Cancelling the president

Quick question. Which of these events do you consider the biggest threat to democracy?

Is it a violent mob, bringing together neo-Nazis and QAnon believers with elected Republican officials and off-duty cops, which storms the Capitol, vandalises, loots, attacks journalists, kills a police officer and calls for politicians to be lynched, all in an attempt to overturn a free and fair election, with the encouragement of Republican members of Congress and the president himself?

Or is it the decision of social media platforms to suspend the accounts of that president?

Some people find this a tough call.

It has been a difficult week for commentators on the right, because they assured us last autumn that this wouldn’t happen. “Deplorables don’t riot,” Freddy Gray declared in The Spectator. “This town is not bracing for disgruntled Trump-ists to smash it up,” Douglas Murray insisted on Twitter. “There will be no Trump coup,” Ross Douthat promised in the New York Times. Well, it happened.

Immediately after the invasion of the Capitol, right-wing pundits scrambled for distractions and qualifications. What about violence during Black Lives Matter protests? What if the insurrection wasn’t really that bad because it quickly failed? What if it was, in some way, justified? Election truther and supposed deradicalisation expert Maajid Nawaz told his LBC listeners over the weekend: “If you mess with elections, people… that’s the only outlet they have! That concerns me, because we’ve seen what happens with civil unrest, in the Capitol, right, so it’s elections that are done freely and fairly that prevent that!” (Anyone relying on Nawaz for information might not realise that Trump’s team have had two months and dozens of lawsuits in which to produce solid evidence of election fraud and have failed to do so.)

None of these gambits were working until the cavalry arrived in the form of actual consequences, starting with the cancellation of MAGA Senator Josh Hawley’s book contract and the removal of Donald Trump from social media. Now this was something the pundits could get their teeth into. Free speech! Cancel culture! Slippery slope! Here was their chance to crawl back to their comfort zone of aggrieved self-pity, where they could issue mealy-mouthed pleas for national unity and healing while expandering the parameters of unacceptable wokeness to include anyone who thinks that politicians who incite sedition should not simply carry on as before. I guess Trump boycotters such as Deutsche Bank, Forbes magazine and the Professional Golfers’ Association are woke now.

I do not believe that every form of censorship by a private company is fine just because it’s legal, and I think that Big Tech’s disciplinary procedures require more consistency and transparency, but let’s be clear: there is no Twitter purge of conservatives. Milo Yiannopoulos was permanently suspended in 2016 for targeted harassment and Steve Bannon got the boot last year for saying that Anthony Fauci should be beheaded, but the vast majority of prominent right-wingers aren’t going anywhere. Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg are not left-wing ideologues. It took years of pressure from users for these platforms to do anything serious about harassment, hate speech, disinformation and threats of violence and it is still inadequate.

While it is amusing to see free-market conservatives suddenly call for Twitter to be heavily regulated or even nationalised, the platform is currently neither a public service nor a human right. It is an online forum which, like every online forum I have used, has rules, moderators and mechanisms for expulsion. Meanwhile, very right-wing opinions are freely aired in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites, bestselling books, TV channels and radio stations.

Perhaps the basic principles of free speech should be taught in schools because many if its noisiest defenders seem unaware that it has any limits whatsoever. Anyone familiar with John Stuart Mill, George Orwell or First Amendment jurisprudence knows that free speech, in philosophy and in law, does not cover speech that is both false and dangerous.

The kind of speech that fomented the attack on the Capitol cannot be euphemised as “challenging opinions” or “viewpoint diversity”. If Trump had not convinced his supporters that he had been robbed of victory, there would have been no mob. If he had not turned on his own vice-president, that mob would not have chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” Twitter is neither legally nor morally obliged to facilitate a coup attempt against Congress and the president-elect. Its ban is unprecedented because it is unprecedented for the man most responsible for radicalising terrorists in the US to be the president, and for a president to face impeachment for a second time. Free speech is fundamental in a democracy but not as fundamental as the peaceful transfer of power, without which a country is not a democracy at all.

It is no surprise to see the Trump loyalists try to change the conversation. Josh Hawley complained that the loss of his book deal is “Orwellian” (it’s not), publishers Simon & Schuster are now a “woke mob” (they’re not), and it is “a direct assault on the First Amendment” (it’s not). Spooky-faced Congressman Matt Gaetz tweeted: “We cannot live in a world where Twitter’s terms of service are more important than the terms in our Constitution and Bill of Rights” (we don’t).

But the ranks of those who are more troubled by a Twitter ban than by an insurrection include people who consider themselves moderate conservatives (Bari Weiss), centrists (Jesse Singal), socialists (Jimmy Dore) and whatever the hell Glenn Greenwald thinks he is (Glenn Greenwald). What’s up with them?

I think many of them have been working the anti-wokeness beat for so long that they have fully convinced themselves that the bigger threat always comes from the left and are therefore unable to process what happened in Washington last Wednesday on its own terms. When you’re obsessed with the danger of Twitter “mobs”, you cannot reckon with the historic enormity of a real mob which attempts to block the certification of an election by force. When you see everything in terms of left v right, you cannot explain an insurrection that threatened Mike Pence and killed a Trump-supporting police officer. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Sure, far-right conspiracy theorists storming the halls of Congress with nooses and zip-ties is bad but… cancel culture?

The endless pictures of the guy who looks like Thor crossed with Jamiroquai risk misrepresenting the attack as a tragicomedy. As CNN reported: “Only later did it become clear that lawmakers feared for their lives; that some of the attackers were hunting for congressional leaders; that there could have been a massacre.” The FBI reports that armed pro-Trump protests are being planned at the Capitol and all 50 state capitols in the days before Biden’s inauguration. Last year, the FBI thwarted a far-right plot to kidnap and execute Gretchen Whitmer, the Michigan governor denounced by Trump. Last Wednesday, several protesters told reporters that they were willing to die for Trump, while some Republican congressmen apparently voted to block certification because they feared for their safety if they did not.

In the face of such extremism, the standard claim that only good arguments can defeat bad arguments just won’t do. Terrorists are not traditionally deradicalised with a trenchant podcast. Fascists do not think again when their logical fallacies are exposed during a lively exchange of views.

Free speech is fragile. There’s a growing number of people, especially young, especially on the left, who do not consider it an important value, in part because they associate it with bad faith on the right. They will probably send you that banal xkcd cartoon about how you have nothing to fear unless “the people listening think you’re an asshole,” which is not exactly on a par with On Liberty. But then nor are the arguments they are countering. The free speech debate has degenerated into a roundelay of glib cliches which avoid any serious discussion of tensions between competing rights.

Conservatives who care about this principle can help to restore its legitimacy by denouncing extremists, drawing red lines and defending free-speech rights that actually exist rather than an anarchic fantasyland of do-as-you-please. Instead, they wail about a sudden drop in Twitter followers (unaware that the banished accounts are bots and QAnon believers rather than thoughtful conservatives who worry about no-platforming on campus), fantasise about a ban that will grant them heroic martyrdom, and turn poor old George Orwell into the “say whatcha like” guy.

The people who have spent years deriding “snowflakes” wallow in victimhood and bemoan the loss of their safe space Parler, the self-proclaimed haven for “civil discourse” that has just been forced offline because it was infested with threats and plots of further violence. (This Bellingcat article screenshots several unmoderated far-right Parler posts prior to January 6.) Pundits who spent four years accusing liberals of hysterical overreaction and Trump Derangement Syndrome think the sky is falling in because the president can’t undermine the election on social media anymore. Those who sneered “Facts don’t care about your feelings” now defend the right of Trump supporters to be upset about election theft that exists only in their minds.

I don’t know what conservatism is meant to be now, but it is no longer about personal responsibility, the rule of law, the preservation of institutions or the right of private companies to decide who uses their services. According to a YouGov poll, 45% of Republicans actively support the mob at the Capitol. Conservatism resembles Bart Simpson when he gets famous for saying “I didn’t do it.” Having rendered itself utterly incapable of self-examination, the movement must blame everything, always, on “the left,” a sinister monolith which extends from anarchist streetfighters to the boardrooms of Facebook. As the New York Times reports, “disdain for the left’s perceived excesses is the most animating, and unifying, force on the right.” Well, what else is there? Popular policies clearly aren’t a priority.

Watching video clips of insurrectionists being arrested over the last few days, I’ve been struck by their shock and indignation. Convinced by the media they consume that only the left is violent and undemocratic, these “patriots” simply cannot believe that they have been apprehended for the criminal acts that they documented and bragged about on social media. Swept up in the president’s furious denial of reality, they are bewildered to discover that their actions do, after all, have consequences.

The Help album 25 years on: an oral history


Twenty-five years ago today, the Help album was recorded in a single day. Earlier this year, I spoke to several of the organisers and artists involved in putting it together for an oral history in Q magazine. Sadly it was the penultimate issue of Q, which became a casualty of Covid-19, so I’m posting the feature here in honour of both the album and the magazine.

On Monday 4 September, 1995, many of the most important artists in Britain went into 20 different studios to make an album for War Child, to raise money for the children of wartorn Bosnia. Recorded in one day and released less than a week later, The Help Album became the best charity album ever made and an unbeatable time capsule of British music at the apex of the 1990s. Twenty-five years on, Q spoke to the people who made it happen.


The plan

Tony Crean (Go! Discs): I had some weird flu in mid-July and it laid me up for a week. I watched the news properly for the first time in ages. It suddenly struck me how close to the rest of Europe this was happening. I thought, Shit, I’ve spent the last couple of years of my life thinking about pop music and not realising what was going on under my nose.

James Dean Bradfield (Manic Street Preachers): It was a brutal aspect of the ‘90s. It had been going on for three years but Srebrenica [the massacre of more than 8000 Bosniaks by Serb militias] was actual genocide. You couldn’t avoid that on the news.

Ed O’Brien (Radiohead): It’s weird: you can be having an amazing summer and people 1000 miles away are living through a nightmare.

Paul Hartnoll (Orbital): I remember one of my housemates saying, “Jesus, if I’d known this would go on so long, I would have paid more attention.”

Andy Macdonald (Go! Discs): Tony came into the office like a man possessed. He said, “Boss, I’ve been watching what’s happening in Bosnia. It’s fucking outrageous. We’ve got to do something.” Tony’s a real force of nature when he gets something on his mind. We met Bill [Leeson] and David [Wilson] from War Child in a pub in Notting Hill.

