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Affect, Protest and the ‘Death’ of Political Popular Music

Marie Thompson is co-editor, with Ian Biddle, of Sound, Music, Affect (2013). A writer and researcher, based in Nottingham, UK, she recently completed her PhD thesis, ‘Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism’, at the International Centre for Music Studies, Newcastle University. She teaches at Lincoln School of Media, University of Lincoln. Marie is also active as a musician, playing solo as Tragic Cabaret and in the band Beauty Pageant.

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Rise Against

We are often told that political music is over. In recent years, there have been a number of articles lamenting the loss of popular music’s rebellious contingent – the dissenting and oppositional voices that sang of and against inequality and injustice; police brutality and corruption; class hatred, racism and sexism. The purported rise of political apathy – particularly amongst younger generations – is often held to blame. Tim McIlrath of Chicago punk band Rise Against, for example, has claimed that the ‘stranglehold’ of ‘hipster cynicism’ in art and culture means that it is uncool to ‘be political’, or to use music to talk politics. Rhian E. Jones provides an alternative prognosis. She suggests that the decline of political popular music has corresponded with the ‘Mumfordisation’ of indie, which has led to a waning of its oppositional energy; and, more generally, the domination of British chart music by artists who have been privately educated or attended stage school. As a result of this takeover, the voices of less privileged and more politicised artists in pop and indie have been squeezed out and denied influence. Either way, in this current era of ever-more precarious labour and precarious housing; of austerity, unemployment and debt, popular music (in its mainstream manifestations at least) has been strangely quiet.

Symptomatic of this absence was the reported lack of musical accompaniment to the 2010-2011 anti-austerity protests, demos and uprisings that occurred in response to the UK Conservative and Liberal Democrat government’s plans for university fee increases and cuts to welfare and public services, including the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). The UK broadsheet, The Guardian published a series of pieces bemoaning pop culture’s failure to respond to the political climate. John Harris, in the desperately titled ‘Someone out there, pick up a guitar and howl’, complained that ‘These days, it often feels like the spirit of dissent is the preserve of past generations, there to be reverentially saluted rather than reinvented.’ If even the full implementation of the government’s planned austerity measures sparks no response from popular culture ‘we’ll know we live in truly deadened times’. Johnny ‘Itch’ Fox, the frontman of The King Blues – a band reportedly championed by Billy Bragg as ‘the sound of the kettle’ – claimed that ‘music hasn’t played such a large role in demos over the years and that’s a problem because a lot of demos can be so fucking boring, especially now you can be kettled.’  

“In this current era of ever-more precarious labour and precarious housing; of austerity, unemployment and debt, popular music (in its mainstream manifestations at least) has been strangely quiet.”

While there is undoubtedly some truth in the claim that overtly political pop music has vacated the charts and airwaves in recent years, there’s something about these accounts that doesn’t seem quite right. As earwitness accounts and Youtube footage testifies, there was plenty of music at the protests; though little of it was by the likes of Bragg or The King Blues, nor other canonized ‘political’ artists, such as Bob Dylan or The Clash.

In his report on the anti-fees student protest that took place in London on 9th December 2010, the BBC economics editor Paul Mason identified an ‘unlikely force’ amongst the protesters: the young, multiracial ‘EMA kids’ from the London estates, who wanted to dance to dubstep rather than enter into skirmishes with the police. His corresponding blog post describes the moment when the man in charge of the sound system at parliament square, who had been trying to play ‘politically right on reggae’ had the ‘crucial jack plug’ taken off him by this younger crowd. Using their Blackberry phones, they started playing what Mason identified as dubstep – a bass-oriented genre of dance music, originating from South London.

Dan Hancox has noted that the music that Mason had identified as dubstep was in fact mostly grime – an underground genre which emerged from Bow, East London in the early 2000s and was mainly distributed by UK pirate stations. The music is has a number of stylistic precursors, including hip-hop UK garage and dancehall; and is often characterized as sounding aggressive or fierce. It was this emotional tone and energy that seemingly made grime an effective soundtrack to the protests – it’s expression and transmission of anger and frustration.

