How do you solve a problem like Nigel?

Ukip leader Nigel Farage


In recent weeks, most people I know have been thrown into a funk by Ukip’s apparent invulnerability. Attacking them feels like wrestling smoke or having a dream in which you try to run but your feet turn to lead. Ridicule doesn’t work. Exposing candidates as racists, Islamophobes, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists or crackpots who thinks pro-Europe politicians should be hanged for treason doesn’t work. Perhaps it even enhances their cachet as plucky anti-establishment renegades who say the unsayable, though that’s no reason to stop. They get knocked down. They get back up again. They’re still favourites to win tomorrow’s elections. What can be done?

I think Ukip’s critics should be careful with words. The party is not, despite what many people say, fascist, unless you drastically reinterpret the word to mean “right-wing and nasty”. Its members are not all racists. Some are even non-white (although one of those, former youth leader Sanya-Jeet Thandi, recently quit the party and accused it of appealing to the “stupidity of ignorant anti-immigrant voters for electoral gain” and “giving positions in the party to people with racist views”). People who make hateful generalisations about Eastern Europeans are particularly keen to say they can’t be racist because their targets are white. That’s why Farage can say he wouldn’t want Romanian neighbours and get away with it whereas if he said the same about West Indians he’d be toast.

Again and again, discussions of racism get derailed by a false binary: one is either a racist or not a racist. In reality, one can be racist towards certain groups and not others. One can count people of colour as friends but be instinctively prejudiced towards any who are strangers. One can even consider oneself anti-racist and still make certain subconsciously racist assumptions. The anti-racism movement has succeeded in making people horrified of being accused of racism but not in making them not be racist. We’ve reached a point where anything short of being caught in the act of burning a cross on someone’s lawn can be hotly denied. Many will insist “I don’t have a racist bone in my body”, clearly subscribing to the orthopedic theory of racism. (“Congratulations. The operation was a complete success. We’ve removed the fibula that didn’t want immigrants living next door and now you’re racism-free.”)

I don’t want to go down that road so let me just point out that Ukip supporters are older and whiter than the average voter and disproportionately obsessed with immigration. 92 per cent of them agree that “mass immigration is making parts of the UK unrecognisable and like a foreign land” while 51 per cent agree that “The Government should encourage immigrants and their families to leave Britain (including family members who were born in Britain).” This isn’t just about Brussels. Farage can keep insisting that the only issue is Europe but his anti-immigrant button-pushing makes his pantomime of puzzled disappointment with the party’s barmier members look comically disingenuous. Bigots in Ukip? Gosh, how can that be? He’s like a man who walks around with a string of sausages hanging from his back pocket and then complains when dogs chase him.

The wave of recent mini-scandals may have deterred a few floating voters but it’s left only a minor dent. Some candidates are swivel-eyed extremists? It doesn’t matter. Their facts are distorted and their predictions wrong? It doesn’t matter. They’ve disowned their 2010 manifesto and refuse to specify any policies beyond leaving Europe? It doesn’t matter. They’re so reliant on one man that trying to name another Ukip member who appears reasonable and halfway professional is a very short game? It doesn’t matter. They’re seeking election to a parliament they don’t believe in, which, as we’ve seen from the activities of anti-state Tea Party congressmen in the US, is a recipe for fractious inertia that helps nobody? It doesn’t matter. They’re chummy with some of Europe’s most unsavoury fringe parties? It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because Ukip are less a political party than a mood. As the Spectator’s Alex Massie suggests, Farage’s appeal is the flipside of Russell Brand’s. Disgust with mainstream politics, globalisation and, in many cases, immigrants has created an angry bubble so impervious to facts that it strays into conspiracy theories: 67 per cent of Ukip voters said they were more likely than the average Briton to feel “alienated”. Farage obscures his lack of ideas in a mist of simplistic rhetoric and phoney rebellion that’s attractive to people sick of the dreary slog of politics as usual. While the other parties talk about tough choices, Farage makes it easy. Leave Europe, pull up the drawbridge and Britain will be magically restored to whatever cock-eyed, Sunday-night-TV golden age you carry around in your head.