James Topham (Brian Eno’s office, later War Child): Brian and his wife Anthea had got involved in War Child at the end of ‘93. It wasn’t your average charity because it was set up by two film-makers.

Brian Eno: I’d never been actively involved with any charity before, and I’ve been quite critical of such involvements on the part of others. But Yugoslavia (and Anthea) changed my mind.

Mark Chadwick (The Levellers): It was a very complicated conflict but you put “child” in it and everyone suddenly goes, “Yeah, the innocent.”

James Topham: We’d done two events: Little Pieces from Big Stars, which was musicians’ art, and Pagan Fun Wear, which was musicians’ fashion. I’d been in contact with Tony because I was trying to get [Paul] Weller to do something. At the beginning of August, he rang me and said, “I’ve had this idea.” So we had a meeting at Brian’s office.

Tony Crean: I wanted to show that things could be done really quickly. I remembered years ago Toots and the Maytals recorded a concert on Saturday and had it in the shops on Monday but I had no idea how you do that. And the guy sat next to me said, “I know how you do that. I worked on that record.” And that was Rob Partridge [legendary PR who died in 2008]. Rob was like a magician. If you asked him anything, he knew somebody who could make it happen.

James Topham: Tony said, “I want to do an album, record it in a day and release it in a week.” I remember going to the pub and saying, “This is just nonsense. No one’s going be able to pull this together.” Then Tony came back a week later and said, “I’ve got Oasis, Weller, Portishead, Massive Attack…” It was like, OK, this is real.

Malcolm Gerrie (Initial Pictures): Andy said to Tony, “You need TV as a crucial part of the mix.” Initial shared a building with Go! Discs. I’d made The Tube for Channel 4 and we’d shot the Band Aid film. That got me involved in the power of putting music together with charity.

Ed O’Brien: We were all hugely affected by Live Aid as teenagers. Help was the first thing that really captured the imagination of our generation of musicians.

Tony Crean: There was a war going on and all the music papers were writing about was Blur vs Oasis. I thought if we could get those two bands on the same record people might attention.

James Topham: It had to be a really cool record, because charity records were terrible. We weren’t getting to get Blur and Oasis if we had a bunch of dinosaurs.

Ben Knowles (The Daily Mirror, later War Child): In the early 1990s music and charity had become the uncoolest of bedfellows but there was something rock’n’roll in War Child’s DNA. The logo was sketched on a beermat in a Camden pub by a designer from MTV. This wasn’t another hoary old benefit concert. A record that had Blur and Oasis on it was newsworthy.

Noel Gallagher (1995): We’ll put aside our differences for the cause — and it’s the only time you’ll see the two of us agreeing on anything.

Terri Hall (Hall or Nothing PR): A lot of it was Tony, myself, Anton Brookes [Nirvana’s PR] and Rob Partridge. Anton got Krist Novoselic to write the sleevenotes.

Malcolm Gerrie: Terri knew where to place things to get the message out. When I pitched the documentary to Channel 4 I opened up my backpack, covered the commissioning editor’s desk with press and said, “Are you going to miss this one?”

Tony Crean: I put the radio on and [the Beatles’] Come Together came on. I thought that might make a good title for the album. I spoke to Mr Weller and said, “What do you reckon about doing a cover version?” He said, “If you can get us Abbey Road.”

Paul Weller: Tony said, “Maybe we’ll ask Macca if he’s up for it.” And I was just like, Fucking yes! Obviously. Did I actually think it would happen? Not in my wildest dreams.

Andy Macdonald: We were bouncing around a few Beatles-related ideas: Help, A Day in the Life…

Tony Crean: I was in Go! Discs one day and the writer Paolo Hewitt said, “That was Lennon’s idea. That’s Instant Karma! He said records should be like newspapers.” What a blessing! In the days of Britpop Lennon was a god-like figure. As soon as you said John Lennon people couldn’t turn it down.

Terri Hall: It wasn’t a case of people not wanting to do it. It was a case of we only had 70 minutes of music. That’s why it continued with the EPs.

Tim Burgess (The Charlatans): Everyone was sold on the idea that Instant Karma! was done in 24 hours. I suppose it was everyone in popular British music at the time, wasn’t it?

James Topham: It’s a very good snapshot of British music’s last great hurrah before the internet smashed the industry.

Tony Wright (Terrorvision): It’s like Now That’s What I Call 1995, but for charity.


The recording

Brian Eno’s diary (4 September 1995): Today is the day of the Help sessions. Apparently everyone who said they would did.

Andy Macdonald: Oasis got their gear set up the night before and as soon as the second hand hit midnight, they started playing. They finished in about seven hours. Johnny Depp played guitar.

Tony Crean: Noel rang me up at eight in the morning to say, “We’ve finished already. We wanted to be the first.”

Paul Hartnoll: I got up in the morning and recorded the news. There was a father crying over the death of his son, a 12-year-old boy called Adnan, so I sampled that and made the song about my reaction to that news. When I saw people recording a track that they’d already written I smacked my forehead: Oh! It was only record a track in one day! I wished I’d done a cover of Two Little Boys. But obviously, with Rolf Harris turning out like he did, I’m glad we didn’t.

Geoff Barrow: We actually wrote Mourning Air for a film, Strange Days, without knowing they’d been talking to Skunk Anansie at the same time, and they ended up using Skunk Anansie. We were never a band that was going to write anything in one day but it went from a possible demo to something we had to finish that day.

Terri Hall: When the Stone Roses had just taken five years to make a record, the chances of them doing it in a day [were slim] but that came in quite early. I got John Squire to do the album sleeve.

Mark Chadwick: You could spend a whole day doing snare drums, so to take a song from nothing to something in one day was quite liberating actually.

Graham Coxon: Eine Kleine Lift Musik was something we were playing with at the time. There were a few lyrics thrown at that song that didn’t stick but we used elsewhere. It was meant to be a soothing tune but a little bit jarring and strange.

Ed Simons (The Chemical Brothers): We did have the internet but nobody used it. We had to physically be together. We drove up to Nottingham early in the morning to find an excitable Charlatans. Tim was a big part of the Heavenly Social. We were in each other’s pockets so it seemed like a natural thing to do.

Tim Burgess: I’d appeared on their album and they’d remixed Charlatans songs. We didn’t have any songs so we decided on a Sly and the Family Stone song that we’d heard covered by the Beastie Boys. I started the day drinking Hooch. From then on, I don’t remember that much! The next day, our album debuted at number one.

Marijne van der Vlugt (Salad): Terry Hall asked whether I would like to sing with him. So we sat in this little office afterhours listening to some vinyl and one of them was the Mamas and the Papas, Dream a Little Dream of Me. I said, “This is the one.” We recorded it at Metropolis. There was a string section, two dogs roaming around, babies, press and a video crew. It seemed like the whole world was listening to me improvising some harmonies. I always say it was the highlight of our career. It meant the world to us.

Simon “Sice” Rowbottom (The Boo Radleys): The Wake Up! album had come out so our stock was quite high. We were at The Church in Crouch End. There were lots of TV people around so it was a bit of a circus. It was filmed by Keith Allen. Halfway through the day everybody went to the pub to have a pint with Keith.

Martin Carr (The Boo Radleys): I’ve got a twin brother and we never got on that well. I’d met him at Glastonbury that year and we talked for the first time in years, so I decided to write a song [Oh Brother] about that. I knew we could do it because when you did B-sides you had to record two or three songs in one day.

Graham Coxon: You had to come up with an insane amount of stuff: the 12-inch, the 7-inch, CD1, CD2… Whenever we had a day off from gigs we’d have to record a B-side so we never really got any rest. It’s a confusing time to think about because it was just chaos and drinking. I was a right mess. I did need some help.

James Dean Bradfield: We were travelling to Domfront in France to record Everything Must Go with Mike Hedges. We were on the Eurostar talking about what we should do: “We can’t give A Design for Life away, Kevin Carter’s too brutal lyrically… It’s got to be a cover.” I’d been performing Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head on the Holy Bible tour.

Tony Crean: To have the first track from the Manics since Richey [Edwards] disappeared was a really poignant moment.

James Dean Bradfield: We had no idea how that might be interpreted. The bottom line is it was convenience. It was a really dicey time for us: emotionally, commercially, everything.

Tony Crean: The only person who didn’t make it was Robbie Williams. Robbie had left Take That and he’d been around all summer. You’d go to a gig or aftershow and bump into him. I sent Bill Drummond [The KLF] a fax and said, “I know you’re not doing anything but how about doing a track with Robbie?” Then, after being around every bloody week, Robbie went on holiday with his mum. In the end they had to do it without him [as the One World Orchestra]. One of the great lost moments of pop music.

Terri Hall: Robbie called up Tony and said, “Sorry mate, me ‘ead’s been in a shed.”

Tony Crean: I had a very surreal experience being in Abbey Road with Paul McCartney. Stella [McCartney] was out and about at gigs so someone managed to get a letter to Paul. We kept our fingers crossed.

Steve Cradock (Paul Weller’s band): Paul [Weller] seemed incredibly nervous, which he isn’t normally, so he must have known that Macca would be coming down.

Paul Weller: I had to self-medicate because I was so nervous, so I was a fucking mess by the end of it. But Macca was great, man. He was really fucking cool.

Steve Cradock: We laid down the song, then as we were listening to the playback Macca walked in and it was like, oh fuck! It was beautiful because Mary and Stella and Linda were there. Paul played some Wurlitzer, then he got his 1966 Epiphone and started playing guitar. Then Noel came by and overdubbed a guitar track.

Noel Gallagher: Weller handed me a guitar and said, “Do you want to put a bit on?” As the tape started, it suddenly dawned on me that I’d never played Come Together before. I looked at Steve Cradock and said, “What key’s it in?” I was fucking winging it.

Terri Hall: To get McCartney and Oasis happening with Johnny Depp and Kate Moss, that’s the zeitgeist right there in one room, isn’t it?

Steve Cradock: We all got royally smashed in the studio. I remember Mr McCartney got his weed out, which was very fine. It was one of the most amazing, beautiful days I’ve had in music.

Paul Weller: For the little kid in me, the Beatles fan, it was like a fucking dream. I could have died and gone to heaven quite happily.

