Ten protest songs for 2012

After the promising upheavals of 2011, this year felt like a disappointment in many ways. Among other things, the fallout from the Arab Spring was messy and bloody, Occupy’s energy dissipated, Wikileaks shrivelled into the paranoid cult of Assange, and Russia cracked down hard on dissenting voices, most notably Pussy Riot’s. The Eurozone continues to wobble while austerity in Britain goes on and on. The most encouraging development, whatever reservations one might have about the Obama administration, was the defeat of Mitt Romney despite the efforts of the Tea Party, billionaire donors and a long, expensive, dirty campaign. I particularly enjoyed the fact that, having rubbished the feckless 47%, he ended up receiving just 47% of the vote himself.

Here, in no particular order, are nine songs which said something to me about the political mood of 2012. Apart from the ferocious White Trash Empire, who give all their songs away online, I haven’t come across many underground examples but I’m sure I’ve overlooked some and would welcome any suggestions in the comments.

The Rolling Stones, Doom and Gloom

OK, so it’s not strictly a protest song but then the Stones rarely make strict protest songs. Even in the late 60s they were better at creating Rorshach blots of dread in which listeners could discern whatever shapes they liked. I like the humour here, starting with its cranky title, which makes me think of someone’s dad watching the news and tutting. It’s not a sophisticated sentiment but it’s a common one during periods when all the news seems to be bad, and it’s expressed with wit and vigour if not precision. Jagger’s concerns are vague. There’s a verse about fracking, some hints at the economic crisis and a bit about “an overseas war”. Jagger has taken on this kind of subject before, in Highwire and Sweet Neo Con, but this is very much the view from Davos, where he was this year’s celebrity guest: “Lost all that treasure in an overseas war/It just goes to show you don’t get what you paid for.” Never mind the morality – he makes it sound like a bad investment. His mood is lifted in the chorus by dancing with a lady, while Keith’s guitar does most of the heavy lifting, as so often before. Subject matter aside, this is the best Stones single since Undercover of the Night almost 30 years ago, which really was a protest song.

Yeasayer, Reagan’s Skeleton

It may not be intentional but the Brooklynite’s creepy disco record feels like a conceptual sequel to REM’s Exhuming McCarthy. Like that song, it uses a revenant as a metaphor for the resurgence of conservative values, and deploys a suitably retro genre to get the message across. It’s dark and funny and fiendishly catchy. They released it in time for both Halloween and the presidential election, where the Reagan worshippers were thankfully defeated, as much by their own delusions (which I discussed in a recent post) as by President Obama.

Plan B, Ill Manors

After I wrote an early celebration of Plan B’s abrupt left-turn into politics this year, several responses followed. One blogger called him a condescending liberal for blaming society rather than the rioters themselves. Another one called him a condescending liberal for not blaming society enough and failing to call for the downfall of capitalism. This confirmed two things. Firstly, attacking condescending liberals is very popular. Secondly, a lot of people have a very strange way of assessing protest songs. I stand by my initial praise of the record precisely because it captured the ambivalence that many felt towards last summer’s rioters — unwilling to condemn them outright a la Cameron yet unable to agree with the anarchist left that they were mounting “a tentative insurrection”. I have increasingly little patience for kneejerk responses, especially when they take a deliberately complex and fluid song and berate it for not vindicating their own views. The history of protest songs is full of records with which I don’t wholly agree — many of them far more muddled than Ill Manors and no less great for it. Ball of Confusion, for one, has no coherent political position but it’s thrilling beyond belief. For me, the key here is the explosive breakbeat in the chorus, which comes in a few bars later than expected, as if Plan B doubts his own cathartically reductive response (“Oi!”) before he surrenders to it. The album and movie that followed were far more flawed, too prone to tip into grisly melodrama in order to make a point about moral autonomy versus external pressure — a point which this song already makes brilliantly and without coming to any simplistic conclusion.

Bruce Springsteen, We Take Care of Our Own

In the past decade Springsteen has reinvented, or at least clarified, himself as a broad-shouldered liberal superhero, framing his tales of working-class strife in an increasingly explicit left-wing context, and delivering the kind of inspiring rhetoric that the left would like to hear Obama employ more often. Only Rolling Stone editors think that Wrecking Ball is a classic Springsteen album but this is a deceptively clever anthem whose title cuts both ways: is it sincere or sarcastic? Is he singing about the America he wants or the one he fears? He could not have imagined how pertinent it would become when Hurricane Sandy smacked into his beloved New Jersey and the spectre of Katrina (“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/We needed help but the cavalry stayed home”) was at least partially exorcised by the government’s response. To make the connection even stronger, Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor whose praise for Obama during the crisis outraged no-quarter Republicans, is a famously devoted Springsteen fanatic, and the singer had recently committed to campaigning for the President. The hurricane relief effort, though hardly flawless, blasted the sarcasm from the song’s chorus and suggested for a moment a country where politicians could cross party lines to do the right thing. Disappointingly, Springsteen didn’t play it at the 12-12-12 Concert for Sandy Relief but did play Wrecking Ball — a song which, as Roy Wilkinson wrote in the late, lamented The Word magazine, is the first stadium rock song ever written from the point of view of an actual stadium.