Some of their voters’ deeper worries are understandable, which is why they’re wooing Labour voters as well as estranged Tories, but the solution (send ‘em back home and close the door) is as bogus as it is pernicious. Unfortunately, this is how right-wing populist parties shape the national conversation. First, they exaggerate the downside of immigration and gather a following. Then the media and mainstream parties feel obliged to respond by buying into the exaggeration and catering to “valid concerns”, regardless of whether those concerns are grounded in fact. Usually, voters who are obsessed with immigration decide to stick with the party that serves its bigotry undiluted but by then the issue has been artificially inflated and something must be done. No party leader can dare to say that he refuses to respond to this largely illusory crisis.

The media, always in the market for a telegenic wag, has inflated Farage’s importance and thus his support. The same outlets that wrung their hands over whether to give Nick Griffin a platform have rolled out the red carpet for Farage, even though Ukip deputy chairman Neil Hamilton has said that his party attracts “decent” and “non-racist” BNP voters who feel “swamped” by immigration (ah yes, the famous non-racist BNP voter) and Griffin himself has accused Ukip of “using all of our rhetoric, they are using our slogans, they are recycling our posters and people like it”. Even now that the media is, belatedly, giving Farage a harder time, he has all the publicity he needs.

I’d like to think that the negative press will make some dyspeptic voters tempted to go for Ukip as a protest vote think again once they realise they’re joining some very unpleasant company. Like most countries, Britain has a proportion of incorrigible hardcore racists but not enough to explain Ukip’s poll ratings. Come the general election, when Ukip will have to break their strategic silence on policy and articulate a vision for the economy, education and so on, its coalition of malcontents will be hard to sustain. Truly successful parties are sustained by groundwork, pragmatism and attention to detail, not hot air and hating stuff. Moods are powerful and unstoppable until they pass, and this one will pass.

For now, the only course of action left if you dislike Ukip and the side of Britain that they represent is to turn out and vote. Sorry if that sounds condescending. Angry people with the wind at their heels certainly will, and the bored and disillusioned will allow them to exaggerate their importance. (If Russell Brand’s anti-voting stance seemed unhelpful last year it feels actively destructive now.) You can’t build a lasting political party on anger and prejudice but you can still cause a lot of damage.

Thanks to @davidwearing, whose Twitter feed has been a valuable source of links and statistics.

Tony Benn 1925-2014

The Gate of Ivory: why Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece


I don’t usually write about movies here but since I saw Inside Llewyn Davis for the second time, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I think it’s nigh-on perfect: it’s not just one of the Coens’ best movies, it’s the best I’ve seen in the past year or so. And I feel compelled to argue its case to all the music journalists I know who, dismayingly, hate it. And it’s fun to write about so bear with me. Obviously this contains spoilers up the wazoo so don’t read if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

Firstly, what’s up with the guy in the alley?

The first time I saw the movie, I thought it might be a long flashback that begins the morning after the assault and brings us back to the present. But the first time, Llewyn closes his set with Hang Me Oh Hang Me and the second time it’s Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song). They’re different shows with exactly the same violent coda.

It’s the most important scene because this almost Lynchian loop reveals at the last minute that the apparent naturalism of most of the movie (which only breaks down during the surreal and haunting road trip) is a hoax. This is a fable, a nightmare, a week in purgatory, a very dark Groundhog Day. And Llewyn realises that too in the very last scene, when he says a sardonic “au revoir” to his assailant. He knows it’s going to happen again. The details may change but he’s still going to end up in that alley with a bloody lip because that’s his fate. I’m just relieved the Coens are too subtle to stoop to showing a turntable needle stuck in a groove.