Grime made a lot of sense as the soundtrack for London’s socio-political unrest. It had already been branded as the musical enemy of the establishment, demonized by government officials for its violent lyrical content and imagery. Police had shut down grime nights before they could even begin (and continue to do so), offering vague justifications relating to ‘public safety’. Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow! (Forward)’, which became one of the anthems of the protests, had been banned from clubs and certain radio stations with its initial release in 2004. Though grime and Lethal Bizzle’s ‘Pow!’ might not have an explicit political message, they are nonetheless politicized, operating as signifiers of – and scapegoats for – social problems.

What was perhaps more difficult to reconcile was the role of chart pop music at the student protests. Songs by Rihanna and Nicki Minaj were heard at the protests, as was Cee Lo Green’s ‘Fuck You’ (also known before the watershed as ‘Forget You’) a catchy, upbeat song in the form of a protagonists retort to his ‘gold-digging’ ex-girlfriend, who he fails to impress because of he cannot afford expensive goods (such as a Ferrari).  Beyond Co Lee Green’s ‘fuck you’ chorus, these songs have little semantic or symbolic content that could be appropriated as an expression of political dissent. There is no pretence of this music bearing witness to or invoking resistance. The music of Rihanna, Nikki Minaj and Cee Lo Green lacks Grime’s edginess, its dangerous reputation. Unlike Grime, this music cannot really be described as transgressive, subcultural or ‘radical’; and is entirely complicit with its status as a market commodity.

How can this use of apparently ‘non-political’ music as the soundtrack to political protest be accounted for? When Grime artist MC Tempz was asked by Hancox about his music’s use during the demos he explained: ‘it’s not about the content, it’s about the energy and the aura.’ Another term that might be used instead of aura is affect. Rather than providing a political message, the music mobilized bodies through affective transmission – by creating a particular ambience or atmosphere via the induction, modulation and circulation of intensities, feelings and emotions. In other words, it wasn’t about what the music meant or signified as a text; but what it did and how it functioned as a force.

In suggesting the music encouraged protesters to move and/or act by circulating particular feelings and intensities, I‘m not looking to suggest that the music caused some sort of Pavlovian reaction caused by the formal properties of the music – it’s not that on hearing the music people instantly began to behave in a particular way, as if it contained some kind of subliminal command. While it seems fair to assume some degree of crossover (the heavy beats and pace of ‘Pow!’, for example, contribute to its aggressive energy), there was no clear or logical correlation between musical form and its effect. If this music automatically caused listeners to partake in social unrest, then presumably it would be played less in the gym, on the radio and in shops. Rather, its mobilizing potential – its capacity to generate and transmit an ‘energy’ or ‘aura’ – was unlocked by its use in relation to a particular space and context. And so, just as chart music by Christina Aguilera and Eminem can be put to use as a means of torture in Guantanamo bay, chart music by Rihanna Nicki Minaj and Cee-Lo Green can be used to help mobilize social unrest.

Of course, the use of music without an explicitly political message during protests is nothing particularly new. Regular protest-goers will no doubt be aware of the frequent presence of carnivalesque drumming bands. Again, the function of this music is primarily affective – it is intended to boost morale and energy of protesters and provide a common beat to which to move. Nor is this affectivity specific to ‘apolitical’ music in the context of protest. More generally, the use of music to accompany protests and demonstrations is geared towards an affective register. It collectivises the bodies of protesters, drawing them together through motion and sensation; circulates feelings of belonging, excitement and motivation; and maintains or boosts the energy level of the crowd.

