Q Magazine

Guest Column - Can today's music reflect the politics of our times?

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Dr John Street is professor of politics at the University Of East Anglia who has specialised his research on politics impact on culture and the mass media. A long standing music reviewer for The Times, his recently published book Politics And Music examins music’s political power and in a guest column for Q he looks at whether music can still define its times and more spesifically the politics that inform them.

Does music reflect the politics of its time and place? Could you tell, just by listening to the music, what kind of political regime was in charge, or what kind of political conflicts were in play?

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That was what they said about soul and the civil rights movement. You could hear the hope in The ImpressionsPeople Get Ready and the bitter lessons in Gil Scott Heron‘s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. That was what they said about punk: it was the sound of economic meltdown; the sound of the disaffected and the neglected. It was class war set to a 4/4 rhythm. That was what they said about Ghost Town in 1981. The Specials AKA, it seemed, eerily and presciently captured the sound of an urban England teetering on the brink of riot.

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But, of course, it is never this simple. What was the sound of 1967, the moment when flower power hit the streets of London? Was it The BeatlesSgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Was it All You Need Is Love? performed live on television to an international audience of millions? For some, this may have been what they heard then, but for many others the year resonated to a different tune: to the voice of Julie Andrews and the von Trapp family, to Edelweiss, My Favourite Things, and Do-Re-Mi. The soundtrack to The Sound Of Music featured prominently in the album charts of the late 1960s.

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By this criteria, though, what seems like decades of UK history echoed to Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side Of The Moon, and 2011 was lived to Adele‘s 21.

Except again it is different now. Music, like society, has been re-ordered. There’s no Top Of The Pops to help define the moment. Does anyone care, if they ever did, who has the Christmas Number 1, let alone all those other Number 1’s lost to the months of March and May? The chart shows competes with a multitude of internet stations, not to mention the streaming sites in which we are our own DJ. ‘We’ are not listening to the same music anymore, so what hope is there it reflects ‘our’ times?

Except it does; just it as always has, as an echo chamber for our emotions and feelings. Musicians are not – at least, not the good ones – frustrated political journalists. We do not look to them for the truth, anymore than we expect them to reflect the routines of our ordinary lives. What we do, though, is to find in their tunes and beats, their words and voices, an odd moment that captures what it feels like to be inhabiting this odd, messed-up world.

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In one of my favourite books, Larry’s Party, the author Carol Shields writes of her hero: “Larry listens. This is how he’s learning about the world, exactly as everyone else does – from sideways comments, sudden bursts of comprehension or weird parallels that some curling out of the radio, out of a movie, off the pages of a newspaper, out of a joke – and his baffled self stands back and says: so this is how it works.”

This is how music still marks our times and our politics. Not in grand musical manifestos, but in whispered words and in tunes that haunt us.

John Street

Politics And Music is available now via Amazon.co.uk.

For more polticis and music get our current issue, Q307 out now, for Dorian Lynskey‘s investigation into the realtionship between music and the recent Occupy… movement.


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