In the coffee shop, Carey Mulligan’s furious Jean scolds Llewyn for making the same mistakes over and over again. But there are hints that his stasis is not just because of his personal failings but because the universe is toying with him. During the road trip, John Goodman’s hideous, tormenting jazzman threatens to inflict a curse that will make Llewyn wonder why is life has turned into “a big bowl of shit”. Llewyn takes it in his stride because he realises that the curse has already been cast. His life is already a big bowl of shit.

So is Llewyn a loser?

Oscar Isaac’s musical performances are perfectly judged. If he were any less talented we wouldn’t want him to succeed. If he were any better we wouldn’t understand why he was failing. He’s just as good as dozens of other hopefuls on the Greenwich Village scene, which means he’s not quite good enough. He’s duo material: Art Garfunkel rather than Paul Simon and, to be honest, not even that. Brusque though he is, Bud Grossman is right when he says that Llewyn’s best hope of success is as the junior member of a Peter, Paul & Mary-style trio. (No disrespect to Noel “Paul” Stookey.) Musical abilities aside, Llewyn lacks the ruthlessness and calculated charm with which Bob Dylan smoothed his path through Greenwich Village. But he’s neither passive nor a fool.

Well is he an asshole?

I’m inclined to apply the Holden Caulfield defence: he’s bereaved and lashing out. Bereavement can feel like Groundhog Day, hence the language of “needing to move on”, and I tend to give grieving people, whether in life or in movies, a lot of slack. To make matters worse, it seems as if every time people see Llewyn they’re reminded of Mike, his beloved ex-partner who jumped off the George Washington Bridge. When Bud Grossman tells Llewyn he doesn’t “connect with people”, maybe that’s always been the case or maybe he’s formed a protective shell that prevents powerful emotions from getting out as well as in.

So he’s clearly profoundly depressed. He’s also homeless and poor during a famously cruel winter, sleeping on floors and train station benches and, as he tells Jean, “so tired”. As soon as he gets any money (sacrificing future royalties in the process, natch), it slips out of his hands for no reward, as if it were a mirage all along. Without money, a home or even a winter coat, Llewyn is far more spiritually attuned to folk music’s sorrowful tales than the cosy, sweater-wearing Jim and Jean. He’s not demanding to be a star; he just wants to eat and sleep.

On second viewing I shivered at the scene where he sits at a lunch counter for as long as possible while his socks drip melted snow onto the floor, and at the exhausted lyrics of Hang Me, Oh Hang Me: “Hang me, oh hang me/I’ll be dead and gone/I wouldn’t mind the hanging/But the layin’ in a grave so long, poor boy/I been all around this world.”

I wonder if Llewyn’s most self-destructive behaviour stems from his subconscious realisation that burning his bridges is his best way out. Towards the end of the movie he’s forgiven by the Gorfeins and the Gaslight manager, and even Jean mellows, securing him another gig, but these acts of kindness bring him back where he started. Returning to the Gaslight isn’t a redemptive second chance, it’s a trap.

The whole movie is a corrective to the ubiquitous follow-your-dream school of philosophy. It’s for all the actors who realise they’ve been waiting tables in LA long enough, all the singers who accept that they don’t quite have what it takes. If the movie strikes some viewers as cruel, well, it’s a cruel situation. Knowing when to give up on a dream and try something else isn’t a subject that our culture feels comfortable with. Why the Coens, who have had a blessed career, are so enthralled by failure is anyone’s guess.

Why doesn’t he just quit?

Well, he tries to rejoin the merchant marine but he doesn’t have his license and can’t afford a new one. In one of the ironies studded through the film like cats’ eyes, his sister only threw out the license because he told her he didn’t want a box of old stuff lying around. The one time he symbolically rejects the past, it backfires and punishes him.

And he at least considers looking up his ex-girlfriend Diane, who has his child. First time around, I thought Llewyn was wrong not to take the turning to Akron and try and build a new life with Diane. But this is a woman who cancelled her abortion without telling him and immediately left town, so I don’t imagine she’d be up for playing happy families two years later. Akron is less a viable future than a reminder of past mistakes.

