespread and even acceptable forms of political song is that which protests against war. My memorable moment here was hearing Country Joe and the Fish’s ”Fixin to Die Rag” - it was the jaunty, gleeful irony which infused the song that contradicted the gloom of Vietnam and galvanised my youthful spirits. The more recent insanity of the Iraq wars has produced plenty of rockin protests – but nothing has stuck in my imagination quite like ‘Fixin to Die’. I’d like to hear the music that has raised the spirits or focuses the anger of the current crop to anti-war protestors. There are plenty of other issues that are expressed in musical forms from anti-drugs to global warming to anti-copyright and sampling.
The next big moment that comes to mind is the Sex Pistols getting to number one with ‘Anarchy in the UK’ in spite of Aunty BBC banning it from the airwaves! The fact that that many people were voting with their pocket money to blast out the immortal lines ”God Save the Queen. And her fascist regime” showed how rock could still rattle the complacency of the moral majority.
What constitutes a political song may be more difficult to classify in a tidy way. My own attempt to classify the main oppressed groups listed 21 categories of superiority/inferiority power relations that must all have produced a gamut of liberation songs. And some of these categories have multiple sub-sections. Under the broad heading racism could be a subset on the wealth of liberation song that fuelled the struggles against Apartheid in South Africa.
This music was a main staff of resistance and survival. Gender politics is an another area in which it is not easy to identify the exact boundaries of ‘political’ song. Some very commercially acceptable and successful songs, like those by Madonna, have addressed the supposed submission and silence that characterises the oppressive stereotype of women.
Every genre of music has its political contents, or perhaps I should say dis-contents. And much of this material is not in the top 100 of the genre but in the local or underground networks.
After thinking about this category for a while it suddenly seems that the world is full of political music and we just don’t notice it. An agit disco would distill the politics out from the weak solution of popular musics. By counterpointing themes and problemmatising genres and bringing the more repressed and uncommon examples to the surface we might respark this potentially inflammatory material.
So political song sometimes bursts through into the charts but more often is flowering in more local or underground contexts. The more I look at my life the more the music sounds ‘political’ in some way or other.