Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream got very upset at the idea that his band’s song, Rocks, was used at the Conservative Party Conference. It then turned out that it had not in fact been played but that in fact the Dandy Warhols’ Bohemian Like You had been misidentified. Unfortunately, the Dandy Warhols’ frontman was no more impressed than Bobby Gillespie had been. These are but the latest in a line of stories of musicians being annoyed by their work being liked or appropriated by Conservative politicians. Even though Johnny Marr forbade David Cameron from liking The Smiths, it doesn’t seem to have made any difference.
So, what music is acceptable for people who don’t share the political views of these stars? Life is hard for anyone with any interest in party politics to like the Dandy Warhols, but I’d say it is pretty hard for anyone with any interest in music to be that keen on them, so all’s fair – I get Bohemian Like You confused with the Friends’ theme tune by the Rembrandts anyway. And I’m not sure that a strong anti-establishment blast is all that credible from a band whose fame, at least in the UK, has largely been built upon their song being used for advertising mobile phones. Not if Bill Hicks was right.
“Do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call, every word you say is suspect, you’re a corporate whore and eh, end of story.”
Which he probably was.
Leaving to one side the frankly unlistenable pseudo-thrash metal of bands supporting white supremacist groups which they are welcome to keep it is hard to think of music that can be said to be suitable for the reasonable and mainstream right wing. I think that this is probably because, ultimately, most popular music is principally anti-establishment. Anthems like Born in the USA and American Pie are strongly anti-establishment songs which nevertheless are embraced equally by blue collar Republicans in the US.
Even when there is a Labour government, musicians tend to be critical of it as it becomes the new establishment. There are few easier ways of becoming uncool than being too closely attached to the people who are currently in power, which explains the unease that Noel Gallagher felt about Cool Britannia, albeit after the event. Even Red Wedge, which had some great bands in it, somehow managed to make the bands temporarily less cool to a greater extent than it added coolness to Labour’s attempt to win the 1987 General Election. So the dangers for musicians of getting too close to the wannabe rock stars who were too ugly for it and went into politics instead are obvious.
It is understandable that musicians and other creative people who make political music and who are liked by people with whom they disagree will be unhappy at having gained such support. They might feel that they haven’t really got their message across in their art if they haven’t persuaded their fans around to their point of view. However, if we accept that politics is rock for the ugly, that sort of musician might want to consider the possibility that music is politics for the thin-skinned. Of course they need to have enough self-belief to put up with being bottled off in their early pub gigs, but that will usually be because they’ve played badly or the songs aren’t much good, not because the audience has taken against their interpretation of the Human Rights Act. When there is a political disagreement, such as when Morrissey got criticised for ambiguously using allegedly racist imagery, musicians are much less good at blustering through. Theresa May will probably not be reminded of the story of the Bolivian’s cat, much less be floored by it in ten years time. Bring up “Bengali in Platforms” in an interview with Morrissey now and you’ll get him to walk out, nearly 25 years on.
So, I think I can carry on liking the music I like without having to worry about whether the musicians would like me or agree with all my views. Ironically, once they become well-known and successful, they become much more part of the establishment than ordinary people. There’s no need to seek safe refuge in conformist stuff like Coldplay or even in the regular outpourings from X-Factor. Whatever the genre, they’ll never come out as being anything other than apolitical or to the left unless they are looking to be provocative (eg David Bowie’s period of Nazi saluting in the 1970s – love the music, no idea at all what his political stance really was then or now).
In the end, while you’re buying the records, as long as you aren’t trying to use them to lend you credibility, there is no left and right in music. The anti-establishment angle of musicians should be tied into a belief in freedom. Whatever they say politically, musicians have to be elitists and individualists to be capable of making their music the best it can be. In making the criticisms they do, they are demonstrating and taking advantage of the freedom to express their opinions and to have been able to do so in an individual rather than collective or democratic way or at the behest of anyone else. It isn’t really consistent with this to seek to prohibit others with whom they disagree from holding a positive opinion of their work. Hell, I even like Billy Bragg in small doses. When he’s not on Question Time trying to tell me what to think.