Friends who hate Inside Llewyn Davis complain about the tonal monotony, from the plot down to the colour palette, but it’s about the seeming impossibility of change. It looks how depression feels. Unlike previous entries in the Coens’ informal Failure Trilogy, Barton Fink and A Serious Man, there’s no cataclysmic, transformative event at the end: no hotel fire or tornado to change the central character’s life. There’s no catharsis. The only developments come in Llewyn’s awareness of his plight and his decision to play Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song) for the first time since Mike’s death. I understand why the sense of inertia annoys some people but it’s kind of the whole point.

Do the Coens actually like folk music?

Yes and no. If they didn’t appreciate the beauty of the music they wouldn’t devote so much screen time to the songs, but they’re keenly aware of its limitations. When Llewyn says after Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, “It was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song” it’s both praise of the music and indictment of the scene. (John Goodman’s “We play all the notes — twelve notes in a scale, dipshit, not three chords on a ukelele” is my favourite line but I don’t think we’re meant to take his jazz-militant criticisms seriously.)

A better question might be: does Llewyn Davis like folk music? He does when he’s singing it but he explodes at the Arkansas autoharp player in the Gaslight because she represents folk at its most reverential and hidebound. His cry of “I hate fucking folk music” is one of the funniest, harshest lines in the movie. It’s the eruption of a creeping fear that the music he’s dedicated his twenties to might be as irrelevant as the “early music” studied by the ludicrous academic he meets at the Gorfeins’. (Neatly, the autoharp player’s avenging husband is a reminder that there is nothing prissy or sanitised about the roots of American folk music. It was forged in hard times among people who would punch you in the gut if you got out of line.)

One way I see the movie is a retort to traditional rock biopics, in which performances have the power to move listeners to tears or guys at mixing desks to nods and grins. But here the music is powerless, at least as far as Llewyn is concerned. In the only scene which I think justifies criticisms of the movie as cruel, Llewyn performs the seafaring ballad Shoals of Herring, in the hope of breaking through the wall of his father’s dementia. It certainly provokes a release, but not the kind he was hoping for. If the promise of folk music is that it can reconnect you to the past, then it fails here. It can’t bring back what was lost.

It can’t take him forward, either. Please Mr Kennedy (a neurotic riff on the space race which expresses fear of the future) will be a hit but it won’t do him any good. The song he plays for Bud Grossman, a Child ballad allegedly about the death of Jane Seymour, is comically archaic even by folk scene standards. He could have searched high and low without finding a song less likely to get him a record deal in 1961. (In an insightful essay, Sam Adams explores how the lyrics might relate to Llewyn’s situation.)

The shadowy appearance of Bob Dylan in the final scenes isn’t just some cute historical joke: he’s the coming storm. Even if, somehow, we didn’t know what happened next, his voice represents the future. His material may be old but his voice is new, demanding and audaciously ugly. Of course we do know what happened next: he became the folk scene’s darling only to break its heart.

On the subject of real people, how much of the move is true?

A surprising amount. It’s testament to the Coens’ careful research and masterful screenwriting that many of the incidents in the film that seem too perfectly symbolic or ironic not to be fictional turn out to have actually happened. This excellent Slate blogpost covers most of the real-life inspirations. Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street (which I recommend to anyone who enjoys funny, opinionated memoirs) contains anecdotes which made their way straight into the movie, including his label boss’s disingenuous offer of a winter coat, and other details that appear in different forms, like his career as a seaman, his couch-hopping and a strange road trip. The cover of Inside Llewyn Davis (the album) is almost identical to that of 1964’s Inside Dave Van Ronk. But Van Ronk was a far more rambunctious personality and a more successful performer. He never made it big but he was beloved and influential in Greenwich Village in a way that Llewyn can only dream of. (UPDATE: Dave Van Ronk’s ex-wife criticises the film for not accurately depicting the Greenwich Village scene. I’m sure she’s right but that’s only a problem if you’re concerned that, say, Barton Fink doesn’t accurately depict 1940s Hollywood. If the Coens wanted to be historically precise they would have used the names of real people: remember, even “Bob Dylan” in the movie is never identified as Dylan.)

