As young British people take to the streets to defend their futures, our columnist Nell Frizzell turns her thoughts to the protest song. Dylan and Seeger thrived in the 1960s, so why are present-day protests soundtracked by Chumbawumba and bad drumming?
Call me a helpless apathete but I can’t help but think that politics is to the pop song what parsnips are to cake; a potentially harmless addition, but a horrendously worthy one nonetheless. You might throw around words like “rich” and “textured” but all I will hear is the muffled portents of being earnest.
As our brave and perennially kettled students take to the nation’s streets to beg for a little financial mercy (or just a five-minute break between paying off their student loans, their credit debts, their parents’ care costs and their own funeral expenses) I cannot help but worry about what they’re singing. While the civil rights movement marched to the stirring soundtrack of Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come and Nina Simone’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black, the best our generation can come up with is an embarrassingly Home Counties samba band and the thundering hits of Chumbawumba.
Of course, it wasn’t always so. Back when our parents were full of the joys of spring (rather than riddled with the twin joys of arthritis and impotence), protest songs were as fresh and as exciting as a roll in the grass. Bob Dylan mourned The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Pete Seeger called to Bring Them Home from Vietnam, Marvin Gaye asked What’s Going On and Elvis Costello tackled the complexities of Shipbuilding during the Falklands War. This was a generation in which topical affairs spawned chart-topping anthems. These days, most “political” or “protest” artists are about as commercially viable as a loo roll bikini.
But perhaps I am being too down on the modern art of protest. While our songs may not be quite as sophisticated, or as rousing as their folk-inspired forefathers, there are undoubtedly some great contemporary chants. The pro-choice, Riot Grrl-sounding “Keep your rosaries off our ovaries” is one that springs to mind, as does the Avril Lavigne-esque “Hey (hey) mister (mister) get your laws off my sister”. But while these are undoubtedly clever bits of word play, unlike “I’m Black and I’m Proud”, they don’t often make their way on to the jukebox.
When it comes to chart-friendly political comment, the mantle has arguably fallen on grime, hip hop and that catch-all category “urban”. Much as I may deride his rodent-like Camden-Greco face, silly hats and pretence at a helicopter lifestyle, I can’t deny that N-Dubz’s Dappy mentions a cornucopia of modern social ills as he bobs and twonks across our MTV screens. Take this, from the single Secrets, for example: “Gunshots, knife attacks/Seems like I'm living in a life of ’tacks/Goverment bills, dodgy deals Leads to another life, crime on wheels/I'm so broke that it's no joke/Surrounded by addicts who be on coke…”
Wow. Dylan better go have a nice sit down and a biscuit – there’s a new political poet in town. Similarly, between roaring tweets and bouts of narcissistic knob-polishing, Kanye West has managed to cover everything from blood diamonds to war veterans. Not to mention Chipmunk’s heartrending tale of “growing up… where there’s more hate than love,” where he “was lookin’ up to men that made money off drugs”. Poignant. Not to mention potent.
So, while Metropolitan Police Superintendent David Hartshorn’s prediction of a year of “middle class riots” appears to be coming true, those very middle class rioters appear to be marching to a thoroughly urban tune. Let’s just hope it puts an end to Chumba-bloody-wumba.