Sunday, 24 October 2010

Music and politics

Since it's half-term, it's time for some less heavy articles, starting with me rambling about songs which are about or relate to politics. Some musicians like to look like they have social commentary they're bursting to share, and they do so through the medium of noise. So here's a short selection of songs I like which also relate to politics. I'll try to keep any pretentious lyric analysis to a minimum, and don't expect my comments to be interesting - music is certainly not my forte. Look elsewhere if you want someone more competent at this.

Hand to Mouth - George Michael, 1987

Whilst we all know him as that bloke who gets arrested for various reasons, it turns out George Michael finds time to make music in the periods which he's not snorting cocaine, crashing his car, or having sex in public toilets. Seeing as I consider myself a George Michael fan, I was surprised that, when I heard it recently, I didn't remember hearing it previously. Since I had nothing better to do, I googled the lyrics to find out what he was going on about, and it turns out that he was singing about Reagan's America. Michael seems to have written a lonely, sad account of the people left behind by the economic growth-centric policies of former President Ronald Reagan, who was pretty much a male Thatcher. He sought economic growth by cutting taxes, in particular, cutting the top rate of tax from 70% to about 30%. He is seen by some - including me -as being a President who had the interests of the rich at heart and therefore ignored everyone else in pursuit of the trickle-down view of economics, making the poor slightly better off whilst the rich get much, much richer.

George tells us the story of people left behind by Reaganomics, with the chorus repeating that the Gods of America - the politicians - are uninterested in their plight.

The Times They Are A-Changin' - Bob Dylan, 1964

It's probably blasphemy to say so, but I don't like Bob Dylan's version. I grew up with Phil Collins singing it, so for me that's the definitive version. The song was written in the 1960s, and it serves as a sort of anthem for the changes of the decade, reflecting the restlessness and the civil rights movement. There's a committed, almost obnoxious, tone about it which calls on those who stand in the way of progress to move aside or be defeated by the tide of change.

Fast Car - Tracy Chapman, 1988

I don't think anyone could have delivered this quite so well as Tracy Chapman. She tells the story of a life of being trapped in poverty, and her attempt at getting a better life. She sings of dragging herself and her partner to a better life, but being held back by the lack of commitment of the partner. For me, it's a sad tale of the lengths people have to go to to get out of poverty, and though she beings to achieve the better life she dreamed of, it comes at a cost of her relationship being strained and ending as she asks him to drive away in the fast car which saved her.

Maggie's Last Party - VIM, 1991

Margaret Thatcher singing about acid parties and remarkable records. I am easily amused.

Viva La Vida - Coldplay, 2008

I don't like Coldplay - they seem to have set out with the intention of depressing everyone, with this song being the only exception. Even the front cover the album is politics-related, depicting the French revolution. The song covers a fall from wealth, power, or fame, using the collapse of the monarchy in France as a metaphor for his. "The old King is dead, long live the King" seems to be a bleak reference to the continuity of politics - we replace one leader with another, revolutions tend to just replace one kind of dictator with another (ie, Russian revolution.) That's how I see it anyway, but I'm a moron.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World - Tears for Fears, 1985

Perhaps simply about the lust for power in all of us. We all sometimes think we can do a better job than our politicians. The band itself spoke of the song being about the vying for power between leaders, with them all seeking dominance, and the misery that this desire can cause in the form of conflict and war, which contrasts to the upbeat tone.

Eve of Destruction - Barry McGuire, 1965

Fond memories of listening to this during a GCSE history class. Like Dylan's song above, a reflection of discontent of the 60s, most particularly the Vietnam War. The scratchy, rough vocals communicate genuine anger which adds to the protest of the song.

Another Day in Paradise - Phil Collins, 1989

I had to have Phil Collins on this list because he's so fantastic. Luckily, this song is very appropriate for this list, since he seeks to highlight the plight of the homeless. I must admit I find it a bit patronising, since Collins has plenty of money with which to help the homeless if he wants to, but instead he decided to preach to the public.

I Won't Let the Sun Go Down On Me - Nik Kershaw, 1983

Despite the upbeat, happy tone of the song, it's all about the Cold War and the threat of nuclear weapons being used.  I love how it reduces the conflict to two leaders determined not to be outmanoeuvred and be made to look weak. At its best, it simplifies the entire conflict as a question of "is he blue or his he red?", highlighting the stupidity of an ideological conflict potentially resulting in the mass destruction of life.

Shopping - The Pet Shop Boys, 1987

This relates to Thatcher's mass-privatisation of nationally-owned businesses like National Rail and  British Gas. The Pet Shop boys protest against this in the only way they know how - through synthesised music.

Money's Too Tight (To Mention) - The Valentine Brothers, 1982

I always thought that Simply Red's version (1985) was the original, but it turns out that these two chaps did it before him, and their version is much better. This song in particularly poignant at the moment: the Government claims money's tight; for many people money is tight as a result of the recession; and it's certainly going to be tight for students due to the fees hike. This song's even got reference to Reaganomics - what more could you want?

For The Love Of Money - O'Jays, 1973

Needs little explanation - simply a reflection of an obsession with money. Very catchy.

Living for the City - Stevie Wonder, 1973

Wikipedia summarises this one better than I could: " The song begins with Wonder describing the life of a boy born in "hard time Mississippi". His family is poor, but his parents work hard and encourage him, in spite of the dreadful conditions they live in, which include lack of food and money, and racism. As the track progresses, the tension and anger build in Wonder's voice, matching the growing frustrations of the subjects in the song.

A spoken interlude midway through the song has the young boy, now a young man, arriving in New York City for a new beginning. He is tricked into transporting drugs, arrested and sentenced to 10 years in jail. The tension in Wonder's voice boils over at this point into an angry growl, but then subsides again as he ends the song on a positive note."

This full-length version is much better than the cut-down one you'll hear on the radio.

Things Can Only Get Better - D:Ream, 1993

Not political in nature, but it was famously used by the Labour party in their 1997 election campaign to highlight that things were so bad under the Tories, that things could only get better with a Labour government. Probably the best example of music being used in election campaigns. The video is absolutely atrocious.

Something Inside So Strong - Labi Siffre, 1987

I can't believe I forgot to put this one in! Siffre is singing about the South African apartheid, challenging the notion of Black people being inferior, and reminding the oppressors that the oppressed with remain strong.

Shoot the Dog - George Micahel, 2002

A rallying cry against what George saw as Tony Blair, and therefore the UK, being George Bush's political puppy, being willing to do whatever he asked. The video was made by the excellent people who made 2DTV. George Michael's willingness to poke fun at himself throughout the video is wonderful, and him coming onto Cherie Blair is priceless.

We Didn't Start the Fire - Billy Joel, 1989

No list of songs relating to politics would be complete without this one. A list of 120 events occurring from 1949 to 1989. It provides a great springboard for finding out more about the events mentioned, with the full list being available here.


You may have noticed that most of these songs are from the 1980s. That wasn't intentional, it just happened naturally because the 80s was so bloody brilliant for music. 80s music will never be surpassed.

No comments:

Post a Comment