This year, the deaths of two political titans meant that I was asked to consider 1980s protest songs yet again and I experienced a curious nostalgia for the music if not the times. It felt as if left-wing musicians knew where they stood back then. They had a hero and a villain and what they wanted could be condensed into a three-word slogan: stand down Margaret, free Nelson Mandela. Eventually Margaret did stand down and Mandela was freed and new problems arose, but for a decade these two figures allowed for a bracing simplicity that the current political landscape does not. It was apt that 2013’s most commercially successful and genuinely controversial act of pop protest was a song from The Wizard of Oz repositioned as a cackle of good riddance to the Iron Lady.
I make this point so often that I’m at risk of boring myself let alone you but any understanding of current protest songs demands the acceptance that different eras produce different kinds of protest. If you judge the present by the standards of the past you will always be disappointed; if you’re open to new approaches then you’ll find plenty to chew on.
2013 didn’t give us a classic, lightning-rod record on a par with Ill Manors or Let England Shake but provided so much to talk and think about. Much of the debate took place around pop itself and the complicated messages it contains. Was Robin Thicke a misogynist or worse? Were Lorde and Macklemore making liberal points at the expense of black artists? Were the pungent observations about race and class on Kanye West’s Yeezus fatally compromised by Kanye’s narcissism and misogyny? Not all of the discourse was illuminating — some of it was terrible — but I’m glad it’s taking place, a widespread acknowledgement of August Wilson’s axiom, “All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.”
Lorde’s Royals was one of my favourite songs of the year and proved provocative in ways that the singer couldn’t have imagined. It’s here, particularly, that I found online debate depressingly simplistic. To find Royals racist you’d have to believe that (a) only black artists sing or rap about luxury goods (b) black artists sing or rap about nothing but luxury goods and (c) you cannot criticize anyone for singing or rapping about luxury goods. The first two are patently false while the third is absurd. When you’ve beaten the odds you were born with, I can understand the desire to celebrate your newfound wealth but there’s nothing inherently noble or progressive about doing so repeatedly at the expense of other subjects, especially during a recession which has seen nothing boom except income inequality. Socially conscious rappers have been making that point for 20 years and usually with more self-righteous fire than Lorde. One thing I love about Royals is that it’s not about the artists themselves, and what they should or shouldn’t be doing, but the cumulative effect of vacuous wealth porn on the alienated listener. Furthermore, Lorde is honest enough to be both repelled and seduced by the fantasy: “We don’t care” but at the same time “we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.” She wrote it when she was 15 and it’s still more nuanced and intelligent than any of the attacks on it.
When I asked Lorde about the controversy in Q she had a thoughtful response: “It was just the nature of what I’d been listening to and the references I felt overloaded by. I was just writing a response but I was trying to be funny. It wasn’t this progressive anti-consumerist thing, which is funny because now everyone gets all up in arms about it. What we didn’t realise at the time either is what people think is special about the song is that I’m using that medium to critique that medium. If I’d been in an angry punk band talking about that I wouldn’t be anything special but because I used Top 40 pop to get there that’s what makes it different.”
Macklemore’s music doesn’t move me but Same Love’s critique of homophobia inside and outside hip hop is no less valid for coming from a white artist. It’s obvious from certain articles written in praise of Lorde and Macklemore that some of their supporters do hold hip hop in contempt but there’s no evidence that either artist does and calling either of them racist doesn’t do anyone any good. More depressing is the case of Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here, which squandered its refreshingly frank assault on sexism in the music industry with a video so insensitive that nobody involved in making it seems to have noticed until it was too late that it only mocked black music. As listeners become more attuned to issues of gender and race, you can’t be that thoughtless and get away with it. Sophie Heawood’s response says it all.
Urban music itself is not exactly oblivious to these issues. I’m not sure that even Kanye could explain his politics — he can’t settle on one line of argument for long enough — but the thrilling, maddening Yeezus threw up plenty of chewy ideas along the way. As I wrote earlier in the year, I can’t get my head around the use of Strange Fruit in a song about divorce, or the Black Panther salute as a cheap joke in a sex rhyme, but on New Slaves he questions his own lust for high-end goods and rages at the realisation that wealth simply buys you a better class of racism. Having joined the one per cent, he’s justifiably outraged that most of his fellow rich don’t want him there, a reality that puts his endless monologues about his problems with the fashion industry a notch above simple vanity.
