“Put bluntly, Anglo-American popular music…whether it’s metal, rap, teen-pop or indie-rock, cannot help but stand for a depressingly conservative set of values” – John Harris
Harris expresses a sentiment many of us feel – in our hearts of hearts, we know that there is something missing in modern music – a politics, a passion, a sense of protest.
The music mainstream is characterised by ‘soulless music, artless lyrics, goalless movements and heartless gimmicks’ and yet under our feet a revolution brews from the stages of music venues across the country.
This revolution has no base other than music’s third world, the underground.
I refer to the underground, as the ‘third world’ to reflect the Peruvian American rap artist Immortal Technique’s observations…that the underground has all the natural resources, the talent, the man power and the passion, but has none of the access to the music markets that remain so manipulated and dominated by the powerful few.
Just like the third world though, the underground also spawns creativity, protest and resistance.
While the mainstream stays eerily quiet, the pulse of popular resistance beats on. Musicians are coming together to articulate what many of us feel but are unable to express. These musicians are uncaring of the marketability of their work.
They offer the discerning listener a raw, passionate and articulate response to the injustices we see and feel.
While traditional structures teach us that the love between two men is immoral the music of the underground gives us the poetry to resist this prejudice.
From The King’s Will’s ‘Love Against Homophobia’:
To some people
My love is somewhat alien;
When he comes up, they start subject-changing, and
In some states he’s seen as some contagion –
In those zones, he stays subterranean;
Some love my love; they run parades for him:
Liberal citizens lead the way for him:
Same time as some countries embracing him,
Whole faiths and nations seem ashamed of him:
They’ve tried banning him,
Prayed that he stayed in the cabinet,
But my love kicked in the panelling, ran for it –
He’s my love! Can’t be trapping him in labyrinths! –
Maverick, my love is; he thwarts challenges;
The cleverest geneticists can’t fathom him,
Priests can’t defeat him with venomous rhetoric;
They’d better quit; my love’s too competitive:
He’s still here, despite the Taliban, the Vatican,
And rap, ragga in their anger and arrogance,
Who call on my love with lit matches and paraffin –
Despite the fistfights and midnight batterings –
My love’s still here and fiercely battling,
My love’s still here and fiercely battling,
In this underground world, lyrics carry the sentiment of a generation growing up surrounded by violence and prejudice that we are unable to articulate a response to.
The underground does not demand protest but offers a fertile space for resistance to grow.
The underground crosses causes, continents and musical genres. Just as under the streets of Harlem you will find the dirty beats of subversive hip-hop, so under the soil of Middle-England you find the subversive chords of new-folk…and no, I’m talking about Mudford and fucking Sons.
Chris T-T for example expresses the concerns of the rural working classes as he takes on The Countryside Alliances’ (we’ll call them ‘the cunts’ for short) hypocrisy when he sings:
You loved the fucking poll tax, you propped up Margaret Thatcher
And you didn’t give a fuck about Tony Blair
‘Til he threw your hobby back at ya
Of course, a world-wide underground does not escape attention. Immortal Technique comments on this in his track ‘Open your eyes’ when he says, “When they [The Record Companies] need new assets, new artists to prostitute…, when they needed new concepts… they came to the underground”
Often music that pushes moral, social and musical boundaries becomes the pre-fix to new trends – new marketable trends. Subversive characters are marketable – think of John Lydon and his butter adverts.
So how should we, as consumers, respond to artists who rise up from the streets and onto the record company’s balance sheets?
Should we walk away from the likes of Frank Turner who sing of liberty and freedom whilst playing at the G4S/ATOS sponsored Olympics? No, of course not.
There is nothing inherent about protest being distinct from populism, and certainly nothing inherent about poverty and protest. Billy Bragg stands as a testimony as someone who has ridden a wave of popularity and prosperity and remained, relatively speaking, true to his values.
When Turner is quoted in The Guardian saying that “Rock n Roll will save us all” and that “anyone can take the stage” – The Guardian ‘raises an eyebrow’. For the rest of us it offers a signpost to resistance that surfaces in the mainstream.
When protest music such as Bragg, Turner or even Dylan rise up on to the airwaves and newspaper sheets of the masses, we should be pleased but we should never lose sight of where it came from.
Only in here will you find the raw passion, politics and protest that we are missing in most of our modern music.
3 responses to “Politics, passion and underground protest music”
This is a great article. The comment above is right though- Frank Turner is a twat. The reason it isn’t strange for him to appear at the Olympics is not that protest and populism are distinct, but because he embodies, and believes in, the corporate values expressed in that event. He describes himself as a ‘libertarian’ and ‘right wing’, the BNP as ‘hard left’ and socialism as ‘retarded.’ He is protesting for ultra conservative ideals- is this really protest?
How ironic is it that the manufactured reality show pop group Girls Aloud had a debut single entitled ‘Sound Of The Underground’? Underground, my arse! These fools wouldn’t know it if they fell over it.
That’s been bothering me for years. 😉
Thankfully, there is (and always will be) a “long tail” of good music waiting to be discovered. I think this may even grow: as music becomes ever-cheaper to record, release and promote (vis. the number of smaller artists crowd-sourcing the funding for their new releases) the need for enormous, controlling labels will reduce, and Pop really Will begin to Eat Itself. At the end of the day, it comes down to free choice – those to whom music actually matters will always seek out good stuff. As Brian once said, “you’re all individuals!”
And whilst, as you say, some of today’s major-label backed releases are vapid nonsense, there’s some good stuff out there. For every Black Eyed Peas there is a Frank Ocean; for every two-bit grime or gangsta MC there is a Sway or a Common; for every shitty boyband there is an Enter Shikari. It is still possible to be popular AND authentic.
Frank Turner is still a twat though.