Back in May, I wrote an article for this column called ‘Party Tunes, Party Politics: The Lesser-Discussed Usefulness of Pop.’ I try not to get into politics here too often because, you know, there are at least a billion other websites and publications that do so. And if you’re here, chances are you’re more in the zone for words about music, about shows and parties and discos, and other entertaining goings-on.
When I wrote ‘Party Tunes, Party Politics,’ I wanted to meditate for a minute on the idea that these two worlds were far from mutually exclusive. Of course, you and I both already knew that everything is political, everything has implications and yes, popular music is bound up in the broader zeitgeist – so, as grandpappy Plato pontificated – shifts in musical styles often correlate with shifts in “the State.” The jury’s still out re: music’s capacity for instigating social change, rather than just reflecting it. But with that particular missive, I wanted to focus on the inherent dissidence of life-affirming party music in the face of a grim and conservative political authority that preferred we stayed quiet, passive, apathetic. Pop songs may not come with an explicitly articulated ideology or agenda (though some, of course, do). But – as with numerous examples over the last hundred years – they can be harnessed, can become part of the lifeblood of progressive social movements.
My interest in the intersection of politics and pop has been piqued again lately after noticing a revived discussion of “controversial” figures in left-field, independent, or else what you might call Alternative music. But, at least in my field of awareness, these controversies have been notable for less than encouraging reasons. Lately, sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum have been only too happy to deliver blow-by-blow accounts of Contentious utterances by freak-pop stalwart Ariel Pink, whose name is now frequently accompanied by the epithet “Most Hated Man in Indie Rock.” In recent weeks alone he’s been quoted calling 4AD labelmate Grimes “stupid and retarded” and making bizarre, off-colour references to pedophilia and necrophilia. Similarly (and, interestingly, linked by way of recent musical collaboration and friendship) there’s been a renewed focus on the antics of hip-house enfant terrible Azealia Banks, whose finally-released debut album Broke With Expensive Taste has given journalists an excuse to dig up “twitter beefs” from the last couple of years – feuds which notoriously involved gay slurs and other unbecoming nastiness. Then there’s Mark Kozelek (of Sun Kil Moon) who, following soundcheck-related bad blood with band The War On Drugs released a 7-minute acoustic diss track called “War On Drugs: Suck My Cock.” These three merely spring to mind; there are others.
But what’s my point? Is the phenomenon of musicians saying and doing dumb, offensive stuff a new one?
Well no, not at all. Entertainers in the public eye have been running their mouths of for decades and – though I absolutely won’t defend the use of homophobic, misogynistic or ableist language by anyone – it doesn’t help when music journalism is increasingly informed by tabloid and clickbait approaches; driven by sensationalism, whereby the most unfortunate few words from an hour-long interview will inevitably end up as the headline.
I don’t think Pink, Banks or Kozelek should have said the gross stuff they’ve said; I don’t suspect they’re fundamentally bigoted people either, but I don’t know, and it’s beside the point. The point for me is that, strangely and perhaps increasingly, our “controversial” figures in the left-of-centre music world are such not for bucking oppressive social norms but, indeed, for fairly straightforward dickhead behaviour. As innovative and clued-in humans, we’d hope they’d know better. We’d hope they’d be controversial for far more noble reasons.
And while the line between the “underground” and the “mainstream” is ever blurring to the point of irrelevance, it nevertheless feels strange that the pop musicians whom we most often hear advocating progressive political ideas (see Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and their championing of gender equality) are those topping charts. Artists you’d think would be less invested in shaking up the status quo. Which is not to say that the Top 40 is teeming with stageful political comment. But at least there are some clear and positive rumblings.
Call me naïve – nostalgic, even – but I find it hard to ignore the feeling that there’s been a seismic shift away from a time when progressive (and transgressive) aesthetics were consciously bound up in progressive (or even revolutionary) politics. Consider Dada and Surrealism; Fluxus, Viennese Actionism and Tropicalia; Blues, Rock & Roll, Flower Power, Punk, Hip-Hop, House. If not synonymous with progressive ideologies, all of these are at the very least entwined with them, be it in opposing the absurdity of war, breaking free from sexual and emotional repression, opposing institutionalised racism and homophobia, or some other vital cause. These are innovative sounds, but not merely for the sake of art or commerce. They are sounds of resistance.