Terri Hall: We spent most of the day running around London in our car, collecting tapes. We were getting calls close to midnight saying, “It’s done. Where does it go?”

James Dean Bradfield: Domfront was very rural so to get a courier service took hours. It was a bit dicey whether we could actually make the cut.

Malcolm Gerrie: Outside the office were more bikes than you’d ever seen in your life. It was like a scene from Easy Rider.

Andy Macdonald: Lucky by Radiohead turned up and we listened to it three times. Jesus Christ, it’s such a powerful piece of music.

Ed O’Brien: We wanted to give The Help Album the best song we had at the time. We didn’t have any fear about holding songs back. We’d been touring The Bends and played Lucky for the first time in a soundcheck in Japan. It was probably the best song that we’d done to that date. It was like oh, OK, this is what the next phase could be.

Geoff Barrow: I remember listening to [Lucky] and thinking that’s just an unbelievably good song.

Ed O’Brien: The cameras didn’t leave till six o’clock and we hadn’t recorded anything. We were done by eleven. We knew exactly what we were doing. When you’re in that purple patch there’s an ease and excitement to it.

James Topham: We put Lucky out as a single and Radio 1 refused to playlist it. I think they thought it was too depressing.

Andy Macdonald: When they made OK Computer they asked us, “Can we use that version?” We said, “Of course you can, it’s your song!”

Ed O’Brien: Once we’d made the album, we realised how important Lucky was. We scratched our chins a bit: Can we do this? But we decided it was the right move. At Glastonbury in ’97 we opened with Lucky.

Brian Eno’s diary (5 September 1995): All day (9-7) working on finishing the Help album at the Townhouse. Tapes appearing from everywhere, me trying to keep some mental track of it… Enjoyable panic, but I went into Hitler mode in the last few minutes.

Andy Macdonald: Myself and Brian Eno sequenced it. We were trying to master 20 tracks by the end of the day.

Terri Hall: We had to make the physical sleeve without even knowing what the tracklisting would be.

Tony Crean: I remember handing the tapes to a courier to bike it to RAF Northolt to get it onto a private plane that we’d blagged off the head of Polygram to get it to the pressing plant in Holland. Obviously now you can record a track and stick it up overnight but to get a physical CD manufactured and in the shops in five days was just incredible really.

Terri Hall: Malcom Gerrie and [TV producer] Helen Terry were putting together the documentary based on studio footage and newsreels. It was quite harrowing being in the edit suite.

Malcolm Gerrie: Channel 4 were a little concerned because there are Ofcom rules about what you can and can’t show, especially in an entertainment show. But it seemed that we shouldn’t pull our punches.

Geoff Barrow: I wrote two pieces of music and added footage of Sarajevo before and during the war. Perhaps it was a naïve statement but I wanted something that was a bit fucking heavier than this celebratory Britpop London thing, to make people realise what was going on.

Andy Macdonald: Manufacturing started on Wednesday. We got everything back Thursday afternoon and had a launch party at Metropolis. The record was in stores on Friday.

Paul Hartnoll: It felt very can-do. It was like, oh yeah, got to do that, of course.

Mark Chadwick: So much gets talked about and so little gets done, especially in this business.

Terri Hall: I remember Anton saying, “Good on the slacker generation.” Who’d have thought that a bunch of bands could act so quickly and so brilliantly?


The legacy


James Topham: It raised £1.25m. It sold over 70,000 on day one. It should have been number one.

Andy Macdonald: It didn’t qualify for the artist chart because it was multiple artists. We had a tilt at making the artist War Child — War Child featuring Oasis, etcetera — but that didn’t work. The studios gave their time for nothing, the publishers waived income, the record shops forewent their normal margin, we didn’t make a penny. The government, who wouldn’t budge on VAT, were the only naysayers. What a fucking surprise.

Marijne van der Vugt: The Mercury Music Prize was literally a week after that and the organisers asked Terry and myself to perform the song. It was the year Portishead won.

Ben Knowles: At the Q Awards Tony Blair presented a special award to War Child.

James Topham: He said, “You’ve brought the focus back to Bosnia when MPs are looking the other way.” I thought, “It really shouldn’t take a pop record to make you lot notice the Srebrenica massacre.” We got a Brit award on the night Jarvis [Cocker] did his Michael Jackson thing.

Thom Yorke (Brit Awards, 19 February 1996): For one day last year we all stopped fighting and actually did something decent for once.

James Dean Bradfield: The indie world is so fucking bitchy. To get that generation of musicians to agree on anything was really hard because they were always arguing about who was better.

Ed O’Brien: There was a very healthy competitiveness between bands. There’s nothing like other people making great music to make you get your shit together.

Ben Knowles: You had a charity record nominated [in 1996] for the Mercury Prize! Pulp won but Jarvis handed over the trophy and the cheque.

Tony Crean: I think Island Records gave a donation to War Child to get it back.

Paul Hartnoll: I remember Brian Eno coming back from his speech and saying, “Was that all right? Should I not have mentioned dismembered bodies?” And I said, “No, it was absolutely fine.”

Ben Knowles: The legacy of The Help Album had incredible power to persuade artists to do things that otherwise they might have been reluctant to do. It proved that something credible and relevant could really demand attention and drive change. Artists who appeared on Help – Thom Yorke, Damon Albarn, 3D, the Manics – put politics squarely back on the agenda.

James Topham: We shouldn’t have been able to pull it off, should we? Even at the time it seemed a little ambitious but looking back it seems crazy.

Tony Crean: Because we did something with real quality, it’s had an impact that’s lasted. If you chuck a big enough stone in the pond, some ripple will hit something and make a difference.

Additional sources: Don’t Look Back in Anger by Daniel Rachel; A Year with Swollen Appendices by Brian Eno; The Observer; NME; YouTube.


A decade of protest songs



Hello again. This blog has been quiet for the last couple of years because I’ve been working on a new book, The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, which takes a very different approach to the theme of political art. (Here are links to order the UK and US editions.) However, I still receive occasional press requests to talk and write about protest songs, and the end of the decade is almost upon us, so I thought it would be useful to pull together a list of significant protest songs from the 2010s as a resource for anyone interested in the subject.

As Paul Valéry said, a work is never completed, merely abandoned. If I were to be asked to revise 33 Revolutions Per Minute now, I’m sure I would find plenty of lines I’d like to refine and omissions I’d be keen to correct. If I didn’t, it would mean I’d learned nothing in the intervening years. I’d certainly want to add a couple of chapters, including one on Kendrick Lamar, although that would capsize the title’s conceit and I wouldn’t have enough to upgrade it to 45 Revolutions Per Minute, so it is what it is. There’s only one line that I really came to regret, once I’d seen it quoted too many times by journalists and critics: “I began this book intending to write a history of a still-vital form of music. I finished it wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.”

Now, I thought that wondered was sufficiently ambiguous but declinism is a hell of a drug and I didn’t reckon with the received wisdom that protest music was a busted flush in 2011. I rewrote the epilogue for the 2012 UK paperback edition, clarifying that eulogy line and pointing to a number of powerful songs from the previous year that suggested things were looking up but my accidental pessimism still bugs me.

To be fair to myself, protest songs were thin on the ground when I submitted the book in 2010. George W Bush, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina had been and gone. The global financial crisis had only inspired a handful of songs and the disastrous austerity program of Britain’s Conservative-led coalition was in its infancy. Objectively, it was a lull and you’ll notice that the number of songs per year increases dramatically as I move through the decade. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say it rivals the 60s, 70s or 80s for the range and quality of protest music but it’s a significant improvement on the previous two decades.

I think the ground really begin to shift with the racist killings that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, which awakened the political consciousness of hip hop and R&B to a startling extent. Since the baleful arrival of Donald Trump on the political scene, protest songs have become de rigueur on a scale not seen since the early 1990s. In Britain, Brexit and the refugee crisis have proved similarly galvanising. Events are not enough, though. You need lodestar artists, and Kendrick Lamar is the Bob Dylan, the Marvin Gaye, the Public Enemy of his generation. Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers told me: “To Pimp a Butterfly is the London Calling of our decade.” In his wake, the likes of Beyoncé, Solange and Childish Gambino have taken politics into the mainstream for the first time in decades. Childish Gambino’s This Is America was the first protest song to top the Billboard Hot 100 since Stevie Wonder’s You Haven’t Done Nothin’ in 1974; Kendrick combines commercial success, critical acclaim and cultural importance as potently as Stevie did then.

What’s more, the way we talk about music has changed. The discourse around race, gender, sexuality, class and so on has become so politicised that someone like Taylor Swift is criticised for not being politically outspoken. When I read an issue of Q magazine these days, it’s rare to find an interview that doesn’t allude in some way to the state of the world. Countless artists have spoken about feeling an artistic compulsion and a moral duty to speak out in one way or another. That’s a remarkable turnaround in a short space of time. “For years, people were complaining that musicians weren’t writing political music,” Nadine Shah told me two years ago when I was writing about songs that addressed the refugee crisis. “All of a sudden, there are lots of people. And so there should be.”

So here’s my list, as a reminder to myself, and anyone else who is curious, that this has been an unexpectedly fertile decade for political music. I don’t love every single song (some are too gauche or sentimental for my tastes) but I think they are all worth mentioning. As I did in the book, I’ve cast the net wide. Especially when it comes to identity, artists are being political in subtle and idiosyncratic ways that may not fit the strict definition of a protest song and I would rather include them, and risk someone disagreeing, than leave them out. I’ve also noted when songs reached their full potential in videos or live performance. Online, these visual representations are not hard to find and increasingly often it is an image that makes a song unignorable. You’ll find veterans I covered in the book (U2, Springsteen, Tom Morello) alongside many young artists and stars as mainstream as Lady Gaga, Coldplay and Katy Perry. Police brutality towards African-Americans is by far the most common topic but there are also songs dealing with climate change, racism, homophobia, rape, war, austerity, refugees, technology addiction, the far right, Brexit, Trump, feminism, trans identity, blackness, and much more.

I hope you find this list, and the accompanying, roughly chronological Spotify playlist, useful and encouraging. If I were finishing 33 Revolutions Per Minute now, I would be ending it on a high — for the art of the protest song if not for the world.




