‘Everybody’s talkin’ at me’: Popular music, politics and the general election

Adam Behr considers the history of politicians’ attempts to  fraternise with the pop glitterati for electoral gain.

The Last Party, John Harris’s book about Britpop, opens with an account of Damon Albarn and Alex James of Blur visiting Tony Blair in 1995, as he was gearing up for his 1997 landslide election victory. Smiles and conviviality were the general order of the day – “So what’s the scene like out there?” asked Blair. True to form, Alastair Campbell spiked the bonhomie with a characteristic eye on the long-game, refusing to let Blair be photographed with the whole band in case of tabloid Blur/Blair punning, and asking Albarn, “What if you turned round and said ‘Tony’s a wanker’?”. Perspicaciously, as it turned out, since, after a fashion, that’s more or less what happened. Albarn, like his rival Noel Gallagher after a famous visit to Downing Street following the Labour victory, expressed a degree of buyer’s remorse after his initial flirtation. “It was totally cynical”, he said. “They were trying to use our energy to the greater glory of New Labour.”

Imagine all the people – Politics and pop’s appeal

There’s a long and uneasy history of politicians’ attempts in the age of mass media to fraternise with the pop glitterati in the hope that some stardust will rub off on them. In 1965 Harold Wilson took the opportunity of awarding MBEs to the Beatles, ostensibly for services to British trade exports, to be pictured with the toast of the decade. Before that decade was out, and with Wilson still the Prime Minister, George Harrison had name-checked both him and his opponent Heath in a sour jibe at the ‘Taxman’ and John Lennon had returned his MBE, citing “a protest against Britain’s involvement in the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam and against ‘Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts”.

An even closer alliance between the Labour Party and the pop world in the form of Red Wedge proved similarly ill fated. Arising out of benefit gigs for striking miners and with Billy Bragg – then active in support of Labour – at the forefront, it was launched at the House of Commons in 1985 and had an office at Labour HQ. But star power sat uneasily within party political strictures. Paul Weller’s role, as the biggest star in that particular firmament, was likened to a union block vote and despite tours featuring luminaries like The Smiths and Madness, comments made by The Specials’ Jerry Dammers in favour of legalising cannabis and pirate radio rubbed up against actual party policy (see Cloonan 2007: 17-19 for a fuller account of Red Wedge). In any case, it had little effect on the outcome of the 1987 election, which saw the third Labour defeat in a row and both politicians and musicians have been wary of such formal alliances since.

This hasn’t stopped parties from trying to utilise popular songs as a mild form of propaganda in attempts to, as John Street puts it, “brand their political promises” (2012: 25).  Again, this has a patchy history. Conservatives singing along to John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ (see: Weinstein 2006: 13) at the height of Thatcherism in 1987 seemed deaf to the dissonance between the lyrics and their own political philosophy – “Imagine no possessions”.

The inherent risk in attempts to leverage popular music’s cultural appeal (or sub-cultural appeal – even riskier) for political campaigning derives from musicians’ lack of obligation to endorse high profile uses of their music, as the Conservatives found out when Keane bluntly disavowed their choice of ‘Everybody’s Changing’ to launch the 2010 manifesto. Likewise, one of the few things Morrissey and Johnny Marr seem to have agreed on in recent years – bar not wanting a reunion of The Smiths – is their horror at the idea that David Cameron is a fan. The Smiths’ personal politics notwithstanding, however, musicians don’t get to choose their fans. There’s some scope for restricting permissions to synchronise recordings to campaign videos or online publications. Certainly the Manic Street Preachers’ label was quick to take legal advice when, with high levels of irony, their tribute to the anti-fascist International Brigades – ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ – turned up briefly on the BNP’s website. But it’s harder to police how songs are used at events if the requisite PRS licenses are in place for the venue.

 Do You Wanna Dance? – Overtures from the music industries

It’s worth noting, too, that whatever musicians might think about the mechanics of politics, the music industries keep a keen eye on the game. A feature of the policy landscape since the 1990s has been the U.K’s general turn towards the creative sector as an economic engine. This has also seen the industry make its presence felt, with projects like Rock the Vote – a drive to increase voter registration amongst young people – that despite being ostensibly apolitical, or at least non-partisan, were nevertheless part of a wider mission to lobby for industry interests in parliament. There have been bumps in the road, and the difference between music businesses’ and musicians’ take on politicians was occasionally evident at industry shindigs, such as when Kenneth Baker was booed at the 1989 BRIT Awards, and again in 1998 when Chumbawamba’s guitarist emptied a bucket of ice water over John Prescott.