An aside: After years of agnosticism, I wrote a piece about the charm of Springsteen fandom, and went to see him in Hyde Park with the intention of surrendering to his hokey qualities rather than resisting them. I’ve rarely had so much fun suspending my disbelief.

Killer Mike, Reagan

Asked about this stomping beast of a track, Killer Mike revealed: “I threw a BBQ when Reagan died.” But it’s not just the target of the track who belongs to another era. This is enjoyably old-fashioned agit-rap to trigger waves of nostalgia in anyone who remembers the heyday of Public Enemy and Ice Cube: “Grandpa, tell us about Tipper Gore and Daryl Gates!” The Atlanta rapper is 37, which explains a lot. It opens with a sample of Reagan talking about Iran/Contra but Mike isn’t just interested in political controversies of yesteryear. He goes in hard on rappers’ empty consumerist boasts (“We should be indicted for bullshit we’re inciting/Hand the children death and pretend that it’s exciting”), unravels the consequences of the war on drugs, dips into a bit of blood-for-oil rhetoric and finishes up with some retro numerology (Ronald Wilson Reagan = 666, you see). The segue from powerfully clear analysis to fuzzy, borderline conspiracy-theorist thinking (amplified tenfold in the video) might be the most early 90s thing about a very early 90s track, despite the contemporary refit by producer El-P. I’m not someone who thinks that hip hop’s been going downhill since protest slid to the background — in fact it’s in rude health this year, and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid mAAd City is a deeply moral record, if not a big-picture political one — but I’m not immune to a throwback when it’s done this well.

Muse, Animals

The main reason I was excited to be asked to interview Muse this year was the chance to take Matt Bellamy’s politics seriously. Black Holes and Revelations and The Resistance both had real political concerns at their heart but for most critics these messages got lost in the conspiracy theories and space-rock hoopla. With The 2nd Law, Bellamy’s outgrown his interest in David Icke and 9/11 Truthers and thought hard about the realities of capitalism and the fallacy of endless growth. He’s certainly the first musician I’ve ever heard cite 19th century US economist Henry George as an influence. I was delighted to get him to disown Glenn Beck and other Muse fans on the libertarian right, and even happier to prompt a response from Beck himself.

But anyway, Animals. It’s a cliché to compare Muse to a steroidal Radiohead but this really does sound like the older band, in the best possible way. It’s the kind of slow-burning, clear-cut protest song that might have appeared on OK Computer if Thom Yorke weren’t such an opaque lyricist. While Green Day, Bloc Party and Tom Morello all wrote songs for or about Occupy, Animals best conveys visceral disgust for the callousness of the one per-cent. Bellamy strips down capitalism to its Darwinian essence (“kill the competition”) and concludes by wishing death on the “animals”. Bellamy is well-aware of the contradiction inherent in a major rock band scorning capitalism (“I think for every finger you point there should be three pointing back at you,” he replied neatly) and this is what makes the whole album interesting to me: a band famed for their excess warning that “endless growth is unsustainable”. It’s morally simple to believe you are the solution but braver and more honest to accept that you’re part of the problem. As are we all. Bassist Chris Wolstenholme told me:

“You don’t have to drive a big car and be a billionaire to be an absolute arsehole. It’s not just these big businessen or the banks, it’s everybody. We’re all obsessed with money, we’re all obsessed with growth, and we’re all obsessed with using as much energy as we possibly can to entertain ourselves. People with money can do it, people without money can’t do it as much, but I think everybody’s guilty of the same pleasures – it’s just on a different scale.”

On first exposure I mistook the climactic clamour for a demonstration or a riot but it’s actually the final seconds of a day in the New York Stock Exchange. The howling and chattering makes perfect sense of the song’s title — the sound of macho capitalism with blood in its mouth.

Pussy Riot, Putin Lights up the Fires

In October I was chuffed to be asked by Kerry McCarthy MP to appear on a panel for an event about Pussy Riot at the House of Commons, alongside writer and musician John Robb, Independent columnist Joan Smith, Chris Bryant MP and Natalia Koliada, a Belarusian forced into exile because of her role in the underground Belarus Free Theatre. We talked about the Pussy Riot trial and the challenges faced by dissident artists in Russia and Belarus. We listened to actresses read the Pussy Riot trio’s extraordinary closing statements to the court. What we didn’t do was play any music.