All well and good but what about the Gorfeins’ cat?

With the Coens, it’s always a fool’s errand trying to demonstrate that x symbolizes y but the revelation of the cat’s name, Ulysses, is offered to us like a ball of string to chase and unravel. It’s ironic that Llewyn worries so much about the cat’s welfare because the cat, unlike him, is fine. It runs off, has some adventures, and returns home to the warm bosom of the Gorfeins’ apartment. If the cat were as unlucky as Llewyn it would be called Sisyphus. (UPDATE: Commenter ruralmurder argues that the cat supports the more optimistic reading that, like Groundhog Day, Llewyn’s week is a loop but not an identical one and his decisions have the power to create small but significant improvements, raising the hope that at some point he might break the cycle of misfortune: “When the cat gets out of the apartment, Llewyn’s life goes to shit. The second time around, when the cat stays in the apartment, we see subtle, perhaps more optimistic results in Llewyn’s life.” I like this theory.)

The theme of contrasting odysseys might have been inspired by the name of real-life club The Gate of Horn. According to Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, “For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them.” Llewyn is turned back from the Gate of Horn and stuck with the fruitless illusions of the Gate of Ivory.

Another line from that passage in Homer makes for a nice comment on this fabulous, complex, divisive movie: “Stranger, dreams verily are baffling and unclear of meaning, and in no wise do they find fulfilment in all things for men.”

So should I go and see it again?


Pete Seeger 1919-2014



Pete Seeger was a good man. There aren’t many musicians you can say that about without seeming simplistic. Music is often progressed by flawed, volatile, glamorous egotists, and thank God for them. But Seeger carved out his place in history with a quieter, rarer set of qualities: nobility, generosity, humility and, when things got rough, breathtaking courage. Perhaps uniquely, he became one of the most important singers in America without ever being a star, because he believed in the song rather than the singer…


More at the Guardian…


Watch this video

I’ve written a few things recently about the power of a video to convey additional information that would clutter up a lyric and the new John Grant video is an extraordinary example. To my ears, perhaps because I know a lot about Grant’s upbringing in a homophobic religious household, Glacier felt far more personal than political but this video recontextualises it as a hymn to the perseverance of the gay rights movement. It’s easy to do a machine-gun-paced montage badly — Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror is just a barrage of Heavy Stuff That Happened — but the speed of change here, both visual and historical, is emotionally overwhelming. Every time I see it, I’m left stunned.


Free! Pussy Riot



Delighted that Maria and Nadia from Pussy Riot are free. Inspired that they are as fierce and uncompromising as ever.

Pop and politics in 2013


This year, the deaths of two political titans meant that I was asked to consider 1980s protest songs yet again and I experienced a curious nostalgia for the music if not the times. It felt as if left-wing musicians knew where they stood back then. They had a hero and a villain and what they wanted could be condensed into a three-word slogan: stand down Margaret, free Nelson Mandela. Eventually Margaret did stand down and Mandela was freed and new problems arose, but for a decade these two figures allowed for a bracing simplicity that the current political landscape does not. It was apt that 2013’s most commercially successful and genuinely controversial act of pop protest was a song from The Wizard of Oz repositioned as a cackle of good riddance to the Iron Lady.

I make this point so often that I’m at risk of boring myself let alone you but any understanding of current protest songs demands the acceptance that different eras produce different kinds of protest. If you judge the present by the standards of the past you will always be disappointed; if you’re open to new approaches then you’ll find plenty to chew on.

2013 didn’t give us a classic, lightning-rod record on a par with Ill Manors or Let England Shake but provided so much to talk and think about. Much of the debate took place around pop itself and the complicated messages it contains. Was Robin Thicke a misogynist or worse? Were Lorde and Macklemore making liberal points at the expense of black artists? Were the pungent observations about race and class on Kanye West’s Yeezus fatally compromised by Kanye’s narcissism and misogyny? Not all of the discourse was illuminating — some of it was terrible — but I’m glad it’s taking place, a widespread acknowledgement of August Wilson’s axiom, “All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.”

