25.01.2012, Words by Ruth Saxelby

John Street

Whatever happened to music and politics? There was a time when artists seemed convinced of their power to effect social change, but today’s apolitical musical landscape seems happy to leave the business of politics to the third world and figures like Bono, Bob Geldof, and, ahem, Damon Albarn. But does music have to wave a banner to be political? Not according to former Times music critic, and Professor of Politics, John Street. In his new book Music & Politics, Street sets out to prove that music doesn’t have to shout about social change to provoke it.

At the core of Street’s argument are three ideas: first, that the definition of politics – meaning activities and debates surrounding the organisation of public life by government – should be expanded to include smaller scale power relations; and second, that this new idea mustn’t go as far as saying the personal is political. In other words if you decide not to buy a Mars bar it’s not a political gesture, but if you convince everyone in your neighbourhood to do the same then it is. The concept has interesting implications when used in conjunction with Street’s third idea: that politically indirect and abstract lyrics (i.e. personal wants, needs, and metaphors), musical instrumentation, and even stylistic choices, can be as powerful as overt agitation, protest, and social commentary. In this way, chillwave’s lo-fi aesthetic could be seen as a protest against technologically driven, twenty-first century consumerism, just as Mick Jagger singing ‘let’s spend the night together’ could be seen as an assault on social conservatism of the 1960s.

From that foundation Street’s investigation covers Live 8, the Mercury Music Prize, Rock Against Racism and the Anti Nazi League; he analyses the spectrum of state censorship from Afghanistan to the USA, the mythology of Woodstock, and philosophical conceptions of music’s potency from Plato to Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer. As you can imagine, in trying to cover so much complex material the work is overwhelmed by the scope of its own ambition; there’s simply too much to take in. As a result, Music & Politics seems most useful as a reference book full of material that’ll lead you to deeper investigations elsewhere. That’s no bad thing.

The book’s major fault lies in the missed opportunity to pull current issues into its orbit. In the past decade political concerns surrounding music have stemmed from, and been dominated by, issues of distribution control, rights infringement, and piracy; beginning with Napster’s Metallica induced bankruptcy in 2002, continuing today with challenges to companies like Megaupload and Pirate Bay, and the temporarily shelved SOPA and PIPA initiatives. But while people looked the other way homophobia, sexism, misogyny, and rampant consumerism became constituent parts of the acceptable global face of popular music. The question that Music & Politics fails to answer is, what happens to a society exposed to those apolitical, but still political, influences? After all, if we’re willing to accept music has the power to positively effect social and political change, then couldn’t it also do the opposite? On second thought, maybe it’s best Street kept it to himself. The last thing we need right now is more bad news.

Music & Politics is available now from Polity Books

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