Admittedly Pussy Riot are less a band than an activist collective who see their work as “modern art,” but they chose punk-rock for a reason and it does seem odd to remove music from the equation. The thorny question is whether or not their music is any good. When I was writing the book, I set myself a rule that I would only deal at length with songs that I loved for their music as well as their message, but Pussy Riot’s performances didn’t meet that standard for me. “You don’t have to sing very well,” a member called Garadzha told a Russian newspaper. “It’s punk. You just scream a lot.” Well OK, up to a point but if I didn’t know the back story would I want to play these songs? Honestly, no. But then came their post-trial release Putin Lights Up the Fires, which has the catchy, clenched-first urgency of one of their inspirations, Bikini Kill. Their importance certainly doesn’t depend on the opinion of music journalists but this terrific record was nonetheless welcome.

I’ve written at greater length about Pussy Riot in a forthcoming Guardian article and will post a link as soon as it’s online.

Ry Cooder, Brother Is Gone

In the centenary of Woody Guthrie’s birth, Cooder’s ornery Election Special was the album which best captured Woody’s blend of compassion and biting wit. “I have to find little storylines,” he told Uncut. “I have to have something I can play and sing, in some style or some instrumental point of view – a country tune or a blues tune – updating these things that I grew up listening to, these Depression-era songs and whatnot.” He explores a range of voices and styles but this is my favourite: a blues fable in which the Obama-hating billionaire Koch brothers shake hands with the Devil at the crossroads. There’s humour in the conceit but the music is bleakly affecting — a reminder of the bullet America just dodged.

Ai Weiwei, Grass Mud Horse Style

I concede at this point that I need never hear Gangnam Style again as long as I live. What was once a song is know a brutally exhausted meme, but it was hard not to be charmed by Ai Weiwei’s version, tweaked to mock the Chinese regime. To quote the Guardian’s report: “Ai’s parody is titled Grass Mud Horse Style after an alpaca-like animal invented by China’s web users as a protest against internet censorship – its pronunciation in Chinese (Cao Ni Ma) sounds similar to a profane insult, forbidden on the country’s social networking sites.” Anish Kapoor followed it with his own version in solidarity with Ai Weiwei. In a way, these versions belong to the tradition of civil rights demonstrators or ban-the-bomb marchers humorously putting new protest lyrics to famous songs — the more obvious the melodies, the quicker they’d catch on. It’s freedom singing with a YouTube makeover. I still don’t want to hear the song again.

I was also overjoyed to discover PSY’s past as a hardcore protest singer, covering rock band NEXT’s Dear American: “Kill those fucking Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives.” Obviously he apologized fulsomely after Fox News drummed it up into a pseudo-controversy, but what a surprising twist to the year’s biggest pop story.

Miguel, Candles in Sun

A nice bookend to Doom & Gloom. I’ve said before that the main obstacle to writing a protest song now isn’t so much fear of censorship and backlash as it is a fear of sounding naff. If the theme is of the broad, problems-of-the-world-today variety, a songwriter has to ask three questions: Has it been said before? Is it kind of obvious? Is it worth saying anyway? In the case of this song by Californian R&B singer Miguel, the answer to all three is yes. Miguel released an earlier version on his free Art Dealer Chic Vol.3 EP and when you listen to the two versions back to back you can actually hear him mustering his courage. The EP version makes its anxiety of influence transparent with the title Candles in the Sun, Blowin’ in the Wind and an interview sample of John Lennon sounding like one of those hokey inspirational quotes that people post on Facebook. Obviously the spiritual-political soul of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye is in the mix too but Dylan and Lennon are unnecessary crutches used to prop up what Miguel is doing: a nervous plea to tradition. When he revisits the song on his brilliant Kaleidoscope Dream album, he shrugs them off. There are still shards of history embedded in the lyrics: the “diamond in the back” part of the chorus draws on William DeVaughn’s Be Thankful For What You’ve Got, “Sun goes down/heroes often get shot” paraphrases OutKast’s Aquemini, and there are probably other references I haven’t spotted yet. You could, for example, hear his plaintive questions, “Where are we going?/What are we doing?”, as deliberate riffs on What’s Goin’ On. But the completed song sounds so persuasive and heartfelt that Miguel certainly doesn’t need Lennon’s ghost anymore. It’s as if, during the song’s evolution, he realised that to sing about sociopolitical issues doesn’t make you a throwback as long as you do it well. That’s a valuable realisation.

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