To ask whether music has the potential to be political is completely old hat, well old hat pins actually. The story of Stravinsky’s 1913 ‘Rite of Spring’ premiere and the ensuing street-riot (where the pins made a violent cameo) is well-known, as are Shostakovich’s muffled and now considered rather ambiguous musical protests against the Soviet regime. However, it was with pacifist works such as Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ of 1961 that classical music’s monopoly on the ‘political’ ended. From the Vietnam War to the fall of the Berlin wall, the new voices of revolt were all singing Rock.
Last year, Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll captured this era, focusing on the lead up to the overthrow of the socialist government in then Czechoslovakia in the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Mirroring the experiences of communist party member and Cambridge academic, Max, with his Czech ex-student Jan, Stoppard gave the foreground to a soundtrack of Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and Czech band ‘The Plastic People of the Universe’ - who were ultimately the political heroes of the play. And the real-life story of the Plastics really lives up to their heroic portrayal; touring secretly under the auspices of lecturing on art they would sneak in tracks as supposed aural illustrations. Their songs weren’t overtly anti-communist but in their refusal to compromise on anything - from hair length to English lyrics - they made disengagement into dissidence with their front-man, Ivan Jirous, being sent to jail four consecutive times during those years.
Fast forward to today and it’s the turn of pop musicians to hurl a few insults establishment’s way with the Iraq war and poverty at the top of the agenda.
With the rise of the commercialised music industry and the cult of celebrity the potential power of pop musicians appears limitless. The attempts of various music celebs, who get those itsy bitsy twangs of social conscience to change the world have arguably, left the world unimpressed. Such attempts at politically inspiring pop raise one question in particular - can you be successfully political if your means of expression are not earnest?
The success of Red Nose Day proved that serious charitable aims could be furthered by comedy and set the mark for the do-gooding responsibilities of the new celeb class but what seems to confuse our new generation of budding pop philanthropists is that charity is not the same as politics. Charity, is almost more of a religious ideal - a Christian virtue, in fact. Advocating love, kindness, food and water for all is certainly worthy but it isn’t all that contentious. It isn’t that surprising though that these advocates should produce average, accessible and uncontroversial sentiments when it is these exact characteristics in their music which have secured their existence as pop stars.
Charity fundraising isn’t really the problem here though - because they are damn good at fundraising. It is when pop stars make that leap to try and overtly inspire political action that things start to go wrong. Shakira’s song ‘East Timor’ is a fantastic example of political pop failure at it’s very worst. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an alright track if you ignore it’s political intentions - and by no means does music have to be serious and weighty to be valued - but to string together cliched critiques of the judiciary system, mass media, democracy with the west’s failure to provide adequate humanitarian support to East Timor with a neo-disco chorus of:
Ah, ah, ah, ah
Ah, ah, ah, ah
is utterly crass.
MIA on the other hand, has enough of a revolutionary whiff about her to get taken seriously by both broadsheets and discerning ‘pop’ critics alike. With her father an activist in Sri-Lankan guerrilla group, the Tamil Tigers, and an eventful upbringing as a refugee in London, her credentials for producing ‘authentic’ political/musical statements are promising. Her most recent album Kala (released this August), is a multicontinental mashup resulting from an impromptu world tour due to VISA trouble and a blockade on her Brooklyn apartment (or so the story goes) and succeeds on two counts of Authenticity and Originality which would usually qualify her for Rock Heroism but her collaborations with Timbaland and being just on the cusp of Nelly Furtado-like status mean we can’t really disqualify her from Popdom.
MIA may be one of the first, then, of a promising new breed but although her work has a genuine political content it doesn’t mean that her listeners are actually inspired to act on it. This may have something to do with the more subliminal politics of sampling. Since Paul Simon made Graceland with the Ladysmith Black Mambazo choir he has been accused of taking credit and exploiting the music of a culture which wasn’t his own. Similarly, tracks like the Chemical Brothers ‘Galvanise’ use sampling almost in the same way as colonial folk-song collectors - absorbing up ‘exotic’ samples and translating them for western audiences. Part of MIA’s appeal to the broadsheet reader is this exotic otherness (dubbed ‘worldbeat’), but once placed in this box, her political views are to be admired from afar rather than engaged with and it’s in her own ironic manipulation of these expectations that she makes her best political statement.
Music is at it’s most powerful when we let our guard down to its visceral sensations, which is when it’s politically dangerous as a vehicle for propaganda - but however overtly political a pop song may aim to be, this will always jar with our aural association with its function as dance music, background music or entertainment and bar us from considering it as anything else.
Cara Bleiman This article was first published in the Oxford Cherwell.