Lorde’s Royals was one of my favourite songs of the year and proved provocative in ways that the singer couldn’t have imagined. It’s here, particularly, that I found online debate depressingly simplistic. To find Royals racist you’d have to believe that (a) only black artists sing or rap about luxury goods (b) black artists sing or rap about nothing but luxury goods and (c) you cannot criticize anyone for singing or rapping about luxury goods. The first two are patently false while the third is absurd. When you’ve beaten the odds you were born with, I can understand the desire to celebrate your newfound wealth but there’s nothing inherently noble or progressive about doing so repeatedly at the expense of other subjects, especially during a recession which has seen nothing boom except income inequality. Socially conscious rappers have been making that point for 20 years and usually with more self-righteous fire than Lorde. One thing I love about Royals is that it’s not about the artists themselves, and what they should or shouldn’t be doing, but the cumulative effect of vacuous wealth porn on the alienated listener. Furthermore, Lorde is honest enough to be both repelled and seduced by the fantasy: “We don’t care” but at the same time “we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.” She wrote it when she was 15 and it’s still more nuanced and intelligent than any of the attacks on it.

When I asked Lorde about the controversy in Q she had a thoughtful response: “It was just the nature of what I’d been listening to and the references I felt overloaded by. I was just writing a response but I was trying to be funny. It wasn’t this progressive anti-consumerist thing, which is funny because now everyone gets all up in arms about it. What we didn’t realise at the time either is what people think is special about the song is that I’m using that medium to critique that medium. If I’d been in an angry punk band talking about that I wouldn’t be anything special but because I used Top 40 pop to get there that’s what makes it different.”

Macklemore’s music doesn’t move me but Same Love’s critique of homophobia inside and outside hip hop is no less valid for coming from a white artist. It’s obvious from certain articles written in praise of Lorde and Macklemore that some of their supporters do hold hip hop in contempt but there’s no evidence that either artist does and calling either of them racist doesn’t do anyone any good. More depressing is the case of Lily Allen’s Hard Out Here, which squandered its refreshingly frank assault on sexism in the music industry with a video so insensitive that nobody involved in making it seems to have noticed until it was too late that it only mocked black music. As listeners become more attuned to issues of gender and race, you can’t be that thoughtless and get away with it. Sophie Heawood’s response says it all.

Urban music itself is not exactly oblivious to these issues. I’m not sure that even Kanye could explain his politics — he can’t settle on one line of argument for long enough — but the thrilling, maddening Yeezus threw up plenty of chewy ideas along the way. As I wrote earlier in the year, I can’t get my head around the use of Strange Fruit in a song about divorce, or the Black Panther salute as a cheap joke in a sex rhyme, but on New Slaves he questions his own lust for high-end goods and rages at the realisation that wealth simply buys you a better class of racism. Having joined the one per cent, he’s justifiably outraged that most of his fellow rich don’t want him there, a reality that puts his endless monologues about his problems with the fashion industry a notch above simple vanity.

Jay-Z’s thoughts about race and wealth on Oceans were, like New Slaves, enriched by the melancholy presence of Frank Ocean, whose line, “I hope my black skin don’t dirt this white tuxedo” sets up Jay-Z’s ruminations on the parallel voyages of Christopher Columbus and African slaves. In this context “I crash through glass ceilings/I break through closed doors isn’t an idle boast, it’s the essence of hip hop aspiration. If you prefer the hard-charging old-school belligerence of Public Enemy, it’s there in Killer Mike and El-P’s Run the Jewels album and MIA’s Bring the Noize, and if you want deeply felt, socially aware narratives try Chance the Rapper or Kendrick Lamar’s Black Hippy crew.

