The Music of Politics

Posted by Expert Gadget Reviewer on Wednesday, 27 December 2006

To put the poetry on hold briefly, I’ve noticed a growing trend in recent alternative music outfits’ offerings towards current affairs and politics. Of course, the fusion of music and politics isn’t something new (Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’, the vast majority of U2’s output, and in more recent times, Rage Against The Machine’s hard-hitting political tongue-twisting), but the forthrightness of many recent releases has been, for me, a pleasant shock. I speak mainly here of Bloc Party and Thom Yorke.

Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm was released to critical acclaim back in February 2005. And writing music amid the height of criticism of the Iraq War, the Bush administration’s foreign opposition, and the world’s depleting supplies of non-renewable resources, had clearly influenced them. Songs like 'Helicopter' saw lead singer Kele Okereke baying ‘Are you hoping for a miracle? It’s not enough’, whilst ‘The Price of Gas’ pointed a musically polemic finger at the perpetrators of the presumed war for oil, the ’Party matter-of-factly stating that ‘Nothing comes for free’. But in spite of their passive aggressive musings, Bloc Party’s songs were nonetheless ambiguous: Helicopter never explicitly marked out its supposed subject matter of George Bush, instead alluding to it with sly references (‘Just like his dad’), amid frenzied Jonny Greenwood-esque guitars and a dancefloor-pounding bass and drums. The album sold successfully not because it defied modern pop music’s trend towards vapid songs about sex (see Rachel Stevens, Sugababes, Girls Aloud; ad infinitum), but because 'Banquet' (you’ve guessed it, a song about sex) caught the attention of the NME, and duly filled club dancefloors across the nation. And 'Banquet' was a good song, it really was, but it enjoyed much more success than 'Helicopter' or 'Price of Gas', which given their significance and contemporary relevance, was a shame.

2007, however, sees the release of Bloc Party’s new album, A Weekend In The City. In the song ‘Hunting For Witches’, Kele chants:

The newscaster says the enemy’s among us
As bombs explode on the 30 bus
Kill your middle-class indecision
Now is not the time for liberal thought

Apart from the interesting metaphorical comparison between the infamous Salem witch trials and current hyperbolic fears over terrorism, this song is much more forthright and hard-hitting than Bloc Party’s previous offerings. The bombs exploding on ‘the 30 bus’ clearly reference the 7/7 London bombings, when the 30 bus on Tavistock Square was targeted by terrorists. Towards the close of the song, Kele even forcefully states ‘There must be accountability’, clearly pointing the finger at newscaster’s in the West who have misinformed a fearful public, some of who have consequently lashed out in racist attacks against innocent civilians who match ‘terrorist’ stereotypes. Where Bloc Party were before content to deal with general world issues (loose references to George W Bush, shortages in global resources), now they hone in on specific, and shockingly recent, political events: their own terror-shook London.

Thom Yorke’s work has also gained added political weight since his foray into solo work. While no one can deny the political connotations of Radiohead’s last album, Hail To The Thief, (the Orwellian title of the opener, ‘2 + 2 = 5’; ‘Go To Sleep’ and Yorke’s eerie repetition of ‘We don’t want the loonies takin’ over’), the references were again general, enmeshed and disguised in inventive and explorative soundscapes. But The Eraser, Thom Yorke’s first solo project, displays the terrifying specificity encountered in Bloc Party’s new material.

‘Harrowdown Hill’ is a musically alluring piece: the opening riff that runs for much of the song no doubt a banked Radiohead piece that finally found a good home. But if the title weren’t enough to send a chill down the spine, the lyrics echo (literally and metaphorically) with contemporary importance and relevance:

Don't walk the plank like I did
You will be dispensed with
When you've become inconvenient
Up on Harrowdown Hill
Near where you went to school
That's where I am
That's where I'm lying down

Did I fall or was I pushed?
Did I fall or was I pushed?
And where's the blood?
And where's the blood?


So don't ask me
Ask the ministry
Don't ask me
Ask the ministry


It was a slippery slippery slippery slope
It was a slippery slippery slippery slope
I feel me slipping in and out of consciousness
I feel me slipping in and out of consciousness…

The song almost seems some imagined dialogue between the singer and the late Dr Kelly, his death on Harrowdown Hill in the leafy suburbs of Oxfordshire near to where Thom Yorke presumably went to school as a youngster. The song is a difficult and elegiac piece: Yorke was in fact quoted in interview as saying, ‘I've been feeling really uncomfortable about that song lately, because it was a personal tragedy, and Dr Kelly has a family who are still grieving. But I also felt that not to write it would perhaps have been worse.’ And as with Bloc Party’s reference to the 7/7 bombings and the grieving families of those who died in that day’s tragic events, I’m inclined to agree. Though the songs deal with upsetting and uncomfortably recent events, they also help to give dynamic and effective voices to those without the power to influence public opinion. The government and media present their views of events every single day: in news coverage on television, primarily, but also through the passing of laws and enforcement of such laws (anti-terrorist acts, for example).

In writing such moving, alarming, and most importantly, contemporarily relevant music, then, artists such as Thom Yorke and Bloc Party are giving voice to the Other: in the case of the Hutton Enquiry, the unfair pressure placed upon Dr Kelly’s position; in the case of the 7/7 bombings, the minds of those ethnic minorities (particularly Islamic individuals) who do not support the radical Islamic terrorists, but fear they are tarred with the same brush given media exacerbated misconceptions. Though much politically relevant poetry is written (see the opening poem of Simon Armitage’s latest collection, Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid, for example), perhaps, on occasion, poets could learn a thing or two from the affecting and thought-provoking work of the likes of Bloc Party and Yorke. I for one hope that the well composed and strategically delivered political song is a trend that grows from strength to strength in the coming years.