But recalcitrant musicians aside, the pivot from a paternalistic, quasi-Reithian approach to ‘culture’ towards the ‘creative industries’ – exemplified by New Labour’s replacement of the Department of National Heritage with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (see: Behr 2015: 281) – has seen a rather smoother relationship between industry and policymakers. UK Music recently moved from its HQ in Berners Street to a conveniently located new home in Whitehall and has also laid out a Music Manifesto as part of its lobbying activities.

The music industries’ success at getting their agenda onto the parliamentary radar is also evident in the formation of cross-party Parliamentary groups to deal with music related issues like the secondary ticket market as well as with the music industries more generally. (UK Music acts as the secretariat for the All Party Group on Music). Nor is this restricted to the more moneyed tiers of the music business. The grassroots are increasingly become organised along policy facing lines, with groups like the Music Venue Trust and the Hub taking the opportunity of the general election to campaign for music related polices (like introducing the Agent of Change principle to protect venues).

Stage Fright: The shifting musical aesthetic of campaigning

The gradual entente between the music industries and the political process is a story that looks set to run on. But in terms of the music itself, the apotheosis of pop tunes in service of party politics, alongside the optimistic (or opportunistic) attempt to merge pop and political iconography as ‘Cool Brittania’, came with New Labour’s deployment of D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ in 1997. Subsequent campaigns saw attempts to repeat the trick, using The Lighthouse Family’s ‘Lifted’ in 2001 and U2’s ‘Beautiful Day’ in 2005 to diminishing returns, in both media impact and Labour’s majority. If a somewhat bizarre appearance by an Elvis impersonator singing ‘A Little Less Conversation’ summed up the pop appeal of a tired Labour campaign in 2010, an unconvinced electorate wasn’t minded to give a majority to the Conservatives either, despite a soundtrack of David Bowie’s ‘Changes’ and the vocal support of Take That’s Gary Barlow.

Still, if the electorate was undecided about conventional politics in 2010, it’s positively fractious this time around. The well-publicised backdrop to the current election is widespread disillusionment with the main parties and weariness with familiar political messaging. The centre isn’t holding, and the fading appeal of the mainstream in politics appears to be reflected in the relative lack of a pop presence in the campaign.

Launches and live appearances still use a programme of songs with vaguely applicable titles in the run-up to the main event but it’s noticeable that no one has, yet, tried to hang their message on a recognisable anthem.  Cameron and Miliband have mentioned, when asked, a couple of acts in interviews, but the only party so far that has made music central to a piece of campaigning is the Greens, who used a parody 1990s style boy-band featuring vague lookalikes of the Tory, Lib Dem, UKIP and Labour leaders to reinforce their own alternative credentials and a sense of the other parties as – literally – singing from the same hymn-sheet.

As with any political message, it will play very differently to converts or sceptics who may have divergent views on its satirical value. Leaving aside its effectiveness, however, what’s striking is that, in as much as ‘pop’ features at all, it’s as a caricature. Notwithstanding the relative slickness of the production, there’s an avowedly ‘home made’ facet to the video, a lack of ‘star’ power, aligning with the Greens’ communitarian and relatively distributed leadership structure (none of its leading candidates appear in the video).

In this, it actually resembles any number of youtube political (or other) parodies more than it does an actual pop video. And this turn towards the aesthetic of user generated content is another feature of modern political campaigns. It’s not just the political centre that has fragmented, but its media context as well. The days of a major political poster or advertising campaign, like the Saatchi’s iconic work for the Tories in 1979, being able to hold centre-stage unchallenged – or unphotoshopped – are long gone. The ‘air war’ (media messages) and ‘ground war’ (doorsteps and hustings) of political campaigning also now involve a street battle across social media.