Akala – Find No Enemy

Aloe Blacc – I Need a Dollar

Captain Ska – Liar Liar

Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

Grace Petrie – They Shall Not Pass

M.I.A. – Born Free

Janelle Monáe – Cold War

John Legend & the Roots – Wake Up! album



Beyoncé – Run the World (Girls)

DELS, Joe Goddard & Roots Manuva – Capsize

El Général – Mr President

The Nightwatchman – World Wide Rebel Songs

Grace Petrie – They Shall Not Pass

Lady Gaga – Born This Way

Lowkey feat. Mai Khalil – Dear England

PJ Harvey – The Words That Maketh Murder/Let England Shake album

Ramy Essam – Irhal (Leave)

Ry Cooder – No Banker Left Behind/Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down album

Tom Waits – Talking at the Same Time

Tune-Yards – My Country



Ai Weiwei – Grass Mud Horse Style

Bruce Springsteen – We Take Care of Our Own

Kendrick Lamar – Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst

Killer Mike – Reagan

Miguel – Candles in the Sun

Muse – Animals

Plan B – Ill Manors

Pussy Riot – Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away

The Rolling Stones – Doom and Gloom

Ry Cooder – Brother Is Gone/Election Special album

Yeasayer – Reagan’s Skeleton



Akala – Malcolm Said It

Elvis Costello & the Roots – Wise Up Ghost (song and album)

Esperanza Spalding – We Are America (especially the video)

Janelle Monáe feat. Erykah Badu – Q.U.E.E.N.

Jay-Z feat. Frank Ocean – Oceans

John Grant – Glacier (especially the video)

Kacey Musgraves – Follow Your Arrow

Kanye West – New Slaves

The Knife – Full of Fire

Lil Wayne – God Bless Amerika (especially the video)

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – Same Love

Manic Street Preachers – 30-Year War

M.I.A. – Bring the Noize

Pet Shop Boys – The Last to Die (Bruce Springsteen cover version)

PJ Harvey – Shaker Aamar

Portishead – Machine Gun (Glastonbury performance)

Primal Scream – 2013

Steve Mason – Fight Them Back



Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues

Alicia Keys – We Gotta Pray

Annie – Russian Kiss

Bruce Springsteen feat. Tom Morello – American Skin (41 Shots)/The Ghost of Tom Joad

Common feat. John Legend – Glory

D’Angelo – The Charade/1000 Deaths

Elbow – The Blanket of Night

Ezra Furman – Ferguson’s Burning

The Game feat. Rick Ross, Diddy, etc. – Don’t Shoot

Ghetts – Rebel

J Cole – Be Free

Kira Isabella – Quarterback

Lauryn Hill – Black Rage (Sketch)

Leonard Cohen – Almost Like the Blues

Lil B – No Black Person is Ugly

Manic Street Preachers – Let’s Go to War

Migos – Struggle

Morrissey – World Peace Is None of Your Business

Paolo Nutini – Iron Sky

The Roots – …and then you shoot your cousin album

Run the Jewels feat. Boots – Early

Tef Poe – War Cry

T.I. feat. Skylar Grey – New National Anthem

Tink – Tell the Children

Tom Morello – Marching on Ferguson

Vince Staples – Hands Up

Wu-Tang Clan – A Better Tomorrow



Anohni – 4 Degrees

Blood Orange – Sandra’s Smile

Father John Misty – Bored in the USA

Janelle Monáe – Hell You Talmabout

Jenny Hval – That Battle Is Over

Kendrick Lamar – Alright/The Blacker the Berry/King Kunta

Muse – Drones

Prince feat. Eryn Allen Kane – Baltimore

Rhiannon Giddens – Cry No More

Steve Earle – Mississippi, It’s Time

U2 – October/Bullet the Blue Sky/Zooropa (Innocence + Experience tour version)

Usher feat. Nas & Bibi Bourelly – Chains



Anderson .Paak feat. T.I. – Come Down (Remix)

Anohni – Drone Bomb Me/Hopelessness album

Bastille – The Currents

Beyoncé – Formation (Super Bowl performance)

Beyoncé feat. Kendrick Lamar – Freedom

Blood Orange – With Him/Hands Up/Freetown Sound album

Common feat. Stevie Wonder – Black America Again

Drive-By Truckers – What It Means/Ramon Casiano/American Band album

Ed Harcourt – The World Is on Fire

Fantastic Negrito – Hump Thru the Winter/The Last Days of Oakland album

Father John Misty – Holy Hell

Franz Ferdinand – Demagogue (part of the 30 Days 30 Songs project)

G.L.O.S.S. – Give Violence a Chance

Grace Petrie – There’s No Such Thing as a Protest Singer album

Green Day – Bang Bang (American Music Awards performance)

Jamala – 1944

Jamila Woods – Blk Girl Soldier

Jim James – Same Old Lie

Kate McKinnon – Hallelujah (SNL performance)

Kate Tempest – Europe Is Lost

Kendrick Lamar – untitled 05 09.21.2014

Kevin Morby – I Have Been to the Mountain

Lady Gaga – Come to Mama

Lucy Dacus – I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Jamila Woods – White Privilege II

M.I.A. – Borders

Michael Kiwanuka – Black Man in a White World

Moddi – Punk Prayer (Pussy Riot cover version)

Neil Young – Peace Trail/John Oaks

Novelist – Street Politician

PJ Harvey – The Wheel/The Hope Six Demolition Project album

Prophets of Rage – The Party’s Over

Run the Jewels feat. Boots – 2100

Schoolboy Q feat. Kendrick Lamar – Black Thoughts

Solange – Don’t Touch My Hair/F.U.B.U./A Seat at the Table album

Swet Shop Boys – T5

Swizz Beats feat. Scarface – Sad News

T.I. – Warzone (especially the video)

A Tribe Called Quest – We the People…/The Space Program

Vic Mensa – 16 Shots

Vince Staples – War Ready

YG feat. Nipsey Hussle – FDT/Police Get Away Wit Murder



Algiers – The Underside of Power

Arcade Fire feat. Mavis Staples – I Give You Power

Artists for Grenfell – Bridge Over Troubled Water (Stormzy verse only)

Austra – We Were Alive/Future Politics

Benjamin Booker feat. Mavis Staples – Witness

Benjamin Clementine – Phantom of Aleppoville/I Tell a Fly album

Billy Bragg – Why We Build the Wall (from the Hadestown musical)

Broken Social Scene – Protest Song

CocoRosie feat. Anohni – Smoke ‘Em Out

Coldplay – A L I E N S

Dave – Question Time

Depeche Mode – Going Backwards/Where’s the Revolution

Dizzee Rascal – Everything Must Go

Eminem – The Storm

Father John Misty – Total Entertainment Forever

First Aid Kit – You Are the Problem Here

Ghostpoet – Immigrant Boogie

Gorillaz – Hallelujah Money/We Got the Power

Hurray for the Riff Raff – Pa’lante

Ibeyi – No Man Is Big Enough for My Arms

Jay-Z – The Story of OJ

Joey Bada$$ – Land of the Free

Katy Perry – Chained to the Rhythm

Kendrick Lamar – The Heart Pt 4

Kendrick Lamar feat. U2 – XXX

Lana Del Rey – When the World Was at War We Just Kept Dancing

Margo Price – All American Made

Maxïmo Park – Risk to Exist

Mick Jagger feat. Skepta – England Is Lost

MILCK – Quiet

Miguel – Now

MUNA – I Know a Place

Nadine Shah – Holiday Destination (song and album)

The National – Walk It Back

Nick Mulvey – Myela

Open Mike Eagle – Happy Wasteland Day

PJ Harvey & Ramy Essam – The Camp

Priests – Pink White House

Prophets of Rage – Unfuck the World

Ride – All I Want

Sheer Mag – Meet Me in the Street

Sturgill Simpson – Call to Arms

U2 – The Blackout

Vince Staples – Bagbak

Wale feat. Phil Adé & Zyla Moon – Smile



The 1975 – Love It If We Made It

Childish Gambino – This Is America (especially the video)

Courtney Barnett – Nameless, Faceless

David Byrne – Hell You Talmbout (live Janelle Monáe cover version)

The Good, the Bad and the Queen – Merrie Land (song and album)

Idles – Danny Nedelko

Jack White – Corporation

Janelle Monáe – Americans

Jorja Smith – Blue Lights

The Last Poets – Understand What Black Is (song and album)

LCD Soundsystem – (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang (Heaven 17 cover version)

Low – Disarray

Meek Mill – Trauma

MGMT – Hand It Over

Moses Sumney – Rank & File

Mudhoney – Paranoid Core

Nas feat. Kanye West – Cops Shot the Kid

Neneh Cherry – Kong

Parquet Courts – Total Football

Shamir – I Can’t Breathe

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks – Bike Lane

Stormzy – Blinded By Your Grace Pt 2/Big for Your Boots (BRIT Awards performance)

Superchunk – Cloud of Hate

U.S. Girls – M.A.H.



The 1975 – People/The 1975 feat. Greta Thunberg

Anderson .Paak – King James

Bastille – Doom Days

Brittany Howard – History Repeats

The Chemical Brothers – M.A.H. and We’ve Got to Try

Coldplay – Guns

Dave – Black

Elbow – White Noise White Heat

Ezra Furman – In America

Johnny Marr – Armatopia

Kesha – Rich, White, Straight Men

The Killers – Land of the Free

Lana Del Rey – Looking for America

Lucy Dacus – Forever Half Mast

Madness – The Bullingdon Boys

Madonna – God Control

Mavis Staples – We Get By

Mystery Jets – Screwdriver

Pet Shop Boys – Agenda EP

Sharon Van Etten – Black Boys on Mopeds (live Sinead O’Connor cover version)

Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold album, especially Ruins

slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain

The Specials – 10 Commandments

Stormzy – Vossi Bop (Glastonbury performance)

Taylor Swift – Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince

Teenage dreams

This morning, while the radio news talked of nothing but Manchester, my 10-year-old daughter asked me if it was still safe to go and see Adele at Wembley Stadium in July. The ticket was her big Christmas present and the printout of the order confirmation has been blu-tacked to her wall for months. She’s as excited about it as she has been excited about any event in her life, but now she’s also scared. Could this have happened to her when she saw Ed Sheeran the other week? Could it happen to her at Wembley, or anywhere else? I am sure that there are similar conversations happening across the country. Some long-awaited birthday treats will be cancelled. Red letter days erased from the calendar. Parents can allay their children’s fears (and their own), and decide to go ahead despite them, but they cannot pretend the fear isn’t there, suddenly, where it wasn’t before.

