- Music, politics and identity: from Cool Britannia to Grime4CorbynThe radical tradition in music, in its multifarious forms, has never gone away
Many theorists have studied the relationship between politics and culture, from Gramsci and Adorno to Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams. But less attention has been given to the cultural role of music than to that of literature, film or visual art. Indeed, popular music and the commercial music industry have sometimes been dismissed altogether as a distracting or corrupting aspect of 'mass culture'.1 More sympathetic writers have discerned in both popular and subcultural forms of music a capacity to reflect, reinforce or resist hegemonic ideas and to articulate a liberatory politics. This article seeks to address some recent aspects of the dynamic between politics and popular music, and its interaction with the construction and contestation of both class and national British identity, before suggesting grounds for optimism on the prospects for a renewed relationship between these elements.
Death of the protest song?
Music can play a significant part in the consolidation of individual and collective [End Page 50] identity, including aspects of subcultural, class and national consciousness. In recent UK history, forms of non-mainstream, alternative or 'indie' music - genres often associated with DIY methods of production and distribution, and with principles of amateurism and collectivism - have frequently been seen as an intrinsic part of wider oppositional culture, and as offering a space and platform for the development and expression of radical, particularly left-wing, perspectives. Examples of this include the post-punk experiments of the 1970s and 1980s and their links with left-libertarianism, and the class and racial consciousness expressed in US and UK hip hop.2 The radical possibilities more broadly inherent in music have been suggested by a number of writers, who have pointed, for example, to the capacity of mass raves or disco to overcome 'the alienating individualism of capitalist culture' through promoting feelings of 'collective joy', or have seen British dance music as reflective of a multicultural and postcolonial country.3
This does not, of course, mean that the political tendencies of musical subcultures are always wholly or automatically progressive. Punk music in Britain, for example, despite providing opportunities and empowerment for its female and working-class adherents, has also been read as imbued with proto-Thatcherite individualism; and the commitment of many past and contemporary subcultures to a model of liberation that was white, male and middle-class by default has often limited their appeal across lines of class, race and gender. Moreover, it has become obvious at this distance how the transformative and creative energies of 1960s musical and artistic subcultures were open to co-option by consumer capitalism.
In general, though, alternative and subcultural music has been seen as inherently open to oppositional and radical discourse, though not invariably so. Perhaps the most iconic example of this relationship was the deep involvement of the mid-twentieth-century folk revival with campaigns for civil rights, desegregation and nuclear disarmament in both Britain and the US. This alliance between counter-cultural music and left politics has left a lasting cultural impression, and it strongly reinforced the idea that music has the power to galvanise and focus - if not necessarily to shape - popular responses to political issues. Indeed, over the past ten years, the 'death of the protest song' has been mourned in a range of articles, books and comment pieces in the British press. These have argued that music has become depoliticised, and cited in evidence the absence of artistic responses along the lines of the protest-song model of the 1950s and 1960s to developments such [End Page 51] as the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent imposition of austerity. Despite the observable upturn in popular protest in the past decade, particularly by young people - including the student protests of 2010 as well as the popular unrest in London and elsewhere in response to police violence - it has been claimed that this apparent creative quietude reflects a broader political disengagement or passivity among producers and consumers of music.
This line of argument is often put forward by members of the generation who came of age...