Jay-Z’s thoughts about race and wealth on Oceans were, like New Slaves, enriched by the melancholy presence of Frank Ocean, whose line, “I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo” sets up Jay-Z’s ruminations on the parallel voyages of Christopher Columbus and African slaves. In this context “I crash through glass ceilings/I break through closed doors isn’t an idle boast, it’s the essence of hip hop aspiration. If you prefer the hard-charging old-school belligerence of Public Enemy, it’s there in Killer Mike and El-P’s Run the Jewels album and MIA’s Bring the Noize, and if you want deeply felt, socially aware narratives try Chance the Rapper or Kendrick Lamar’s Black Hippy crew.
Unexpected as Beyonce’s jack-in-the-box album release was, it was even more surprising to hear her sampling a TED talk about feminism by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Flawless. Adichie’s words may be tougher and less ambivalent than Beyonce’s brand of feminism but their presence is electrifying. Janelle Monáe is half Beyonce, half Adichie, a serious thinker with shobiz chops. Her album The Electric Lady was a sci-fable about prejudice and self-expression that captured the surging defiance of 70s soul, especially on Ghetto Woman, a joyous Stevie Wonder homage about her working-class mother. The Erykah Badu duet Q.U.E.E.N. is something like a manifesto: “I’m tired of Marvin asking me What’s Going On?/March to the streets ‘cuz I’m willing and I’m able/Categorize me, I defy every label.”
Feminism seemed to be everywhere, from the sometimes impenetrable gender theory of The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual (“Let’s talk about gender baby/Let’s talk about you and me” is both a line from Full of Fire, a Salt ‘n’ Pepa joke and the album’s implicit subtitle) to the hushed ruminations of Kathryn Williams’ The Known, which was written in a flurry after a heated late-night debate with fellow songwriters.
The discussion carried on outside of the songs. Chrvches frontwoman Lauren Mayberry wrote an eloquent Guardian article about the routine misogynist bullshit every female artist has to confront but rarely talks about and Grimes’ Tumblr posts reveal a sharp young musician working out her thoughts in public. “I’m sad that it’s uncool or offensive to talk about environmental or human rights issues… I’m sad that my desire to be treated as an equal and a human being is interpreted as hatred of men, rather than a request to be included and respected.” I’m sad too but I’m happy that she’s so smart and fearless about saying these things.
My favourite feminist record of 2013 was Kacey Musgraves’ Follow Your Arrow. Co-written by a gay man (Sean McAnally) and a gay woman (Brandy Clark, whose own 12 Songs album is also excellent), it’s a gently subversive twist on the be-yourself anthem. When she sings, “Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that’s something you’re into,” she does so with such casual charm that it’s not a bold stand, just a reflection of the way things are in a changing America. Women in country music have always been more likely then men to highlight the more punishing aspects of smalltown life: gossip, hypocrisy, conservatism and routine male violence that is tolerated rather than condemned. A line runs from Jeannie C Riley’s Harper Valley PTA and The Rib, through the battered-wife of revenge fantasies of Martina McBride (Independence Day) and the Dixie Chicks (Goodbye Earl) to Musgraves’s big-sister reassurance: “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t so you might as well just do whatever you want.” It also contains my favourite lyrical joke of the year but I won’t spoil it for you.
Several artists who emerged in the 80s and 90s took up cudgels this year. Super Furry Animal Cian Ciaran’s They Are Nothing Without Us and ex-Beta Band singer Steve Mason’s Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time were two angry, eclectic albums from people whose hard-left politics was sometimes overlooked first time around. Primal Scream released their best protest song since XTRMNTR (2013) and one of their worst (Culturecide) on the same album. Augmented by Kevin Shields’ hurricane guitar, 2013 sounds inspiringly indignant, flirting with despair: “What happened to the voices of dissent? Getting rich I guess… They killed the counterculture underground/It offers no critique.” Elsewhere in the song the political analysis may not be sophisticated but Russell Brand has proved that’s no obstacle to making an impact. At Glastonbury, Portishead used anti-Trident videos to retrospectively politicise Machine Gun.
In the same year that PJ Harvey accepted an MBE from the Queen, enraging those of her admirers who like to see the world in black and white, she released the kind of direct, topical protest song that she avoided on Let England Shake: Shaker Aamar, about the man who has been in Guantanamo Bay since 2002. It’s far less elegant than her recent work — its blunt staccato reminds me of one of Harold Pinter’s anti-war poems — but that’s not the point. It sounds like moral anger, pure and uncut. It is perhaps the only song this year that could have appeared in the pages of Broadside and had the approval of Pete Seeger.