When I first started going to gigs in 1989, I never worried about not coming back. I fretted about missing the last train back to the suburbs, or not having a good view of the stage. You can feel unsafe at a gig, especially if you’re a girl in a moshpit where boys can’t keep their hands to themselves, but usually not life-or-death unsafe. Fatal crowd disasters such as Roskilde in 2000 and Cincinnati in 1979 have spurred the concert industry into making venues as safe as possible. There are sensible, practical measures you can take to avoid crushes.

Terrorism at music venues, however, is relatively new and hard to deal with. This is why the Bataclan massacre in November 2015 had such an enormous impact. There is no hierarchy of tragedy — a death due to terrorism is a death due to terrorism, whether it’s in a concert hall in Paris or a mosque in Iraq — but some tragedies are so close to home that they change the way you think. The first show I attended after the Bataclan (New Order in Brixton) was charged with a strange electricity, as defiance defeated anxiety and the rational mind silenced this new kind of fear. A few weeks later I saw Savages in Paris and it was even more intense. The venue was small and subterranean. I have never paid such close attention to the location of the exits.

Everyone has tried to reassert normality after an atrocity has felt like this: the first time they took the tube after 7/7, or went to work in New York in September 2001, or danced in Miami after the Pulse shootings, or stayed out late in Istanbul after last New Year’s Eve. In some countries the fear is never allowed to fade. What happened in Manchester feels horribly new because it targeted young girls in one of the places where young girls can be themselves to the fullest.

The joy of teenage girls is the heart of pop, and it is often misunderstood, if not patronised and dismissed. Their excitement doesn’t derive purely from fancying the star on the stage — when I saw Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus (at the MEN arena in fact), the screaming was as intense as it is for any boy band. In fact, it’s not entirely to do with what’s happening on the stage at all. As a critic in my 40s who’s been to hundreds of shows, I may be bothered by an incoherent concept or a mid-set lull but nobody around me is solely interested in the performance. Even shows that I’ve found disappointing have an ecstatic carnival atmosphere because a pop show is a catalyst for a great night out — one that may have been anticipated for months. The pop star is a vessel for a mess of inchoate desires and thrilling, confusing sensations (Bowie knew this) so the girls aren’t just screaming for the star; they’re screaming for themselves and for each other. They are celebrating music, of course, but also youth, friendship, the ineffable glee of the moment, life at its most unquenchable. It’s a rite of passage that should never be contaminated by even an inkling of dread.

First and foremost, I feel compassion for the victims and their friends and families. Then for the survivors, including Ariana Grande, who will be traumatised for a long time to come. But beyond those immediately affected, this atrocity will cast a long shadow across the youths of countless pop fans. Will something like this happen again? Perhaps not. Statistically, the possibility of an attack at one particular show is minuscule. Over time, the fear will subside, because it always does. My daughter is absolutely still going to see Adele, and she’ll have a whale of a time. But the knowledge that it could happen at all means a loss of innocence.

Don’t back down: Trump vs liberals vs liberal self-flagellation



Blaming liberals is the fun game that anybody can play. For the right, it’s a multi-million-dollar industry but liberals do it to themselves for free. Many of them on Twitter spent most of the first weekend of the Trump administration debating whether it’s OK to punch a neo-Nazi, or rather whether it’s OK to laugh at a meme of someone else punching a neo-Nazi, lest it make us as bad as Nazis, as if the defining characteristic of Nazism were thumping people and not, say, genocidally racist nationalism. (Note: “Liberal” can mean many things but, as I’m mostly discussing US politics, I’m using it here in the very broad American sense of “the left”.)

While punching-a-Nazigate rolled on, millions of people in seven continents (yes, even Antarctica) joined the Women’s March on Saturday to protest the Trump presidency. It was a remarkable, unprecedented event but, inevitably, a parade on which some people couldn’t help but rain. Times columnist Camilla Long tweeted: “I’m afraid this women’s march just feels like a middle-class, entitled white girl orgy of virtue-signalling. A pity,” thus casually erasing millions of protesters outside of that demographic and framing the basic act of protest as self-indulgent showing off. One music critic was somehow offended by artists who refused to perform at the inauguration: “Not playing for the president-elect, or going one further and publicly decrying him, is a form of virtue-signalling, and symbolic of the myopia that led to his shock victory in the first place.” The ostensibly liberal columnist Dan Hodges was dismayed that a protest might foreground the niche interests of half the world’s population: “Do the people organising a women’s march against Donald Trump realise it’s precisely this sort of stuff that lead to Donald Trump.” [sic] Labour MP Richard Burgon, a loyal Corbynite, agreed with the Blairite Hodges for once in his life: “Trump inauguration – what can happen when centre/left parties abandon transformation of economic system and rely on identity politics.”

I’ve seen versions of this argument coming from both centrists and socialists but the clearest expression was a Spectator column by Brendan O’Neill, the tireless pundit who makes a living by repeating right-wing talking points while pretending he’s not right-wing. In a four-lane pile-up of shitty writing, O’Neill blamed liberals for Trump because, among other things, they “treated owning a gun and never having eaten quinoa as signifiers of fascism”, “beatified Caitlyn Jenner”, “thought correcting people’s attitudes was more important than finding them jobs” and “banned super-size sodas and smoking in parks.” (I should say here that I enjoy smoking in parks and can take or leave quinoa so maybe I’m off the hook.)

By this logic, Trump’s victory is divine punishment for the myopic arrogance of believing in equal rights, and any dissent, whether it’s the Women’s March, a Samantha Bee monologue or a speech by Meryl Streep, is not just fruitless but counterproductive. Forget the role played by the Republican Party, the right-wing media or the people who actually voted for Trump — it was all the fault, like everything else, of the metropolitan liberal elite. It’s a neat intellectual finger-trap: the more you oppose Trump, the more you are to blame for Trump. If you ask not to be hit, then you are to blame for being hit. Shut up, basically.

Of course, any political party that loses an election needs to ask some searching questions but not to read that loss as a crushing repudiation of its core principles which requires it to shove aside every tranche of its electoral coalition that isn’t white men. Especially when Trump won the electoral college by less than 80,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, while losing the popular vote by almost three million, and has an approval rating 20-30% lower than his three predecessors enjoyed at the equivalent stage. This isn’t McGovern ’72 or Mondale ’84. There’s a difference between reflection and masochism, between rethinking tactics and replacing beliefs.

As Helen Lewis writes in the New Statesman, the idea that Clinton lost because she campaigned on identity politics is a myth. Analysis of her speeches and debates shows that she mentioned jobs more than any other issue, and indeed more than Trump did — what’s more, Trump played to identity (of the white variety) more than Clinton did. Clearly Clinton’s message didn’t land as powerfully as it needed to, but it’s not because, as O’Neill absurdly claimed, “you talked more about gender-neutral toilets than about home repossessions.” The very phrase “identity politics”, like “political correctness” or “virtue signalling”, has been stripped of its precise original meaning and coopted by the right to mean “having liberal principles in public”. Stand for the rights of women? Careful, you’ll spook the menfolk. Advocate racial equality too loudly? Well, you’re asking for racism.

This argument implies that the existence of a backlash means you were wrong in the first place. Nixon won two elections partly thanks to Silent Majority resentment towards civil rights and the anti-war movement, but those movements were on the right side of history. This is what reactionary waves do: they react. The progressive movements that they are reacting to have no obligation to apologise or retreat. They fight back.

Doubtless there are cases of clumsy and illiberal overreach on college campuses but squabbles over Halloween costumes at Oberlin aren’t impacting the Rust Belt. This time, one of the backlash’s biggest targets was Black Lives Matter, a campaign that simply asks that innocent people not be killed by police officers. You don’t apologise for trying to save lives. Nor for fighting to grant basic rights to trans people in the face of legislative atrocities like the North Carolina bathroom bill. Exactly which of these people was Clinton meant to throw under the bus so as not to rile the straight, white, male Trump voters? This argument originates from, and benefits, the right. Every time someone on the left endorses it, my heart sinks. As Jade Azim writes in her response to Burgon and Hodges: “Don’t imply that our life experiences are a distraction.”




Another myth is the idea that liberals are behoven to give Trump a chance. Camilla Long again: “Throwing a tantrum over a democratic vote is pathetic.” As soon as Obama got into office, the Republicans were determined to thwart him. For the next eight years, their relentless obstructionism drove a coach and horses through the norms of government, from denying Obama the right to have his nomination for a new Supreme Court justice heard in the Senate to coming within hours of forcing the US to default on its debts. Meanwhile, the Birthers, led by Donald J Trump, questioned the very legitimacy of his presidency. How’s that for a tantrum?

This was Obama, an even-tempered optimist who campaigned twice on a message of national unity and left office without a single major scandal on his watch. Trump is a man who, before he took the oath of office, promised to ban Muslims from entering the country; who described the majority of Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists; who mocked a disabled reporter, then lied about it; who was recorded boasting about sexual harassment; who thought the best way to woo African-American voters was by describing their neighbourhoods as benighted hellholes; who demonised the press; who refused to disclose his tax returns; who threatened to jail his opponent; who chose Breitbart’s Steve Bannon as his Chief of Staff; who had so many conflicts of interest that he was arguably in breach of the Constitution’s emoluments clause; whose election victory was tarnished by evidence of voter suppression and Russian intervention; and who lied every time he opened his mouth. In what universe does he deserve the good will that the GOP refused to grant to Obama?

Ah, but the masochists say, we must understand the Trump voters. We must get out of our elitist echo chambers and understand the rage of the white man. With the same effort that Trump voters devoted to understanding the lives of black people in cities who voted for Obama? That wouldn’t take very long. Certainly any US politician should be concerned by the hollowing out of post-industrial communities, the health problems, the suicide rates, the stagnant wages. But there’s no obligation to buy into the noxious fable that these problems are down to political correctness and immigration rather than long-term structural failures. On the contrary, steering into the swamp of white populism will only make finding effective economic solutions more difficult. Liberals should resist the urge, in Britain as well as the US, to coweringly endorse a phony narrative in the hope of winning friends. Women and people of colour are at the forefront of the anti-Trump movement because they know full well that there is nothing to be gained from asking why people hate you and what you might do differently, because they will hate you anyway.

