Musicians, like their visual peers, have long had a tradition of reflecting the issues of a generation, along with the feelings that are prevalent within society at the time.
Many musicians write lyrics that satirically, emotionally or sometimes angrily, challenge political and social factors… they question the Status Quo…
I’m not talking about any musical status quo here, or indeed the rock band of that name (see Status Quo). No, I’m referring to the Latin phrase meaning; the existing state of affairs, particularly with regard to social or political issues. In the sociological sense, it generally applies to the maintenance or change to existing social structures and values.
Music Reflecting Frustration & Youthful Anger
The ‘angry’ Punks of the mid-1970s, typically produced short, fast-paced songs with political, often anti-establishment lyrics. Punk embraced a DIY ethic and by the late 1970s, bands like the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, The Clash or The Damned were stalwarts of the genre. For the ‘establishment’ Punk became a “highly controversial cultural phenomenon” in the UK (see here).
Punk spawned a subculture that expressed “youthful rebellion” through distinctive styles of clothing and adornment (such as deliberately offensive T-shirts), as well as a variety of anti-authoritarian ideologies.
Anarchy in the U.K. (the Sex Pistols), epitomised a generation of young people who felt disconnected from the society they lived in. Later featured on their aptly named album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.
In many ways and as with the era of psychedelia before it, Punk served to provide a distraction and escapism from many of the issues of the day. Even if the surreal nature of the former, which aimed to recreate or reflect the experience of altered consciousness, differed in some ways to the realism and anger of the latter.
As with many aspects of our life, the exuberance of youth is usually something that mellows. Our passionate expectations and aspirations for our future, can and do change as we get older. We either realise some of those original desires are no longer important, in the bigger scheme of things or, we are able to dismiss them as no longer important, to us.
Opinions usually mature and develop, or even change completely, based upon our increased lived-experiences, knowledge and the advancement of time. We become able to view things in a new or adjusted light, if we see or understand them differently. However; when issues that annoy us still exist years down the line, assuming they’re no less important; the impetuous youth in us turns into that well-known grumpy old man (or woman) status.
Does Angst Mellow?
Possibly. As is often said, time tends to be a great ‘healer’ but, where does it say that passionate opinion and concern actually needs healing? But with that passage of time, we do tend to get a little less angry about many things, despite the fact they may once have resulted in an apoplectic response.
Punk has been romanticised and embalmed by the media and the culture subsequently became something of a worldwide fashion statement however; just like hippies… punks come and go. And like any other ‘fashion’ – punks tend to return with cyclic and periodic frequency.
Just as today’s environmentally friendly ‘loved-up‘ and socially conscious teenagers strive to find a suitable tie-dye tee shirt that reflects their ethos, so the punk subculture has developed, revolved and returned. But one aspect of Punk that didn’t change (that much), apart from getting older was Johnny Rotten.
Johnny Rotten (real name John Lydon), of Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd fame, was the “Sneering Antichrist” of an important youth culture during Punk’s heydays. He was and probably still is, what punk is all about: angry, witty, poignant and crackling with energy.
But is Lydon really still just as angry as Johnny Rotten once was?
The anger conveyed about social injustice is commonplace in music, it’s not something old or new and it’s certainly not confined to these shores, it also transcends international boundaries.
The Interrupters (an American ska punk band formed in 2011, Los Angeles CA) wrote the more recent ‘punk’ song Take Back The Power: “And the lessons that you learned are not as many as the bridges burned, we don’t need to run and hide, we won’t be pushed off to the side. What’s your plan for tomorrow, are you a leader or will you follow, are you a fighter or will you cower… It’s our time to take back the power!”
Minstrels & Troubadours
Story telling, within a musical format, is an age old tradition. There have been Minstrels and Troubadours that have relayed those social and political tales of the day – and the feelings of the people – since as far back as the medieval period in Europe, and probably much further in some other cultures.
You can learn a great deal about the deepest feelings of a nation from its music. Yes, the mainstream chart toppers, may reflect social feeling however; the fringes are where you find most information, if you take time to analyse the words in the artist’s songs… as well their Tweets today (see below).
A Time Served Troubadour
Billy Bragg, the English singer-songwriter (and political activist), is one of those modern day minstrels. As a a self-styled Progressive Patriot, Bragg has blended elements of folk music and punk over decades to deliver the stories of our political and social struggles. His protest songs are renowned, significant and illustrious of a generation and his particular political viewpoint.
Bragg recalls that by the time he was 19, punk had occurred and it had; “a completely different cultural dynamic to it which rejected everything and started again from the year zero.” But Bragg concludes; “I’m not a political songwriter. I’m an honest songwriter.”
Being spokesman for a generation is the worst job I ever had. (Billy Bragg)
Is Populism Fashionable?
Some would say the recent election of increasing numbers of populist political leaders, as opposed to those with more traditional left or right politics, was to be expected. But populism, like Punk, isn’t a new phenomenon… despite the fact it’s currently fashionable.
The political roots of Populism can be found as far back as the late nineteenth century, irrespective of any more recent growth, from the late 1990s onward. Indeed, it’s often linked to the spread and growth of democracy, across the developed world, both as a political idea and as the framework for a country’s governance (read more).
The questions for many now appear to be; is our democracy as democratic as we believe it to be? Was it ever? How do we ensure it is in the future? Or maybe; is a democracy (like socialism and/or communism) little more than a political ideology? Something that can never truly exist, simply because of the inherent traits of humans.
That said, it’s clear that the materialistic nature of today’s society, within a capitalist driven fragmented economy, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, is breading new levels of hightened discontent.
We have failing public services that are unable to match the needs of the people, never mind the fact they no longer even match the expectations of our society. We also have a political class, that is so far removed from its electorate, they seem both unwilling and incapable of servicing the needs or will of the people, always assuming they ever did. And now, to top it all we have the shambles that is our #Brexit chaos!
Maybe this time around we will see, far more than just the Punks Craving People Power?