Generalisations are fraught, of course. I don’t want to make dumb, sweeping statements about Gen Y being jaded and not caring about politics – of course we care – and I don’t want to paint the three “controversial” artists I mentioned earlier as emblems of some Indie-Pop Bigot Conspiracy Against Socially Conscious Music. But what does it say about contemporary indie music’s relationship to politics when the most publicised stirs are internal – beef within the industry, among artists – rather than with tangible forces of oppression or injustice out in the world?
Because even if you think I’m cherry-picking examples, I feel like I’d be hard pressed to come up with many prominent artists in the contemporary left-field who have been vocally political in recent times, either through their music or via other platforms. Last year we had The Knife, with their remarkable “Shaking The Habitual” double album, which drew on feminism, queer theory, environmentalism and structuralism and boasted eye-melting cover art featuring the text “END EXTREME WEALTH.” And yet, upon listening, the political manifesto of the record never felt clear. It was more like a collection of fascinating ideas, grievances and gestures, never really amounting to a Message: even tracks with titles as pointed as “Fracking Fluid Injection” were ultimately oblique, more nightmare than credo. I don’t hold it against them. The album was a great embodiment of the experience of processing politics in the digital age: endless information and a gruelling emotional ride – but no clear solutions. Thom Yorke, though perhaps more direct in political diatribes outside of his music, is a similar example – where a mood of digital-age disenchantment and neurosis trumps any specific statement or call-to-arms.
Elsewhere, there remain politically outspoken hip-hop and punk artists, but I’d argue that they’re exceptions to – rather than embodiments of – the sort of acts that are capturing the public imagination. We prefer uncanny, ironic, coy: music that perhaps has a vague sense of subversion about it, but never gets too earnestly critical – lest we have an “awkward moment when.” Somehow, angry anti-authority music feels crude, old-hat, despite a plenty troubling political situation internationally. We’re too postmodern for single-minded manifestos, too resigned to the toothlessness of broadly political music, and too overloaded with information to form geo-political opinions that last long enough to write a song with.
It feels to me that if any set of politics is preoccupying leftfield artists and audiences, it’s the politics of the personal. Indentity politics, particularly relating to gender, sexuality and race, have been well explored in recent outings from the likes of FKA Twigs, Perfume Genius, Perfect Pussy, Shabazz Palaces, Mykki Blanco, Tune-Yards and countless more – even our resident nogoodnik Ariel Pink, in a warped roundabout way, weighs in on the need for freedom to explore one’s complicated, fluid self in a world that increasingly wants to reduce us to hashtags. This personal focus might not be a result of Gen Y insularity (or narcissism) either. Perhaps the aesthetic waves that are cresting are best suited to inward concerns – from the intimacy of experimental R&B, to the tunnel-vision groove of resurgent House and the solitary setting that informs bedroom production of electronica, pop and rap.
A part of me thinks the musical artists forging innovative sounds should take stock of their position on the world stage and consider their output holistically. No, left-field musicians don’t have an obligation to be moral role models or political leaders, but perhaps it’d be nice to use those louder-than-average voices for something better than regressive internet slander. Perhaps our generation of innovators can find a way over the hurdles of cynicism, self-consciousness and information overload to coalesce around a loose political thrust that’s befitting of its progressive aesthetics. But what will cause that to happen? Certainly not this article. Certainly not even a whole bunch of articles.
After a few hundred words bemoaning political passivity, I don’t want to get all “so it goes” on the matter. But maybe the conditions aren’t right for avant-garde pop that tackles the macrocosm just yet. Perhaps this wave of identity-interrogating, assumption-questioning political introspection needs to peak before we look outwards.
Perhaps before the experimentalists can tackle the world again, they need some time with themselves.