Liberals cherish their high-minded belief in the efficacy of open debate but that faith requires some reassessment when the new President actually lost three debates on national television, and when the facts on which fruitful debate depends are deliberately muddied on an industrial scale. There is no echo chamber bigger and more airtight than that of the right. For decades, talk radio, Fox News and now websites such as Breitbart have constructed a parallel universe in which liberals are to blame for everything and Hillary Clinton is a criminal mastermind, if not an actual murderer. In the dark corners of Reddit and elsewhere, the alt-right and Men’s Rights Activists have pieced together a galaxy of grievances, before taking their virulent white nationalism, aggressive misogyny and crappy memes to Twitter. They’re not up for a healthy chat.

Anyone who has debated politics on social media will know that a small percentage of people are open to rethinking their position while the majority won’t budge an inch. Likewise, in a country as polarised as the US there is no point trying to win over members of the Republican base who would rather eat broken glass than vote for a Democrat. Work hard to win over the undecided voters where you can but don’t waste your time trying to persuade the unpersuadable. Out-fight them, out-organise them and out-vote them instead. And fight a little dirty if necessary. When people claim that any less than spotless behaviour (like, say, punching a neo-Nazi) gives Trump and his allies an “excuse” to push back, I wonder where they’ve been this past year and why they think Trump ever needs an excuse. He won by bringing a gun to a knife fight (although he insisted that it was in fact a knife and that anyone who said it was a gun was “fake news”).

Have we not been paying attention? Have we learned nothing? Is the threat to progressive values not sufficiently clear? This is a promising start to the long, tough of resistance to the Trump administration. The pressing question for liberals is whether their priority is maintaining the high ground or winning. I think it’s time to drop the self-flagellation and focus on the fundamental values at stake. The right will never stop trying to kick liberals in the crotch. Don’t offer to hold their coat while they do it.

[Note: As a British citizen I feel a little self-conscious about writing about resistance to Trump. Unlike my American friends, I do not have to live under him, nor do I have a democratic voice with which to oppose him. But I felt compelled to write this for two reasons. Firstly, the Women’s March was an international event, reflecting worldwide anxiety about Trump. Secondly, when discussing liberal response to populist nationalism, Trumpism is a clearer case than Brexit. It is largely partisan phenomenon with a ready-made opposition in the shape of the Democratic Party. Brexit cut across party lines, dividing coalitions, and the Labour Party’s current contortions illustrate how much more complicated it is to mount a unified opposition.]



“It’s a fucked-up time in America”: A Q&A with Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers about Trump, fake news and protest songs for dark times



The singer and songwriter Amanda Palmer aggravates people more than you’d think possible for someone who wasn’t actively trying to do so. Her latest snafu was telling an audience in Australia a week or so ago that “frightening political climates make for really good, real, authentic art”. While acknowledging that Trump’s election was “very scary”, she continued: “There is this part of me – especially having studied Weimar Germany extensively – I’m like, ‘This is our moment.’ Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again. We’re all going to crawl down staircases into basements and speakeasies and make amazing satirically political art.”

Palmer was promptly shredded online by people pointing out that a government that actively threatens the physical and mental wellbeing of many of its citizens is not good for art, and that the potential resurgence of punk rock and satire is scant consolation for feeling scared and unsafe.

When you talk about protest songs you have to avoid phrasing your point like Palmer did. Obviously, a protest song only comes into being because something bad has happened, or is still happening. In an ideal world they wouldn’t exist. Much though I like Fortunate Son, Ohio and War, not to mention Apocalypse Now and The Things They Carried, I would trade them all in a heartbeat for a world in which the US never intervened in Vietnam. But, given that the war did happen, those responses made great art out of a terrible situation and that’s something. Protest songs aren’t unique in that respect. Your favourite break-up song wouldn’t exist without someone else’s pain but that doesn’t mean you actively want songwriters to be heartbroken. I don’t believe Palmer was rooting for a Trump victory just because we might get some good songs out of it but her need to identify a silver lining tipped her over the line from optimism to crass naivete. There are better ways of making the point.

Last month I interviewed Patterson Hood from Georgia rock band the Drive-By Truckers for a Billboard article about protest songs in 2016. I found him so wise, compassionate and articulate that it was a shame I could only use a couple of quotes in the piece, so I asked Billboard and Hood’s publicist for permission to publish a version of the interview here as a Q&A. Hood told me that he wished the group’s album American Band had lost most of its topicality after November 8. Instead, it’s become, alongside A Tribe Called Quest’s final album, one of the first essential musical statements of the Trump era. He is sensible enough to feel ambivalent about this.

We talked about how they made the album and how they feel about it now, as well as Trump, fake news, Black Lives Matter, the nativist backlash, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, The Clash and the protest song tradition. I think he represents that tradition at its best.

The first song on the album that you wrote was What It Means. How did you end up writing a song inspired by Black Lives Matter?

“It was just eating at me. I keep up with the news pretty closely and I kept seeing all these different situations evolving, especially the Trayvon Martin story and the events in Ferguson. It made me remember an event that happened in Athens, Georgia back in ’95 when I was new in town. It was something that kept happening. Now that everybody has a camera on their phone it’s getting widespread attention but it’s always been going on and it bothered me so I wrote the song as a way of trying to process it. It was one of those things that I thought about for a real long time but I actually wrote the song pretty quickly. I think I wrote it in an afternoon.”

Every song on American Band is political in some way. Did that all stem from What It Means?

“I think it evolved from an emotional need to touch on these things. When I wrote What It Means I didn’t necessarily know if it would be a Truckers song. I thought it would be outdated by the time we made another record. I thought I’d record it on my phone and throw it up on the internet and be done with it. But I played it for the band a couple of months later and they responded to it really emotionally. When it clicked we knew we had something special. By that point Cooley had already written Ramon Casiano. Before you knew it, songs were coming from both of us. It kind of wrote itself. The whole band realised pretty early what kind of record it was evolving into and everybody was all in.”

Did you feel it was essential to release the album before the election?

“We really worked our ass off to get it out before the fall of the election. The thought was that it would be timely for fall and hopefully hold up well enough for us to continue to play it. It didn’t occur to us that it would remain timely after the first week of November. I’m kind of disappointed that the record has a new shelf life. I guess it’s good for the record but it’s not necessarily good for the people.”

There’s that line in What It Means: “Standing on the precipice of prejudice and fear.” Well we’re off the precipice now…

“Yeah, now it’s just prejudice and fear! It’s a fucked-up time in America. I guess it’s happening elsewhere, too. There’s parallels with Brexit and the elections in France and a whole lot of other countries. There seems to be a movement towards electing more right-wing, isolationist governments. Everything is based so much on prejudice and fear — fear of the other.”

I don’t normally feel naïve but the speed of this trend has shocked me…

“It’s been a long time since I’ve felt naïve but maybe I was. I sure didn’t think so!”

Do you feel that there are other artists putting themselves out there politically like this?

“I figured there would be a flood of records coming out around the same time as our record, talking about the same things, and I’ve been really taken aback by how little there has been, especially in rock’n’roll, which is the genre that led the charge on social issues in the older days. Obviously hip hop has been the charge-leader in politically relevant music for the last couple of decades but right now even pop music. What Beyoncé did with her record and her film and her performance at the Super Bowl is a much more politically charged statement than I’ve been hearing from any of the rock’n’roll bands. I’m happy that anybody’s speaking up because I think people need to speak up.”

You’ve said that you were inspired by London Calling and To Pimp a Butterfly while making American Band…

“I keep making a parallel between To Pimp a Butterfly and London Calling. To me, London Calling was the quintessential statement of its time. If I think of 1980, I can’t think of anything more relevant than The Clash. And the fact that it’s still relevant so many years later is testament to what a great job they did. It was our touchstone in making this record. Whenever there was something we were questioning it was like, What would they have done? To me, To Pimp a Butterfly is the London Calling of our decade. Those are probably the two most influential records on our album even if it doesn’t sound like either of them. And Solange’s record [A Seat at the Table], too. That’s probably my album of the year. I love music that makes me think. People say, ‘Shut up and sing, don’t make me think.’ Well go see someone else, then. I’ve never wanted to make mindless music.”

A record this outspoken was bound to be divisive. What kind of reactions have you had?

“The positive has way outweighed the negative. It’s been our highest charting record and, I think, our most successful record in Europe. It’s gotten some of the best reviews we’ve ever gotten. People seem to really love the show we’re playing right now. All of that’s been great. There has been pushback too, especially online. If you bother to look at the comments on social media you’ll probably wish you didn’t. It’s fired people up on both sides and that’s fine. Just don’t be complacent. I’m not naïve enough to think that I can change the way people think; I just want them to think. Maybe if people think enough, then they’ll come to some pretty decent conclusions. But maybe not! Especially when you can look on the internet to find someone to back up your version of the ‘truth’, whether it’s true or not. That’s a danger that I wasn’t anticipating. For years I’ve railed against Fox News but really that’s just a small piece of the puzzle now. There’s so much online that’s perpetuating untruths and myths just to back up a specific political side. I like to know what all sides are saying but there’s so much bullshit out there. It’s just become noise. It’s getting harder and harder to vet it. I try so hard before I repost anything to make sure it’s not bullshit first, and I still occasionally fuck up.”

Do you think there will be a lot more musical responses to Trump once he takes office?

“I would think but I don’t know. I suspect it will from us. I was on tour when the election happened and I voted absentee before I left. It was an off night in Philadelphia and we all sat on the bus together watching the results come in until it got too depressing to watch anymore. The next night we had to figure out how to play a show. We had a show built around the idea that that night was going to be a celebration but all of a sudden it went in a different direction. Over the course of the day it started coming to us and that night we played one of the best shows we’ve ever played. A lot of fans who didn’t agree with our view probably didn’t bother to come but it was a sold-out show and the people there seemed to need what we did. It was one of those nights that reminded me why this is what I always chose to do. Then for the next two weeks we had some really special shows in places that were very much red states. These are probably some of the most powerful shows we’ve ever played. There’s a lot of work to do and we’re going to be out there doing whatever we can, trying to raise awareness and find other ways to help the cause.”


