Interview: John Street

Bruce Spingsteen performs to support Barack Obama in a still taken from Street's book, Music and Politics.
Bruce Spingsteen performs to support Barack Obama in a still taken from Street's book, Muic and Politics.s talks to John Street, author of Music and Politics, about Jimi Hendrix, Cool Britannia and why left-wingers have all the best songs.

By Ian Dunt

What are your top political songs?

In many senses I'm a child of the 60s, which is also the pinnacle of the political pop song. I love Aretha Franklin's 'Respect', The Impressions' 'Move On Up'. I still carry a torch for John Lennon. 'Sometime in New York City' was one of the least likeable albums in human history but 'Imagine' is attractive, even if it is implausibly utopian. PJ Harvey's album of this year, 'Let England Shake', which rightly won the Mercury prize, is a great example. The sentiments are clearly articulated but you're not hit over the head with it. When people talk about the death of the protest song its death is, as with many of these things, greatly exaggerated

If political music is defined the message of its lyrics, doesn't the music necessarily suffer?

You're right, if everything is in service of lyrics then music is going to be less interesting. If you take Bob Dylan, the more enigmatic the lyrics became, the more people appreciated the song. As his lyrics got more enigmatic and complex, so did the music. A song like Chumbawamba's 'Tubthumping' has the most uninvolved chorus. It's terrific. Part of the way a good protest song works is it has a chorus everyone wants to sing along to. There's always a tensions between the songwriter who wants people to take notice of what they have to say and the desire of the musician to capture the more potent music of melody and rhythm which speaks to us more that lyrics do. The most extreme example came when Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangling Banner at Woodstock. There are no lyrics but the way it was performed transformed that song into a message on American militarism. Years later, we had the complete reverse. The politics we're talking about are of the outsider, the critic. But for the Queen's golden jubilee Queen guitarist Brian May performed the national anthem on the roof of Buckingham Palace. Anyone would have thought of Hendrix but here was Queen singing the praises of our monarch."

Why do left-wingers have all the best songs?

Rod Stewart is a Conservative by all accounts. It's true that for some reasons musicians tend to avoid the Tories. Conservatives do appear less cool, but it's not as if Labour is a hot ticket these days. It's not the case the left have all the best tunes. Left-wing songs get written about more but there's a very strong tradition in country music which plays to the right - or traditional values anyway. In that sense it's well-honed. There are metal bands who are associated with the far right although they're rarely heard outside that tradition.

Governments have often reacted in a draconian way to music, but do we have any evidence of it really changing anything?

It's really hard to establish. You could create a plausible scenario saying Rock Against Racism had a potential affect on the rise of the National Front. They made racism uncool. They created an ambience where it was less easy to voice racist sentiments. If you look at Live 8 and the sequence of events, it precedes the decision to end Third World debt. The fact they happen in that sequence doesn't mean it's causal. But there was clearly an indication that Bono and Bob Geldof made an impact on how political leaders were thinking, and made it hard to say no to what was being proposed. It's hard to make an absolute claim but there's something going on here. I was struck during Rwanda's war crime trials that one of the people prosecuted was Simon Bikindi, a song writer whose songs advocated the murder of Hutus. The court ruled it was probably the case that they had the effect of encouraging murder. Someone who writes songs of that kind can be held responsible for the deaths that follow. Music has a profound effect, as far as courts are concerned. They will countenance that thought."

Hip hop started with bands like Public Enemy but now is more concerned with bling and women. Why did it fail to maintain its radical edge?

I would be wary of labelling something a failure. It's under no particular obligation to be a contributor to political debate. Public Enemy were hugely influential – with the help of Spike Lee – in opening up a public sphere in which this angry voice could be heard in its amazing articulate form. But there are others like Kanye West who have continued to plough that field. Barack Obama's campaign had a soundtrack of Black Eyed Peas, which was hugely effective at tapping into the mood hip hop and Obama affected. Rap hasn't completely lost its political mojo."

The history of mainstream politicians adopting pop music is a fraught one though, isn't it?

Historically it's been done for a long time. American politicians do it a lot of the time - establishing who they are by who they like. It's a very easy shorthand. We had Cool Britannia, Britpop, all that. Eventually, we had Gordon Brown insisting he liked the Arctic Monkeys, another example to try to demonstrate he was in touch. Politicians have to communicate and it's getting harder in a crowded media world to get people's attention. Music is powerful. Advertisers have known that for a long time. Politicians actually spend a fair bit of time choosing the soundtrack to their election campaign.  The Tories picked Keane's Everybody's Changing. Keane objected, of course, but they had no case because they had paid appropriate royalties. Chumbawamba were upset when Ukip used their music. D:Ream's 'Things Can Only Get Better', the theme to Labour's 1997 campaign, is the ultimate example. The key moment is Live Aid. That association of music and causes became acceptable to everyone – to media and musicians, to politicians. Most of the time musicians are wary of that association. It wasn't long after 1997 those same musicians praising Labour were deserting them. But now musicians are increasingly used by government to voice causes. The Department of Health used celebrities to promote its campaign. N-Dubz were used for an anti-bullying campaign until it turned out he'd been bullying someone online.

Music and Politics is available to buy now.

To enter the competition to win one of five copies click here.


Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.