Unexpected as Beyonce’s jack-in-the-box album release was, it was even more surprising to hear her sampling a TED talk about feminism by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on Flawless. Adichie’s words may be tougher and less ambivalent than Beyonce’s brand of feminism but their presence is electrifying. Janelle Monáe is half Beyonce, half Adichie, a serious thinker with shobiz chops. Her album The Electric Lady was a sci-fable about prejudice and self-expression that captured the surging defiance of 70s soul, especially on Ghetto Woman, a joyous Stevie Wonder homage about her working-class mother. The Erykah Badu duet Q.U.E.E.N. is something like a manifesto: “I’m tired of Marvin asking me What’s Going On?/March to the streets ‘cuz I’m willing and I’m able/Categorize me, I defy every label.”

Feminism seemed to be everywhere, from the sometimes impenetrable gender theory of The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual (“Let’s talk about gender baby/Let’s talk about you and me” is both a line from Full of Fire, a Salt ‘n’ Pepa joke and the album’s implicit subtitle) to the hushed ruminations of Kathryn Williams’ The Known, which was written in a flurry after a heated late-night debate with fellow songwriters.

The discussion carried on outside of the songs. Chrvches frontwoman Lauren Mayberry wrote an eloquent Guardian article about the routine misogynist bullshit every female artist has to confront but rarely talks about and Grimes’ Tumblr posts reveal a sharp young musician working out her thoughts in public. “I’m sad that it’s uncool or offensive to talk about environmental or human rights issues… I’m sad that my desire to be treated as an equal and a human being is interpreted as hatred of men, rather than a request to be included and respected.” I’m sad too but I’m happy that she’s so smart and fearless about saying these things.

My favourite feminist record of 2013 was Kacey Musgraves’ Follow Your Arrow. Co-written by a gay man (Sean McAnally) and a gay woman (Brandy Clark, whose own 12 Songs album is also excellent), it’s a gently subversive twist on the be-yourself anthem. When she sings, “Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that’s something you’re into,” she does so with such casual charm that it’s not a bold stand, just a reflection of the way things are in a changing America. Women in country music have always been more likely then men to highlight the more punishing aspects of smalltown life: gossip, hypocrisy, conservatism and routine male violence that is tolerated rather than condemned. A line runs from Jeannie C Riley’s Harper Valley PTA and The Rib, through the battered-wife of revenge fantasies of Martina McBride (Independence Day) and the Dixie Chicks (Goodbye Earl) to Musgraves’s big-sister reassurance: “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t so you might as well just do whatever you want.” It also contains my favourite lyrical joke of the year but I won’t spoil it for you.

Several artists who emerged in the 80s and 90s took up cudgels this year. Super Furry Animal Cian Ciaran’s They Are Nothing Without Us and ex-Beta Band singer Steve Mason’s Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time were two angry, eclectic albums from people whose hard-left politics was sometimes overlooked first time around. Primal Scream released their best protest song since XTRMNTR (2013) and one of their worst (Culturecide) on the same album. Augmented by Kevin Shields’ hurricane guitar, 2013 sounds inspiringly indignant, flirting with despair: “What happened to the voices of dissent? Getting rich I guess… They killed the counterculture underground/It offers no critique.” Elsewhere in the song the political analysis may not be sophisticated but Russell Brand has proved that’s no obstacle to making an impact. At Glastonbury, Portishead used anti-Trident videos to retrospectively politicise Machine Gun.

In the same year that PJ Harvey accepted an MBE from the Queen, enraging those of her admirers who like to see the world in black and white, she released the kind of direct, topical protest song that she avoided on Let England Shake: Shaker Aamar, about the man who has been in Guantanamo Bay since 2002. It’s far less elegant than her recent work — its blunt staccato reminds me of one of Harold Pinter’s anti-war poems — but that’s not the point. It sounds like moral anger, pure and uncut. It is perhaps the only song this year that could have appeared in the pages of Broadside and had the approval of Pete Seeger.

