This week I was interviewed about protest songs by a student who had been involved in last winter’s demonstrations against tuition fees and EMA cuts. She asked me what I thought the role of music was in those protests. I said I hadn’t been there, being neither a student nor a news reporter, but that I’d seen people write about the role of Lethal Bizzle, dubstep and even customised Joy Division lyrics. For her part, she said she’d mainly heard the kind of football-style adapted chants that have been a fixture of demos going back to the Aldermaston marches of the 50s and 60s. The only one she could remember off the top of her head was When the Saints Go Marching in, which was written in the 19th century. We agreed that all of the above could be true.
It made me think that if you asked a dozen different demonstrators what the song of the occasion had been you’d probably get a dozen different answers, and each person would probably think theirs was the one. It’s a similar phenomenon to seeing a band at a big festival and assuming that your assessment of the general crowd response based on where you’re standing and who you’re with is somehow objectively true. As in the Hindu fable of the blind men and the elephant, people in a crowd tend to think that the fraction of an event that they experience represents the whole.
This is even truer in this culturally atomised era. Anyone present at the March on Washington in 1963 would have remembered the massed chorus of We Shall Overcome. Nobody at the anti-Vietnam protest in the same city six years later could have missed half a million people singing Give Peace a Chance. “We might not have a leader,” one protester told Newsweek, “but now at least we have a song — and a mass movement doesn’t go anywhere without a song.” We don’t feel the same way about the necessity of one unifying song these days. I don’t think the culture allows for it anymore. So what the protests produced was a Babel of musical voices, followed by a Babel of critical voices, attempting to say that the real soundtrack was this or that. Would the woman pictured on the riot barriers in a Smiths T-shirt have come away thinking of Lethal Bizzle? Would a grime-loving EMA protester have gone to see the Agitator play the UCL occupation? Probably not, but it doesn’t make either of them wrong. For that reason, my favourite writing on the student movement is observational rather than polemical.
I think protest movements thrive on a multiplicity of voices even as I know that they tend to start out that way and then become steadily more prescriptive. Yesterday, Laurie Penny wrote a high-handed article in the Independent criticising celebrity support for the students, as if she were both spokesperson and gatekeeper for the entire movement — not just the students but everyone planning to join the March for the Alternative in London on Saturday. She might have a point about the slippery nature of radical chic (though it’s a point that’s been true for about 40 years) but her dig at “wealthy professional rebels” and “affluent pseudo-agitators” who have the sheer audacity to be “no-longer-quite-so-young” is unworthy of her. The Clash and Bobby Gillespie have been championing left-wing politics (however incoherently at times) since before Penny was born, and the best of the BritArt crew have more to say about the world than a mere “ironic shrug”.
“Cool is what happens when capital appropriates the counter-culture,” she writes (again, not new) but the enthusiasm of musicians and artists is hardly cynical capitalist appropriation in the same as, say, H&M releasing a kettlewear range for the chic protester. Her column suggests the irritation of someone whose dad has decided to go to the same gig as her rather than a substantial and coherent grievance. These high-profile supporters may do some good; at the very least, they can’t do any harm.
Despite Penny’s genuine commitment to the movement and often excellent reporting of it, this whiffs of divisive grandstanding, part of a long tradition of left-wing movements factionalising themselves to death. She doesn’t allow for the possibility that there might be different ways to protest, and some of them might be more witty and antic, in the tradition of the Reclaim the Streets parties in the 90s or the Yippies in the 60s. Phil Ochs’s The War Is Over events, for example, were both conceptual pranks and sincere statements of outrage. It is not a simple choice between being a deadly serious activist and a shallow style-mag flibbertigibbet. In this column at least, Penny is one of the blind men, her hand on the elephant’s trunk, certain she has the full measure of the subject at hand.
So I don’t know what music I’m going to hear at the demonstration tomorrow but I hope that it’s as diverse as possible, because to me solidarity means leaving the door open to whoever wants to lend their voice and not restricting a broad-based movement to one narrative. I want to hear old labour songs, 60s anthems, sardonic chants, punchy dance music; earnest songs and funny songs; songs from a century ago and songs from a week ago; songs which represent every kind of person on the march, from the union veteran to the fired-up sixth-former. And I’m going to write down every song I hear, and every song that my friends in different parts of the march hear, and see what they say about this moment in the history of British dissent, and try as hard as I can to work out the shape of the elephant.