“After a grand jury didn’t indict a Ferguson, Mo., police officer last month in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, D’Angelo called his co-manager Kevin Liles. “He said: ‘Do you believe this? Do you believe it?’ ” Mr. Liles said. “And then we just sat there in silence. That is when I knew he wanted to say something.”” – New York Times, December 17, 2014
The big story in protest music in 2014 can be summed up in one word: Ferguson. And by Ferguson I don’t just mean the death of Michael Brown, but those of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, and the gut-wrenching reminder that in America black lives are valued less than white ones. It shocked hip hop into its biggest spasm of civic responsibility since Hurricane Katrina. Rappers stopped worrying about self-identifying as political (read: preachy, boring, not commercially viable) and stepped up without hesitation.
I’ve already come across New National Anthem by TI, the Nina Simone-influenced Black Rage by Lauryn Hall, Don’t Shoot by The Game and others, War Cry by Tef Poe, Tell the Children by Tink, Be Free by J Cole, We Gotta Pray by Alicia Keys and Hands Up by Yakki Divoshi. Don’t Shoot, named after a Ferguson hashtag and placard slogan, stands out because its sheer manpower allows for a range of responses, from Diddy’s thoughtful restraint to Swizz Beatz’ bleak despair to Problem’s vengeful fury. Amid references to Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Fuck Tha Police, Curren$y’s “I’m a resident of a country that don’t want me” cuts deepest.
Those are just the songs intended to be about Ferguson. As D’Angelo’s quote demonstrates, the crisis transformed the meaning and purpose of existing songs. When Vince Staples tweeted “Hands Up is not about Ferguson”, I felt like replying, “Well, that’s what you think.” I was reminded of a quote from DH Lawrence in Greil Marcus’s The History of Rock’n’Roll in 10 Songs: “Never trust the teller. Trust the tale.” Hands Up wasn’t written about Ferguson the place, Ferguson the crisis, but it’s about what the name Ferguson now represents. Likewise Run the Jewels’ heart-wrenching Early: “I apologise if I got out of line sir/Cause I respect the badge and the gun/And I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away/Right in front of my beautiful son.” For D’Angelo, Ferguson recontextualised Black Messiah, an album which sometimes attains the humid density of There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and made its rush-release a necessary response. He wanted the album to reflect “anarchy and urgency and revolution”. So when Questlove posted on Instagram, calling for songs that “speak truth”, I felt that these songs were already out there.
The best of them feel fresh and alive in a way that Band Aid 30’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? did not. This lumbering anachronism reminded me of attending 2007’s Live Earth, the massive benefit concert that was forgotten even as it was happening: the last gasp of an outmoded form.
Under fire from the likes of Damon Albarn, Fuse ODG and even Emeli Sande, who sang on the record, Bob Geldof proved unable to accept that pop music, the media and the world have changed, and immune to humility or self-awareness. His belligerent defence of the redemptive power of good intentions was forgivable in 1984 because the concept was new and its strengths outweighed its flaws. Thirty years later, nobody needs a pop song to tell them about ebola. I’m prepared to believe that it raised awareness of the epidemic among the very young but mostly it just raised awareness of the redundancy of the all-star benefit single. (I had high hopes for another multi-vocal effort, Rookie Magazine’s Go Forth, Feminist Warriors, because it featured people like Carrie Brownstein, Aimee Mann and Tegan & Sara but unfortunately this “feminist We Are the World” is terrible. At least Do They Know It’s Christmas? is catchy.)
Some of the year’s most outspoken rock musicians were from the original Band Aid/We Are the World generation. On High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen enlisted Tom Morello to beef up two of his finest protest songs, 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad and 2000’s American Skin (41 Shots), the latter about – plus ca change – the police murder of an unarmed black man. On U2’s Songs of Innocence, Bono stopped trying to throw his arms around the world and drew a tight bead on the Ireland of his youth: the violence of political fanatics (Raised By Wolves) and the complacent cruelty of abusive priests (Sleep Like a Baby Tonight). It’s a shame that the album’s controversially vast iTunes data dump distracted from the powerful intimacy of the words.