Political music, then, isn’t over per se. Rather, what the soundtrack to the anti-fees protests points to is a need to reconsider what is meant by political music (or, perhaps more accurately, what it is that political music does) so as to allow for music’s use as an affective force within political contexts. Indeed, it might well be that as capitalism has come to centre on the generation and transmission of affect, then so too does the music that resists it.
Sound, Music, Affect is available at Bloomsbury.com, on Amazon, or wherever Bloomsbury titles are sold.

a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, based jointly in ICMUS and Culture Lab. Her research interests lie primarily with avant-garde and experimental musics from both sides of the (purported) high/low divide, improvisatory practices and cultural theory, in particular, gender and feminist theory. She regularly performs solo as Tragic Cabaret, in the duo Ghostly Porters, and as part of Newcastle’s audiovisual collective, Kira Kira. – See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/author/marie-thompson/#sthash.EgSzVcpW.dpuf
a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, based jointly in ICMUS and Culture Lab. Her research interests lie primarily with avant-garde and experimental musics from both sides of the (purported) high/low divide, improvisatory practices and cultural theory, in particular, gender and feminist theory. She regularly performs solo as Tragic Cabaret, in the duo Ghostly Porters, and as part of Newcastle’s audiovisual collective, Kira Kira. – See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/author/marie-thompson/#sthash.EgSzVcpW.dpuf
a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, based jointly in ICMUS and Culture Lab. Her research interests lie primarily with avant-garde and experimental musics from both sides of the (purported) high/low divide, improvisatory practices and cultural theory, in particular, gender and feminist theory. She regularly performs solo as Tragic Cabaret, in the duo Ghostly Porters, and as part of Newcastle’s audiovisual collective, Kira Kira. – See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/author/marie-thompson/#sthash.EgSzVcpW.dpuf
is a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, based jointly in ICMUS and Culture Lab. Her research interests lie primarily with avant-garde and experimental musics from both sides of the (purported) high/low divide, improvisatory practices and cultural theory, in particular, gender and feminist theory. She regularly performs solo as Tragic Cabaret, in the duo Ghostly Porters, and as part of Newcastle’s audiovisual collective, Kira Kira. – See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/author/marie-thompson/#sthash.EgSzVcpW.dpuf
is a PhD candidate at Newcastle University, based jointly in ICMUS and Culture Lab. Her research interests lie primarily with avant-garde and experimental musics from both sides of the (purported) high/low divide, improvisatory practices and cultural theory, in particular, gender and feminist theory. She regularly performs solo as Tragic Cabaret, in the duo Ghostly Porters, and as part of Newcastle’s audiovisual collective, Kira Kira. – See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/author/marie-thompson/#sthash.EgSzVcpW.dpuf

2 comments

  1. Johnny Ersatz-Culture

    While I have argument with the overall analysis of this article, I think it does suffer from the mainstream media/culture tendency to seek to identify politics in music solely in terms of its lyrical and ‘sonically rousing’ qualities. I doubt very much whether a song/style of music can ever iniate direct political action, surely that can only come from people inspired to action by their own circumstances and experiences, for which suitable types of music can be adopted as an appropriate soundtrack (recognised in the article by the adoption of Grime at the protest). However, it seems to me that there is a far more fundamental ‘political’ movement currently underway in music that has little to do with lyrics or fist pumping performance. DIY music culture already spans the UK, Europe and (for logistical reasons to a lesser extent) North America, operating a system of distribution, organisation and consumption that amounts to a cultural economy that exists underneath the mainstream. It’s an economy based, by necessity, on co-operative behaviour where a kind of informal barter system in skills and expertise compensate for an absence of more traditional forms of exchange (ie money). I have no direct experience of the culture that Grime came out of and exists in, but I suspect it too is sustained by similar levels of co-operation and mutual support. The actual political aspect if all this is rarely located in the lyrics of songs, but the increasingly sophisticated nature of cultural and artistic organisation along DIY/underground lines is profoundly political in that it contains the seeds for an entirely new approach to the way people organise and live their lives.

  2. Interesting article – also pleased to see grime getting some attention! One point to note-there are also some explicit political references in grime. For example, see Dizzee Rascal’s first album “i’m a problem for Anthony Blair” etc., and also on Devlin’s “The Art of Rolling” mixtape he comments on what he sees as surveillance culture through excessive cctv and oyster card tracking. Your piece also recalls to a large extend the uk free-party scene which can be associated with alternate political values, even though rave music rarely contains explicit political messages. Anyway, interesting piece feel free to drop me an email if you want to discuss further!

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