Manic Street Preachers’ Rewind the Film album haunted me this year with its autumnal reflections on the minefield of middle age, “halfway between acceptance and rage”. It almost throws in the towel on Anthem for a Lost Cause, a song protesting against itself, but performs an explosive U-turn with the class-war history lesson of 30-Year War. There’s a place for subtlety and ambiguity and a place for James Dean Bradfield bearing down on “the endless parade of Old Etonian scum”. Nottingham duo Sleaford Mods don’t fit in anywhere so I’ll mention them here because Austerity Dogs is an album of bleak, unnerving power: a bit Mark E Smith, a bit John Cooper Clarke, a bit hip hop and, in the words of the terrific Quietus review, “Chris Morris with a class consciousness, laying bare the surreal tapestry of horrors that face the working class in Britain today.”

As for even older artists, Bruce Springsteen reanimated some of his old protest songs with Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello on tour, including a vengefully heavy The Ghost of Tom Joad and a sombre American Skin (41 Shots), revived during the Trayvon Martin case that also drew a slew of reactions from the hip hop scene. Pet Shop Boys, of all people, took a fairly minor Springsteen song, The Last to Die’s macabre road trip through a war-poisoned America, and made it sound like a classic. David Bowie’s The Next Day was studded with the kind of ominous political allusions that recalled his 70s work. “They can’t get enough of that doomsday song” indeed.

No veteran impressed me more this year than Elvis Costello. He acknowledged Thatcher’s death at Glastonbury with performances of Shipbuilding (wobbly) and Tramp the Dirt Down (spine-tingling) and made an intense, intriguing album, Wise Up Ghost, with the Roots. It created a dialogue between the Roots’ hip hop background with his own past (Stick Out Your Tongue rearranged lyrics from his caustic 30-year-old single Pills and Soap) via the more tense and brooding variety of 70s soul. When I interviewed Costello alongside Questlove for MOJO, he was coy about specific issues: “If you look out of the window you don’t have to look very far.” Like Bowie, he’s more interested in evoking an atmosphere of fear and crisis than in sloganeering and when he sings “Seems that everything is about to blow” he doesn’t need to name names. Despite having written or produced some of the all-time great protest songs (including Nelson Mandela for the Special AKA), he’s always been ambivalent about politics in music and when I raised the subject he had some thoughts which are worth quoting here:

“It’s the delusion of protest music: because you write it, it changes things. It doesn’t. It only changes in the hearts of people who listen. I always felt that when people said it’s really subversive you’ve fucked it up right away by saying it’s subversive. And it’s not brave. Victor Jara – that’s brave. If they lock you up in a football stadium and chop your hands off, that’s brave. If you sing it despite knowing that will happen to you, that’s brave. Most of the time the worst thing that can happen is they won’t play your record or the record label drops you off. It’s not the most dramatic thing that can happen to you.”

Finally, I enjoyed two songs which were expanded and enriched by their videos. Watching Lil Wayne’s God Bless Amerika, filmed in a poor black neighbourhood I felt that the rapper was happy to play second fiddle to the people around him. They are the real stars, not merely living props, and they convey the song’s message about the holes in the American dream — holes big enough to swallow lives — more powerfully than the lyrics.

Esperanza Spalding’s anti-Guantanamo Bay We Are America uses its video to convey information that wouldn’t work in a lyric, with cameos from Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte and Janelle Monáe. The joy in the music and the performances makes an argument for what America should be, and how antithetical Guantanamo is to the better angels of its nature.

That’s why Spalding told NPR, “We weren’t thinking of a ‘protest’ song, we’re thinking of a ‘let’s get together and do something pro-active, creative and productive’ song.” That’s her call but let’s no split hairs. Bob Dylan didn’t think Blowin’ in the Wind was a protest song either. If you feel that I’ve applied the term to broadly here then it’s because I think narrow definitions paint a misleading picture. Whatever words you want to use, politics was very much at home in music, and the discussion of music, in 2013. I’ve compiled a playlist of all the songs mentioned here that are available on Spotify. You might also enjoy playlists of my favourite songs of 2013: choose from the seven-hour epic version or the edited highlights.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 856 other followers