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  • Noel McLaughlin

Playing It Safe?

By Noel McLaughlin

In the ferment of the 1960s governments garnered one valuable lesson, and it was an education that wouldn’t be fully heeded until possibly four decades later: don’t allow representatives in popular music of whatever political shade to command a mass audience; it’s too unpredictable and as we write in the book ‘states dislike unpredictability’.

I write this as the ballots are still being counted on the U.S. election. Like many, I’m wilfully hiding from the television as the results of the deciding swing states come in, scared that the world is in for four more years of an emboldened petulant child out of touch with the needs of ordinary people (but capable of whipping up a substitute that masquerades as their ‘feelings’).

However, I cannot help but notice the relative absence of popular music, whether the appearance of its figureheads or songs used as soundtracks, in support of either campaign (Lady Gaga may be the significant exception). This is highly unusual in a more strictly historical sense.

As Joanna and I note in the book, Frank Sinatra adapted his hit song, High Hopes as an anthem to John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, just as we explore – and in more depth - The Beatles relationship with Harold Wilson’s Labour in 1964 and that group’s role in potentially ‘altering the democratic process’.

However, in the current juncture neither Trump or Biden are conspicuously deploying popular music’s (now long-standing) role as a persuader – whether as slogan or more poetically – as would have been customary in the not-too distant past.

If these, and other examples of the pop-official politics relationship in the 1960s were novel, our current context counsels that the entertainer/show-person needs to be kept, for whatever reason, at a distance from ‘politics proper’. Aside from the ‘old guard’ – Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, U2 and so forth – there are few younger figureheads that might command the necessary reach that politicians require.

And while there are the Ed Sheeran’s, for whatever set of reasons, they are not being courted by either camp.

The question I’m leaving hanging is why?

Years ago, I remember asking a bar-tender the question: where are all the pro-Trump – i.e. songs supporting conservatism; whereas there are many songs/groups/artists taking issue with conservative politics and policies The reply was wonderful, and quite correct: ‘you are looking at it the wrong way. They are the songs that promote normality, that don’t take a stand. The songs that in their repetition whisper that all is ok with the world’. Whichever way, the artists themselves, in the age of popular music’s more niche and fragmented demographics also need to be wary of alienating large sections of their audience.

The bar-tender’s analysis is a prescient remark. It chimed with Joanna and I’s reading of the importance of Jagger’s remarks about the use of popular song in Peter Whitehead’s Charlie is My Darling; his attack on the song’s that don’t engage with social reality – ‘the moon in June’ sentiments and the like.

But there is no figurehead, however cynically we might feel they have been co-opted to the cause of official politics, in this election. There are no clumsy acts of appropriation: of Gordon Browne claiming he loves the Arctic Monkeys (without being able to name a single song); of David Cameron claiming – to the shock of the band and their fans – that he likes The Smiths; of Bono cosying up to a president; nor indeed of an artist explicitly calling out the iniquities of the age that may feature in the election narrative.

Perhaps most pressingly, even if a band or artist is swimming against the tide and critical – as with the young Jagger in 1965 – they are unlikely to command, or directly address, the same mass audience. Governments have learnt – and the lesson has been a harsh one for them – that the best way to censor is informally, rather than by banning. In other words – via a well-honed ‘divide and conquer’ strategy make the conditions as difficult as possible to reach a mass audience in the fashion of the Beatles and the Stones in their heyday.

These are, indeed, unusual times. Not just because of the well-known reasons: COVID, an unhinged US president born of the dangerous self-delusion of his fascist forebears and so forth, but because popular music, in celebrity and in song, is largely absent. Whether left or right, Democrat or Republican, it is alarming that popular music – as a culture, an attitude, as a voice channelled through its celebrity figureheads – is conspicuous by its absence, a lacunae that has received virtually no critical comment.

I, for one, an intrigued. As someone who has endeavoured to write about popular music and representational politics, I sincerely hope I am not alone in finding this all rather, well, odd.

There has been little drama in this vein. I was hoping Donald Trump was going to commandeer Van Morrison’s recent ‘there’s no such thing as COVID’ anthems, while Biden might have selected an uplifting track by a LGBTQ+ band stressing the importance of one-ness.

Extreme examples? Perhaps.

But there was no popular-musical drama; no attempt to appropriate pop’s rich semiotic tapestry to their respective ends. Perhaps, Bono’s many and much-flouted ‘special relationships’ - with Clinton, Bush Jnr and Obama - left the U.S. political machinery, and its electorate, confused (and thereby rendering him as a suitable figurehead for anything impossible).

We have also been spared, so far at least, the more glaring act of misappropriation that have been an aspect of leadership campaigns/ general elections in the U.S. and the UK respectively (George Bush’s mis-reading of Springsteen’s ‘Born in the USA’ and the Tory Party’s notorious collective singing of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ are too such examples).

With regard to Belfast in the 1960s, pop and its relationship to politics was in a different place. It didn’t mean politicians could be any less careful. But it was an era where pop could be more openly pressed into the service of particular campaign ideals, and of course to persuade the electorate. I, for one, am not yet feeling any nostalgia for the Gallagher Brothers being courted by New Labour and Tony Blair at No 10 Downing St.

This does not mean, though, that I wouldn’t welcome music joining the theatre; especially if it wins hearts and minds, and to the right political ends.

Academics are notoriously poor fortune-tellers, so I’m stopping this entry here to tentatively return to the election coverage. There might, however, we a song or two bursting forth from a PA system when a victor is officially announced.

Let's hope the world is marching in step to the beat of a different tune when the star-spangled dust settles…

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