In this corner of the field, ever more readily available and low cost media editing and distribution tools mean that some outputs of the parties’ high commands and their foot-soldiers are increasingly difficult to tell apart. Musically, it seems to have led to a shift away from the glitz of storied pop stars. Campaign youtube channels, as well as election broadcasts, now seem to use three main musical tropes – a doom-laden underscore to depict the stark risks of a future under the opposing party, a kind of comedic easy listening to play under a catalogue of gaffes, or a persistent refusal to answer questions in an interview (with obligatory counter on the screen); positive messages of safety, security or aspiration are pushed gently home by acoustic guitars and chimes that resemble nothing so much as a mobile phone or insurance advert.

I Want to Break Free: challenges to the established parties

This isn’t to say that famous musicians are entirely absent from politics now. Just that there’s a bigger gap between them and the centralised campaign messages. Of course, the more politically oriented musicians will continue to weigh into debates. But this seems to be happening now more on an issue-by-issue basis than according to party alignment. It’s a corollary to party politics rather than at the centre of it. Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers, along with Massive Attack and Sandy Shaw, for example, were amongst signatories to an anti-Trident letter that addressed the whole political spectrum. Likewise, when Paloma Faith wanted to bring a political dimension to her 02 gig, she signed up left-wing journalist Owen Jones as her support act.

Even the most direct electoral intervention from the musical pantheon is at odds with historical patterns of celebrity endorsements. Queen guitarist Brian May might seem at first like an odd figure to stick his head over the parapet politically. Getting their knuckles rapped for breaking the anti-apartheid boycott to play Sun City in the 1980s, the band stated that they weren’t political, only entertainers. And despite an apology, and charity work on Nelson Mandela’s behalf, May’s presence at the Windsor Jubilee concerts would still maybe seem to mark him out as more ‘establishment’ than firebrand.

Like the Trident signatories, his political engagement was initially centred on a single issue – in his case, animal rights and staunch opposition to the badger cull – and he certainly hasn’t abandoned this in his ‘Common Decency’ initiative. Animal rights in general, and the badger cull specifically, are foregrounded topics, to the extent that the listings of sitting MPs on Common Decency’s website include their voting record on the cull and the fox hunting ban.

But his project is also interesting in other, more general, ways. Firstly, it illustrates how far disillusionment with party politics has spread beyond the more simplistic, wholesale ‘anti-politics’ contingent. His advocacy of ‘colourblind’ politics – ignoring the party and voting specifically on the qualities of constituency candidates – involves a call for engagement with rather than rejection of the political process. Secondly, whilst the Common Decency grab bag of policies is, by May’s own admission, arguable and up for debate, its key proposal – voting for candidates rather than parties ­– sticks a wedge in one of the key faultlines of this election.

With a hung parliament or minority government looking to be the most likely outcomes of the election and split votes on the left and right as the Greens and UKIP have made their presence felt, even those key marginal constituencies on which electoral outcomes have long hinged under first past the post are no longer straight fights. And that’s before factoring in the surge in Scottish Nationalism that could be pivotal in deciding who has most seats come May 8th. The Liberal Democrats, in particular, are circling their wagons and focusing their resources on selected constituencies to avoid a wipeout. Labour are fighting a war on at least two fronts (against the Tories down south and the SNP in Scotland, with the Greens also outflanking on the left) and many marginals across the country are now three-way battles, with votes to parties with no chance of leading a government nevertheless likely to cost the main parties seats.

There’s a sense in which the 2015 campaign is being fought as a series of by-elections, with some candidates putting out literature that avoids references to their party leaders, and often playing down, or barely mentioning, their own party affiliations. In this respect, Common Decency’s  “dream… to produce a result at the next election which will effectively bring in a multi-party system” is already starting to play out, albeit in a rather febrile manner.

Its emphasis on specific issues also mirrors the nature of the major challengers to the previous parties of government all of which, despite broadening their offers, have their origins in single-issue politics from environmentalism to various forms of nationalism and remain, nominally at least, guided by these policy priorities.

It’s maybe pushing the comparison a bit to suggest that party politics is echoing what happened to the recording industry when digitisation pulled the rug out from under a system which was able to marshal consumers towards a relatively select menu of options. But fragmentation appears to be the prevailing theme in politics and its media messaging, including the role of music.

One of either David Cameron or Ed Miliband will end up in No.10 in May, but it looks unlikely that any former incumbents at No.1 will help them get there.

Dr. Adam Behr is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies, University of East Anglia. He tweets @adambehrlive.


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