33 Protest Songs From 2016






It’s time to go left and not right
Gotta get it together forever
Gotta get it together for brothers
Gotta get it together for sisters
For mothers and fathers and dead niggas
For non-conformists, one hitter quitters
For Tyson types and Che figures
Let’s get it together, come on let’s make it
Gotta make it to make it, to make it, to make it, to make it
To make something happen, to make something happen

– A Tribe Called Quest, The Space Program



I recently wrote an article for Billboard about protest music in 2016 and beyond but I’d like to add a playlist and a couple of thoughts here. I hope we’ve seen the last of the “Where have all the protest songs gone?” thinkpieces for a while. It was a fair question five years ago but the length of this list alone shows how much has changed as the world has become harder and crueller.

There are two major trends at work. One is the proliferation of songs about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland and all the other African-Americans whose unjust deaths have fuelled the Black Lives Matter movement. These songs started arriving a couple of years ago but there are more than ever this year, from T.I. and Common to Kevin Morby and Drive-By Truckers. Black Lives Matter also provides the subtext for more personal and subtly political albums by the likes of Solange and Blood Orange. The other is Donald Trump, whose campaign an unforgettably blunt response from YG and dozens of contributions to the 30 Days, 50 Songs project. The two streams converged in the year’s two best politically minded albums, both of which gave me some comfort after the US election: We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest and American Band by Drive-By Truckers.

Here are 33 powerful recent protest songs, in no particular order. I’ve created a playlist featuring the 27 songs available on Spotify and chosen two clips of post-election performances which dealt with Trump’s election in very different ways. Plus, courtesy of Beyoncé, the year’s most memorable collision of pop and protest. I’m sure we’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more like this in 2017. Where have all the protest songs gone? They’re all around us.


What the hell, what the hell
This thing’s got us all in its grip
The economy just don’t explain this
This unfathomable, nameless rift
Who knows if it even exists
It just some highly effective rhetoric
Used by perverts who get off on it

But all my friends
Yeah, I’m talking to you
The world won’t end unless we want it to
There’s no one in control
And it’s our life to choose


– Father John Misty, Holy Hell


33 Protest Songs


YG feat. Nipsey Hussle – FDT

A Tribe Called Quest – We the People…

Prophets of Rage – The Party’s Over

Green Day – Bang Bang (Live at the AMAs)

PJ Harvey – The Wheel

Bastille – The Currents

ANOHNI – Drone Bomb Me

Blood Orange – With Him

Michael Kiwanuka – Black Man in a White World

Swet Shop Boys – T5

T.I. – Warzone

Vic Mensa – 16 Shots

Sad13 – Coming Into Powers

Jim James – Same Old Lie

Neil Young – John Oaks

Drive-By Truckers – What It Means

Moor Mother – Deadbeat Protest

Kendrick Lamar – untitled 05 09.21.2014

M.I.A. – Borders

Kate Tempest – Europe Is Lost

Jamala – 1944

Solange feat. Lil Wayne – Mad

Common feat. Stevie Wonder – Black America Again

Kevin Morby – I Have Been to the Mountain

Ed Harcourt – The World Is on Fire

Nicolas Jaar – History Lesson

Moddi – Punk Prayer

Franz Ferdinand – Demagogue

Beyoncé – Freedom

Muse – Drones (Live)

Jamila Woods feat. Noname – VRY BLK

Father John Misty – Holy Hell

Kate McKinnon – Hallelujah (Live on SNL)


True Colours: Why Leave deserves to lose


The Leave campaign could have been different. It might have been the honourable debate that Giles Fraser wishes it was, and that Vote Leave initially promised it would be, concentrating on legitimate concerns such as the EU’s decision-making process, TTIP and the ways in which it has fallen short of its ideals. It might have been honest about the economic risk, arguing that the gamble was worth taking. If it had lost, then it would have lost with dignity, and without poisoning the well of political discourse.

That is not, of course, the campaign we saw.

Rather than risk losing on the facts, Leave chose to try and win on lies. Lies like the utterly discredited £350m-a-week figure that they were brazen enough to print on the side of a bus. Lies like the claim that Turkey’s EU membership is imminent (it’s not) and that the UK will have no veto (it does). Lies like UKIP’s instantly notorious Breaking Point poster of refugees in Slovenia who have no legal right to enter Britain. Huge, shameless lies. Professor Michael Dougan of the University of Liverpool Law School calls it “dishonesty on an industrial scale”.

The biggest lie, the Death Star lie from which all the other lies are launched, is the claim that everything wrong in Britain is down to the EU. Can’t find a decent job? Can’t get the school place you want? Can’t get a GP appointment the next day? Can’t get on the housing ladder? Brexit, they say, is the silver bullet that will fix them all. It was astonishing to hear free-market libertarian Nigel Farage pretend to care about those issues on the Today programme yesterday when all he really wanted to do was pin them on EU migrants. He has no serious plan for the future. When Farage says he wants to take his country back he really means “back”: back to an idealised past before foreigners spoiled everything. But you can never turn the clock back, least of all with a single decision. Another lie.

You see a version of this on the left as well. Left-wing Brexiter Lisa McKenzie writes: “In working-class communities, the EU referendum has become a referendum on almost everything,” from affordable housing to pub closures. But it is not a referendum on those things, nor will Brexit solve them. One can respect with the anger and frustration of people who feel left behind by globalisation without endorsing the wrong solution. If someone tells you they’re ill, you don’t insist they feel great, but nor do you prescribe the wrong medicine with terrible side effects. McKenzie says a lot about working-class unrest, all of it true, but nothing about why Brexit is the right answer. Nothing about how it will ameliorate the adverse effects of globalisation and neoliberalism. I can see why the right wants workers to vote against their own economic interests — that’s an old strategy — but it’s dismaying to see people on the left selling a similar brand of snake oil.

Unfortunately, lies work. A recent Ipsos MORI poll recently found that Britons vastly overrated the number of EU migrants, the number claiming benefits and the percentage of the EU budget spent on bureaucracy, while seriously underrating the amount of EU investment the UK receives. According to the LSE, far from being pushed around the UK got its own way over EU laws 87% of the time between 2009-2015. Many Brexit supporters admit they haven’t been adversely affected by immigration and live in areas with relatively low levels but fear it anyway. Of course, the Leave campaign can’t claim all the credit when for years tabloids have been seeding the ground with distortions and scare stories while politicians have glibly blamed the beast of Brussels for their own failings.


Ipsos MORI

For all these reasons I believe the left-wing case for Brexit has become untenable. Giles Fraser claims “It’s not who you vote with — it’s what you vote for.” He writes: “A vote to leave is not a vote for Farage or Johnson. It won’t make Nigel an MP or Boris the PM. This is not a vote about the next government of the UK, or whether the NHS is safe in Johnson’s hands.” On the contrary it is all of those things and it’s self-indulgent to believe that conscience liberates him from facing up to the consequences. (Paul Mason, an instinctive Brexiter but a realist, recognises this.)

One should at least feel queasy about voting for a result that will delight Vladimir Putin, Geert Wilders, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, the BNP and the EDL, empowering demagogues, nativists and charlatans. More pressingly, if British voters choose to leave the EU on Thursday they will be handing the keys to the country to the people who ran this shabby, mendacious, hateful campaign.

A post-EU Britain will not be shaped by Giles Fraser but by a government of dogmatic neoliberals whose ideal is Thatcherism on steroids. For all their faux-populist rage against “the elites”, the Tory Brexiters are simply a different brand of elite. These are the people — Johnson, Gove, Grayling, Duncan Smith, possibly even Farage — who will be responsible for the divorce settlement. They will be in charge of the following:


  1. Guiding the economy through what nine out of 10 economists predict will be a traumatic, self-induced shock that will hurt the low-paid most of all.
  2. Maintaining, let alone improving, public services amid a likely fall in GDP and an extension of austerity.
  3. Negotiating years of new trade deals, including ones with former EU partners who they have spent a long time trashing.
  4. Deciding the precarious fate of EU citizens currently resident in the UK.
  5. Making up for the loss of EU subsidies everywhere from farming to the arts.
  6. Investing in hospitals, schools and house-building, because none of those shortfalls will be solved simply by blocking EU migrants.
  7. Preserving the countless rights and protections for workers that will no longer be guaranteed by the EU.
  8. Taking leadership on international crises such as refugees and climate change.
  9. Holding the UK together after England has decided the fate of the more pro-Remain Scotland and Northern Ireland.

That would be a tall order for the most noble and gifted politicians you could imagine. Have the Leave campaigners given us any reason to believe that they can be trusted with those tasks? That they are fit to remake Britain?

The damage they have done will last long beyond Thursday. The Leave campaign is a grim example of post-truth politics and the atavistic roar of “paranoid populism” that also animates the continental far right and the Trump campaign. It’s Michael Gove saying, in the face of evidence from economists, businesspeople, scientists, environmentalists, artists, trade unions, universities, charities and world leaders, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” It’s conspiracy theories, smears and demonisation. It’s blatantly courting racism, then feigning outrage whenever anybody calls it out. It’s exploiting the anxieties of the poorest citizens with xenophobia and lies. It’s stirring up rage and hatred for short-term gain and damn the consequences. If they win it will send a message that the basest form of politics works.

Thanks to this wretched referendum, says The Economist: “The currency of facts will be debased, that of stunts inflated, that of conviction sidelined. It will be de rigueur to question an opponent’s motives before his arguments, sneer at experts, prefer volume to accuracy and disparage concession, compromise and moderation.”

That’s why it is sickening hypocrisy for Leave to whine that the murder of Jo Cox will lead people to vote with their hearts rather than their heads, having shamelessly appealed to the heart’s worst instincts.

Over the past few days I’ve heard about a lot of Leave voters and undecideds switching to Remain because they don’t trust these people. They don’t want to reward this ugly, debased, destructive kind of politics. They don’t believe that it will lead to a happier, more confident Britain. They sense that they are being taken for a ride. Like Sayeeda Warsi, they have had enough. I’ve also spoken to many Remain supporters who are more determined than ever to go to the polling station and be heard.

The Brexiters had a chance to show us what country they want Britain to be and they have shown it at its very worst. If they lose, the Leave camp will complain that they have been misrepresented. On the contrary, I think they will lose because a growing number of people know all too well the kind of people they’re dealing with. As with Zac Goldsmith’s sordid dog-whistle campaign for London mayor, it would be appropriate if Leave’s own gutter tactics cost them victory.