Manic Street Preachers’ Rewind the Film album haunted me this year with its autumnal reflections on the minefield of middle age, “halfway between acceptance and rage”. It almost throws in the towel on Anthem for a Lost Cause, a song protesting against itself, but performs an explosive U-turn with the class-war history lesson of 30-Year War. There’s a place for subtlety and ambiguity and a place for James Dean Bradfield bearing down on “the endless parade of Old Etonian scum”. Nottingham duo Sleaford Mods don’t fit in anywhere so I’ll mention them here because Austerity Dogs is an album of bleak, unnerving power: a bit Mark E Smith, a bit John Cooper Clarke, a bit hip hop and, in the words of the terrific Quietus review, “Chris Morris with a class consciousness, laying bare the surreal tapestry of horrors that face the working class in Britain today.”
As for even older artists, Bruce Springsteen reanimated some of his old protest songs with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello on tour, including a vengefully heavy The Ghost of Tom Joad and a sombre American Skin (41 Shots), revived during the Trayvon Martin case that also drew a slew of reactions from the hip hop scene. Pet Shop Boys, of all people, took a fairly minor Springsteen song, The Last to Die’s macabre road trip through a war-poisoned America, and made it sound like a classic. David Bowie’s The Next Day was studded with the kind of ominous political allusions that recalled his 70s work. “They can’t get enough of that doomsday song” indeed.
No veteran impressed me more this year than Elvis Costello. He acknowledged Thatcher’s death at Glastonbury with performances of Shipbuilding (wobbly) and Tramp the Dirt Down (spine-tingling) and made an intense, intriguing album, Wise Up Ghost, with the Roots. It created a dialogue between the Roots’ hip hop background with his own past (Stick Out Your Tongue rearranged lyrics from his caustic 30-year-old single Pills and Soap) via the more tense and brooding variety of 70s soul. When I interviewed Costello alongside Questlove for MOJO, he was coy about specific issues: “If you look out of the window you don’t have to look very far.” Like Bowie, he’s more interested in evoking an atmosphere of fear and crisis than in sloganeering and when he sings “Seems that everything is about to blow” he doesn’t need to name names. Despite having written or produced some of the all-time great protest songs (including Nelson Mandela for the Special AKA), he’s always been ambivalent about politics in music and when I raised the subject he had some thoughts which are worth quoting here:
“It’s the delusion of protest music: because you write it, it changes things. It doesn’t. It only changes in the hearts of people who listen. I always felt that when people said it’s really subversive you’ve fucked it up right away by saying it’s subversive. And it’s not brave. Victor Jara – that’s brave. If they lock you up in a football stadium and chop your hands off, that’s brave. If you sing it despite knowing that will happen to you, that’s brave. Most of the time the worst thing that can happen is they won’t play your record or the record label drops you off. It’s not the most dramatic thing that can happen to you.”
Finally, I enjoyed two songs which were expanded and enriched by their videos. Watching Lil Wayne’s God Bless Amerika, filmed in a poor black neighbourhood I felt that the rapper was happy to play second fiddle to the people around him. They are the real stars, not merely living props, and they convey the song’s message about the holes in the American dream — holes big enough to swallow lives — more powerfully than the lyrics.
Esperanza Spalding’s anti-Guantanamo Bay We Are America uses its video to convey information that wouldn’t work in a lyric, with cameos from Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte and Janelle Monáe. The joy in the music and the performances makes an argument for what America should be, and how antithetical Guantanamo is to the better angels of its nature.
That’s why Spalding told NPR, “We weren’t thinking of a ‘protest’ song, we’re thinking of a ‘let’s get together and do something pro-active, creative and productive’ song.” That’s her call but let’s no split hairs. Bob Dylan didn’t think Blowin’ in the Wind was a protest song either. If you feel that I’ve applied the term to broadly here then it’s because I think narrow definitions paint a misleading picture. Whatever words you want to use, politics was very much at home in music, and the discussion of music, in 2013. I’ve compiled a playlist of all the songs mentioned here that are available on Spotify. You might also enjoy playlists of my favourite songs of 2013: choose from the seven-hour epic version or the edited highlights.