Morrissey’s World Peace Is None of Your Business showed that a strong melody can redeem a ham-fisted lyric. Even as I couldn’t get it out of my head, I wondered how he could bundle together protest movements in countries as different as Egypt, Brazil, Ukraine and Bahrain and empathise with the victims of autocrats while rubbishing the right to vote. Small wonder that he is good friends with Russell Brand. Elbow’s The Blanket of Night took the opposite tack, tenderly sketching a scene of two asylum-seekers on a stormy sea. Compassion for ordinary lives can be more effective than raging vaguely against the powerful. The year’s biggest surprise came from Paolo Nutini, an MOR soulboy reconfigured, on Iron Sky, as an urgent revolutionary idealist, making excellent use of Charlie Chaplin’s famous “machine minds” speech from The Great Dictator.
Iron Sky’s dystopian video is just one example of how visuals can emphasise and expand lyrics. The clip for John Grant’s Glacier used the singer’s deeply personal account of the impact of homophobia as an opportunity to chart the history of the gay rights movement, to emotionally overwhelming effect. The pansexual love-in depicted in Annie’s Russian Kiss video made it an even more joyous riposte to Putin’s anti-gay laws during the Sochi Olympics. Holly Herndon’s Home, a break-up song addressed to her computer, was a witty sideways take on the mass surveillance program revealed by Edward Snowden.
Canadian country singer Kira Isabella’s Quarterback doesn’t necessarily read as a protest song but it should. I’ve said before that the only thing I’d change about 33 Revolutions Per Minute is to redraw the parameters of what constitutes a feminist protest song. I underserved personal songs with broad resonance that didn’t present themselves as movement anthems. Quarterback is such a song.
Isabella describes a nightmarish inversion of an early Taylor Swift scenario, in which a timid geek hooks up with a football hero in the most horrific way. As the title and chorus indicate, the real target isn’t the rapist but the high-school caste system that allows him to get away with it by disbelieving his victim. As Katherine St Asaph wrote in a brilliant review, “it’s also a song about popularity, and who we deem to matter”.
Originally written in the first person, Quarterback is far more disturbing in the third. Isabella’s neutral delivery, cracking only on the line “when she saw the pictures on the internet,” suggests that she could be one of the complicit bystanders. A stronger singer might have overplayed the indignation, tipped the song out of the everyday and into melodrama, made it obvious from the start where it was going. The video betrays the song’s toughness by ending with a cathartic scene in which the rapist is exposed. The lyric allows no such happy ending. It’s about trying to live at the very bottom of a crushing power structure. And it shows that great songwriting can bottle a major issue in a single story that leaves you stunned.
Here are my Top 20 albums and singles of the year. And here’s a link to my Spotify playlist of roughly 100 songs I enjoyed in 2014.
- Owen Pallett – In Conflict
- FKA twigs – LP1
- Manic Street Preachers – Futurology
- St Vincent – St Vincent
- Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
- Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
- D’Angelo & the Vanguard – Black Messiah
- Caribou – Our Love
- Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
- Kate Tempest – Everybody Down
- Kelis – Food
- Wye Oak – Shriek
- The Soft Pink Truth – Why Do the Heathen Rage?
- Scott Walker & Sunn O))) – Soused
- Taylor Swift – 1989
- Lewis – L’Amour
- Wild Beasts – Present Tense
- Aphex Twin – Syro
- Eno*Hyde – Someday World
- The Juan Maclean – In a Dream
- FKA twigs – Two Weeks
- Todd Terje – Oh Joy
- Caribou – Silver
- Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting on You)
- Sofi de la Torre – Vermillion
- Taylor Swift – Out of the Woods
- Idina Menzel – Let It Go
- The War on Drugs – Red Eyes
- Kira Isabella – Quarterback
- Jane Weaver – Argent
- Röyskopp & Robyn – Do It Again
- The Soft Pink Truth – Ready to Fuck
- Beyonce – XO
- Elbow – Fly Boy Blue/Lunette
- Porter Robinson – Hear the Bells
- Clean Bandit – Rather Be
- Schoolboy Q feat. Kendrick Lamar – Collard Greens
- Vic Mensa – Down on My Luck
- Jenny Lewis – One of the Guys
- Perfume Genius – Queen
CONCERTS (CHRONOLOGICAL ORDER)
St Vincent at Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Kelis at Metropolis Studios
Miley Cyrus at Phones4U Arena
Future Islands and Courtney Barnett at Field Day
OutKast at Wireless Festival
Kate Bush at Hammersmith Apollo
FKA twigs at Hackney Empire
Underworld (Dubnobasswithmyheadman) at Royal Festival Hall
Kate Tempest at Village Underground
Goldfrapp at Royal Albert Hall
Jesus & Mary Chain (Psychocandy) at Troxy
John Grant at Royal Festival Hall
Manic Street Preachers (The Holy Bible) at Roundhouse