Say it loud, she’s black and she’s proud – Beyoncé’s Formation

One reason I’ve let the weeds grow over this blog over the past couple of years is the sense that there are enough opinions already. The intersection of politics and pop music has never been as thoroughly examined as it is now and I often wonder what I can add. Miss out on the initial online feeding frenzy and you’re left with nothing but bones and scraps and the feeling that everything has already been said.

There’s certainly no shortage of opinions about Beyoncé’s song Formation, which she performed at the Super Bowl on Sunday. I’ve read gushing hagiographies that left me thinking she was getting too much credit and snarky dismissals (primarily, inevitably, from older white men) that convinced me she wasn’t getting nearly enough. The second reaction annoyed me much more. By any metric, one of the world’s biggest pop stars performing an unapologetic celebration of blackness in one of the citadels of mainstream American culture is a big fucking deal. This level of debate around a protest song? It just doesn’t happen. If you think it matters less because she’s rich or because she wears hotpants, then you’re just not paying attention.

Sceptics say that Formation is too simplistic and self-aggrandising to be radical, but they miss the significance of firmly stating: “I am a black woman and I am powerful.” That assertion has weight and heritage. You can hear it in Jesse Jackson’s Wattstax chant “I am somebody”, or Kendrick Lamar’s chorus “I love myself” or the name of Black Lives Matter — simple claims really, but radical in the context of American life. (Something clearly lost on white people who reply: “All Lives Matter.”) Even in the early days of hip hop, when very few rappers were engaging with politics, every song had the subtext: “I am here. We are here. Listen to us.” Beyoncé isn’t fastening onto a new issue but digging deeper into who she is and what her success represents, tapping into her own dormant power. She states the obvious because it still needs stating.

In The Blacker the Berry, Kendrick itemises his black features through the lens of a racist: “My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round/You hate me don’t you?” Beyoncé does it with joy: “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” Note the historical weight of “negro” in 2016, and the implied reference to the racial psychodrama of Michael Jackson’s ever-changing nose. There’s pride in those lines, and the shadow of the opposite of pride. (Note also that those lines come from a woman who just the other week was attacked for having “blonde hair, green eyes and seemingly bleached-out skin” — for insufficently black.)

Beyoncé’s not just saying she’s black — she’s Southern black, born and raised in the former Confederacy. Hot sauce, cornbread and collard greens are signifiers of a heritage she has rarely addressed (the 2006 B-Day bonus track Creole is a little-heard exception), while the New Orleans bounce rhythm nods towards her mother’s Louisiana heritage. The video, without which the song wouldn’t be half as effective, drives this home with historically resonant images of black women occupying an old plantation mansion, like the joyful victors of a non-violent coup. On NPR the writer dream hampton cleverly describes the video as a “visual anthem” and says: “It’s about a black visionary, a black future [where] we are imagining ourselves having power, and magic. And I think it’s beautiful.”

During the current controversy around the lack of racial diversity among Oscar nominees, it’s been noted that movies about black people only get recognised by the Academy when they’re about slavery or civil rights. Black characters have to be struggling and overcoming and delivering a tough but ultimately uplifting message to white viewers. They can’t just be living their lives in all their complexity. The Formation video acknowledges the struggle — the floodwaters of Katrina, the small boy dancing defiantly in front of steely-faced riot policemen, the graffiti reading “Stop Shooting Us” — but it shows so much more, from the church to the hair shop. There is celebration as well as resistance. In fact, the celebration is a form of resistance. To quote Syreeta McFadden’s wonderfully lyrical piece in the Guardian US:

“It’s old and new south; it’s dark and dirty south; it’s Chantilly lace and denim jacket south; it’s baby afro, baby hair and pink and purple wig south; it’s second line and pentecostal holy ghost south; it’s southern gothic and bounce south; it’s my granny, grandaddy, auntie, uncle, cousin south. It is us, it’s for us, and it’s not concerned if white people understand.”

Another criticism of Formation is that it’s only about Beyoncé but that’s not true. She certainly trumpets her own achievements but she also celebrates her parents, her daughter and her husband and “I slay” mutates into “We gon’ slay” as she moves towards the Black Panther-echoing rallying cry, “OK ladies, let’s get in formation.” (Or “information”.) I confess I’m not quite as excited by Beyoncé’s obsession with flexing her economic muscle as Alex Macpherson in the Guardian. It’s true that black artists celebrating their wealth and power is inherently political in America (aka the Watch the Throne defence) but it isn’t inherently new or provocative. The implication here, though, is that the power isn’t hers alone. Unlike Kanye’s lonely, locked-in boasts, her bragging opens the door to other black women. The video makes this explicit, turning the camera on all the people around Beyoncé to make the celebration communal.

The Super Bowl performance added another layer, bringing Black Power salutes, Black Panther berets and an X (as in Malcolm) formation to America’s shop window. I couldn’t help thinking about the FBI’s relentless harassment of the Panthers in the 60s and 70s, or the famous use of the salute at another sporting event, the 1968 Olympics, and marvelling at how slickly Beyoncé brought that history onto the playing field. She’s canny enough to make a subversive statement while still ostensibly playing by the rules, unlike MIA and her middle finger (you can valorise the Black Panthers but by God don’t disrespect the NFL). This was blackness as pageantry.

If you wanted to sum up the song, the video and the performance in one phrase it could be an old one: “Say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud.” Like Beyoncé, James Brown was accused of not being black enough, of being an arch-capitalist, of treating his hair instead of letting it grow naturally, of pandering to white people, of being too self-involved to put his career on the line by taking a stand. He recorded Say It Loud as a slightly grudging sop to the Black Power movement and late complained that it alienated his white fans. The point is that he did it anyway, and that song meant the world to his black listeners. He meant it when he wrote it: maybe not a year earlier or a year later but in that moment he was telling the truth and being courageous. Before then, black artists didn’t feel able to commit the simple words “I’m black” to record. After Say It Loud, the floodgates opened. Do Brown’s myriad character flaws and compromised motives make that galvanising statement any less valuable?

I wouldn’t compare Beyoncé, as some people have, to Nina Simone. Simone threw herself wholesale into the civil rights movement, driven by volcanic anger and painful self-doubt, and she paid a high price for her outspoken black pride, ending up as a lonely and disillusioned cult figure. Beyoncé is an immensely powerful megastar and businesswoman who visits the White House and isn’t going to let politics derail her career . She’s far more James than Nina.

Some people expect too much from Beyoncé. I read some of the pieces calling for her to be more of a radical activist, even to reject capitalism, and I think of the 60s protesters who expected the Stones and the Who to write anthems for the coming revolution. That’s not how megastars operate. They work within the system and their occasional political statements are powerful precisely because they take place on an enormous, unignorable platform. A lot of people can write a protest song but how many get to perform it at the Super Bowl and start the whole country talking? That’s risky enough, and her and Jay Z’s donations to Black Lives Matter show that it’s not just a rhetorical posture. She’s not as fearlessly direct as Kendrick but that’s OK.

I get the sense from Formation, like I did from Flawless, that Beyoncé is testing the limits of her power, seeing how tough and provocative she can be, and that’s admirable. She doesn’t have to be a revolutionary superhero, any more than James Brown or Marvin Gaye had to be. She just has to make the right statements at the right time and signal-boost important conversations about race, gender, power and identity. That’s why I have contempt for people who claim that Formation is no big deal and suspicion for those who want to smother her with excessive praise. Neither gives due credit to the brave, imperfect experiment of Formation, which feels like a way station rather than a destination. Let’s be patient and see just how far she’s willing to go.



Nobody’s short of lists in December but why hold back? Here are my songs, albums and articles of the year.

First up, my songs of the year (minus Joanna Newsom and other streaming refuseniks) are on Spotify in a three-hour highlights version and the full six-hour marathon.

My Top 40 albums of 2015:

  1. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
  3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  4. Joanna Newsom – Divers
  5. New Order – Music Complete
  6. Chvrches – Every Open Eye
  7. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion
  8. Laura Marling – Short Movie
  9. Tobias Jesso, Jr – Goon
  10. Vince Staples – Summertime ‘06
  11. Django Django – Born Under Saturn
  12. Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness
  13. Tame Impala – Currents
  14. Belle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
  15. Miguel – Wildheart
  16. John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
  17. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment – Surf
  18. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
  19. Blur – The Magic Whip
  20. Destroyer – Poison Season
  21. The Chemical Brothers – Born in the Echoes
  22. A$AP Rocky – At.Long.Last.A$AP
  23. Jamie Woon – Making Time
  24. Wire – Wire
  25. FFS – FFS
  26. Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?
  27. Baio – The Names
  28. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
  29. East India Youth – Culture of Volume
  30. Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
  31. Hudson Mohawke – Lantern
  32. Kurt Vile – b’lieve I’m goin’ down…
  33. Grimes – Art Angels
  34. Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh
  35. Guy Garvey – Courting the Squall
  36. The Libertines – Anthems for Doomed Youth
  37. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again
  38. Four Tet – Morning/Evening
  39. Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs
  40. Shamir – Ratchet


Some articles I enjoyed reading:

Swoonatra by Ian Penman (London Review of Books)

Lady Gaga Goes to the Middle by Lindsay Zoladz (New York)

We’ll All Go Down Together: Billy Joel Says Goodbye to Nassau Coliseum by Maura Johnston (The Concourse)

Taylor Swift Is Definitely in Her Zone by Jia Tolentino (The Muse)

The Franzen of It All: ‘Purity’ and the great American Novelist by Brian Phillips (Grantland)

The X Factor review by Julia Raeside (The Guardian)

Was Banning Tyler, the Creator the Victory International Feminism Needed? by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd (Jezebel)

Age of ‘Compton’: NWA With Artifical Sweeteners by Wesley Morris (Grantland)

The death and life of the great British pub by Tom Lamont (The Guardian)

Unfollow by Adrian Chen (The New Yorker)

The Third Revelation of Father John Misty by Sean Fennessey (Grantland)


Some articles I enjoyed writing:

Attack of the feminist superheroes (The Guardian)

Kendrick Lamar interview (The Observer)

Remembering Amy Winehouse (Billboard)

The Libertines interview (The Guardian)

“A Public Menace”: How the fight to ban The Birth of a Nation shaped the nascent civil rights movement (Slate)

The stagnation blues (The Long + Short)

How the compact disc lost its shine (The Guardian)

Chuck D interview (The Guardian)


The sound of the year: