In Depth

Right-on Robbie: Music needs to rekindle its fire

Why did it take a member of Take That to remind us that popular music has lost touch with politics?

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ROBBIE WILLIAMS bemoaned the lack of politics in music this week and said Britain needs more artists like Billy Bragg and The Clash to actively challenge the government of the day.

'Red Robbie', as absolutely no-one is calling him, admits that he has done very little to bring down governments of any persuasion from his mansion in Los Angeles. But he makes a decent point, surely?

The good ship Britannia is mired in the longest recession since the 1950s and a group of Old Etonians is at the helm. Conditions seem riper than a year-old Camembert for angry protest songs and impassioned speeches from the stage. Yet music – or rather the music offered up for mass consumption - has never seemed more apolitical.

Why, for example, is there no contemporary equivalent of Red Wedge, the collective of well-known musicians fronted by Bragg, that did its best to politicise young people in the face of Thatcherism?

It could be argued that the recent campaign to get Ding Dong the Witch is Dead to No. 1 as a protest against Thatcher's policies suggests music is still a potent form of dissent. But Judy Garland's record was an appropriated protest song. To hear the real thing – an expression of pure vituperative rage - you needed to listen to Tramp the Dirt Down, an Elvis Costello song released way back in 1989.  "When England was the whore of the world," sings Costello, "Margaret was her madam."

In more recent times, you'd be hard pressed to find a musician with a public profile singing an overtly political song. It's (almost) enough to make you nostalgic for Chumbawumba, the anarcho-punk band that scored a No. 2 hit in 1997 with Tubthumping. The title was a reference to politicians jumping on populist bandwagons, but the rousing tune and cheerful refrain – "I get knocked down, but I get up again…" – was widely appropriated as a drinking song.

Remember 12 Memories, the 2003 album by cuddly Glasgow band Travis that took them into "more organic, moody and political territory"? Neither does anyone else. The album was routinely described as "brave" – music industry-speak for commercial suicide.

"Plenty of artists continue to record songs with serious political content, but none of them seem to have much popular resonance," notes Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard University. "Protest songs get recorded, but they don't make it to the top of the charts and they don't inspire much political action by their listeners."

Indeed the public's fascination with Russian band Pussy Riot – whose performance of a "punk prayer" in a Moscow cathedral saw three of its members sentenced to jail terms – suggests just how politically agnostic most popular music has become.

The Sex Pistols said "we mean it, man", but the King's Road punks were art school dilettantes compared to Pussy Riot and its high-stakes antagonism of Russian president Vladmir Putin. With their commitment to a political cause that has nothing to do with shifting units or being profiled in the Sunday supplements, it's little wonder The Guardian's Dorian Lynskey described them as "the only band that mattered in 2012".

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