It will come as no surprise to a lot of people who know me that I am, as the comedian Stewart Lee describes his loyal fans, a left-leaning educated middle class white liberal Guardianista. As a result of this, I often have the displeasure of stumbling across the written work of Owen Jones. You see, it’s not that I dislike Owen Jones personally, or even disagree with his views. Indeed, I often go into reading one of his Guardian pieces with a kind of false hope, lured in by an article title that appeals to my most upheld passions and beliefs. No, the reason I regard these dalliances with his writing a displeasure is because I am usually so hopelessly disappointed at his strikingly consistent ability to make even the most easily agreeable of arguments seem arrogant, self-important and egotistical. However, I am never moved to spew vitriol on social media about him, or even write a blog post rebuttal.
At the beginning of April, The Guardian published an article by Jones in which he lamented the absence of politically active, minded, motivated or inspired artists in modern mainstream music. In doing so, not only did he show a total disregard of the necessity for a journalist to actually do some research before putting out a piece that disparages an entire generation of artists and musicians, but it also demonstrated his complete lack of touch with modern music in its entirety.
As soon as I read his article, rhyming off Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Public Enemy and Bruce Springsteen, among others, of how political consciousness in music used to ‘blossom’ but no longer does, I became angry at his dismissal of modern musicians. From the first four months of 2015 alone, I can think of countless artists, from all walks of life, from various social classes, that have important political messages at the forefront of their art.
Mr. Jones, did you miss Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, one of the most acclaimed and talked about records of the year so far? Its themes of race issues, police brutality and human self-loathing, especially focusing on the recent, almost innumerable, tragedies involving young, disenfranchised black men in the US, seem pretty politically minded to me. Check out ‘The Blacker the Berry’, I’m sure you’ll agree.
How about the many all-female and female fronted bands waving the flag for women’s rights and female empowerment in their music, at a time when women are roundly ignored in music and beyond, that you failed to mention? Perhaps you should check out Sleater-Kinney’s No Cities to Love, Waxahatchee’s Ivy Tripp, Speedy Ortiz’s Foil Deer or Sheer Mag’s debut EPs? All of these women are making some of the greatest art of recent years, and like all really worthwhile and lasting art, they are making art with a message. Sadie Dupuis, band leader of Speedy Ortiz, described a recently released song, in an interview with Pitchfork, as being about “assessing one’s own privilege, specifically with regard to societally-imposed expectations of female presentation and working against rape culture – a rallying cry against this harmful stuff that people should always be working against”. I think she speaks for herself.
And what of recent years just gone? How about St. Vincent and Beyoncé? Or bands and artists like Perfume Genius and Against Me! who have challenged rife misconceptions about the LGBT community in their music? You also missed Run the Jewels, the duo of Killer Mike and El-P, who were able to use their bombastic and quick witted style to not only highlight the differing attitudes of the authorities when approaching people of various skin colours in their track ‘Early’, but subverted the politics of music itself by showing that a project originally based on giving music away for free could end up being regarded by many publications as the greatest album of 2014.
To withhold these intelligent and thought-provoking musicians their due is to totally disregard modern music’s ability to continue the long practised tradition, as you well document, of music involving itself in political thought.
Not that you don’t mention ANY young people involved in music, although your examples seem tired and unimaginative. I think you need to hit your local record store, or, you know, turn on your computer. While the Pussy Riot collective have put themselves in harm’s way for their cause, their actual commitment to music is questionable. Whilst their actions are important, they were done more so in the vein of traditional political protest, not through song writing and musicianship. Furthermore, perhaps your appearance as an opening act for Paloma Faith showed that particular star’s willingness to involve her fans in your politics, but I am unconvinced that her throwaway pop is evidence of political consciousness in her songs. If anything, she should have used her mainstream influence and popularity to give one of the many younger bands that I have already mentioned, or those I haven’t, the opportunity to proclaim their message-orientated music on the considerable platform that is her touring support act.
You may further protest that, back in the day that you so long for in your article, artists like Bob Dylan were top of the charts – that while those I have mentioned are doing good work, they are not today’s mainstream. In this case, don’t blame the artists, blame the mainstream. Blame the corporate giants that churn out bland, inoffensive, bubble gum corporate pop, taking up air space and denying those with a voice from being heard.
Even then it’s hard to swallow this argument. St. Vincent is seen by millions across the world at festivals due to her insanely entertaining live show; To Pimp a Butterfly broke records for the amount of release day Spotify plays of any album in the streaming era; Kanye West, one of the most famous and controversial people on this earth, released an album that dealt with institutionalised racism and America’s guilty history of race issues in songs like ‘New Slaves’ and ‘Blood on the Leaves’; Killer Mike of Run the Jewels was invited to the White House Correspondent’s dinner. I’m not sure there is anything more in the public eye than being the US President’s dinner guest.
So, Owen Jones, stop wistfully dreaming of a day when music made people rise up in revolution – it didn’t exist. Instead turn your ear to those young and new who are fighting battles through art that others fear to. It happened in the 60s and 70s, it still happens, and it will always be happening. If you keep your headphones plugged in, you’ll realise.