Where have all the protest songs gone?

There was a time when we didn't recoil when the music got political.

I recently got back from End of the Road festival, a fairly small, boutique-y gathering of beardy Guardian readers down in Dorset. One night in the comedy tent, something quite surprising happened.

Comedian Robin Ince welcome on to the stage Grace Petrie, a guitar-wielding 20-something. I'm generally not a fan of musical comedy, but I decided to give her a chance. Only to be told, by the singer herself, "I'm not funny". Oh how right she was. Petrie launched into a succession of painfully earnest protest songs. Although not entirely devoid of humour (one song was dedicated to a loveable old banger she used to drive), most of her material was so sickeningly worthy that I nearly choked on my falafel burger.

The thing is, I agreed with pretty much everything she was singing. She sang about the harsh sentencing of student-protester-cum-fire-extinguisher-flinger Edward Woollard, and various other left-leaning causes-célèbres. So why did her warblings leaving me so cold?

Maybe it was the lack of humour. Maybe it was the fact that I happened not to like the sound of her voice. But my overwhelming feeling is that the whole performance seemed to cling for its life to another era - one in which we didn't recoil when the music got political.

Can you remember the last time a protest album, or even a protest song, went mainstream? The 80s were full of them: The Specials' "Ghost Town", I'm sure, provided a perfect soundtrack to Thatcherite desolation. It spent three weeks at number one in the UK charts. Then Bruce Springsteen sang about the suffering of Vietnam War veterans in "Born in the USA", another chart-topper.

Even in the early Nineties, protest songs were hot. Rage Against the Machine's eponymous 1992 album positively roared at the establishment. And can anything recent really match the power of Leonard Cohen's song "Democracy", from the same year? Cohen laments the political state of America: "From the wars against disorder/from the sirens night and day/ from the fires of the homeless/ from the ashes of the gay:/ Democracy is coming to the USA."

But then songs with a social conscience faded from the airwaves. Virgin desperately tried to sell the Spice Girls' 1996 debut single, "Wannabe" as some kind of neo-feminist battle cry. It sounded hollow compared to past girl power anthems, like Lesley Gore's 1963 hit "You Don't Own Me". While Gore sang, "don't tell me what to do/ and don't tell me what to say/ and please, when I go out with you/ don't put me on display", the Spice Girls merely demanded something called a "Zigazig ha".

Of course, protest songs didn't entirely disappear during the Bush-Blair years. Neil Young, Radiohead, Pearl Jam, REM., Pink, the Beastie Boys and many others released songs opposing the west's endless warmongering. But ask someone on the street today to hum one, and all you'll hear is silence.

Over the past year, political tracks have made a comeback of sorts. Lady Gaga's number one single "Born This Way" was a strident call for the acceptance of all sexualities: "No matter gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgendered life, I'm on the right track baby, I was born to survive." And PJ Harvey's Mercury Prize winning album Let England Shake offers up a brutal and unromantic take on the horrors of war. The fourth track on the album, "", contains these particularly brutal lyrics: "I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat/blown and shot out beyond belief/ Arms and legs were in the trees".

So will the popularity of PJ Harvey's latest album lead to a resurgence of protest songs? Or is it she a single (although loud) voice in the void?

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Ariana and the Arianators: "We really are like a family"

The pop star provides her fans with a chance to express themselves joyfully - their targeting was grimly predictable.

Ariana Grande’s concert at Manchester Arena on 22 May began like any other. Children and teenagers streamed through the doors wearing pink T-shirts, rubber wristbands and animal ears (one of Grande’s signature looks). They screamed when she came on stage and they sang along with every song. It was only once the music had ended, and the 20,000-strong audience began to leave the venue, that the horror began – with a bomb detonated at the main entrance.

The show was just one date on Grande’s Dangerous Woman tour, which began in Phoenix, Arizona in February, moved across the United States and Europe, and had stops scheduled for South America, Japan, Australia and Hong Kong. (Since the Manchester attack, Grande has suspended the tour indefinitely.)

Since releasing her debut album in 2013, Grande has successfully transitioned from teen idol to fully fledged pop star (all three of her studio albums have sold over a million each) with a combination of baby-faced beauty and Mariah Carey-style, breathy vocals. Her most popular records are bubblegum pop with a Nineties R’n’B influence, a combination also expressed in her fashion choices: Nineties grunge meets pastel pinks.

She entered the limelight at 16 on the children’s TV programme Victorious, which ran on the Nickelodeon channel, pursuing her musical ambitions by performing the show’s soundtracks. Many of the young people who grew up watching her as the red-haired arts student Cat Valentine on Victorious would become fans of her pop career – or, as they call themselves, the Arianators.

As she outgrew her child-star status, Grande’s lyrics became more sexually suggestive. Recent songs such as “Side to Side” and “Everyday” are more explicit than any of her previous hits. She has repeatedly insisted that young women should be able to speak openly about sex and feel empowered, not objectified.

“Expressing sexuality in art is not an invitation for disrespect,” she tweeted in December. “We are not objects or prizes. We are QUEENS.”

Grande also has a reputation as something of a gay icon. She has advertised her records on the gay dating app Grindr, headlined shows at Pride Week in New York, and released a single and a lipstick to raise money for LGBTQ charities.

Cassy, a 19-year-old film student and fan, told me the fanbase is “made mostly of young women from 14-23, but I run into guys and non-binary fans all the time.”

“It’s pretty well known that Ariana has got a LGBTQ+ fan base. She’s so outspoken about it and that’s what draws us to her. Because she’s accepting of everyone, no matter who you are.”

Like many child actresses-turned-pop star, Grande has a fan base skewed towards the young and female: teenage and pre-teen girls are by far the majority of her most dedicated supporters. A writer on the Phoenix New Times described the typical Ariana Grande crowd as “pre-tween, tweens, teens, young gay (and fabulous) men, moms with cat ears, and multiple candidates for father of the year”. The Arianators form tight-knit groups on social media. I spoke to several over Twitter after the attack.

Arena concerts, which often have more relaxed age restrictions than nightlife venues, have long been a safe space for children, young people and teenage girls. They provide a secure place for concert-goers to dress up, experiment, play with burgeoning sexualities, dance, scream and cry: to flirt with an adult life still slightly out of reach. Glitter-streaked tears stream down the unapologetic faces of fans touched by an emotion bigger than themselves. It is appalling, if grimly predictable, to see children, teenage girls and young gay men targeted by agents of regressive ideologies for expressing themselves so joyfully. On 23 May, Isis claimed the attack.

“I went to my very first Ariana concert on 9 April,” Cassy tells me. “It was one of the warmest places I’ve ever been. People were so happy, smiles just beaming from their faces. People were being themselves – if that meant showing up in drag, they did. It was such an amazing place to be.”

Andréa, a 17-year-old fan from France, told me about her first experience of a Grande concert. “It was incredible,” she said. “Everyone was so kind, excited and happy. We really are like a family.”

The fans are devastated by Monday’s bombing. Thousands of messages appeared on social media to commemorate those who lost their lives. “As an Arianator,” Alexandre, aged 16, told me, “I’m really sad and I’m scared.”

“We’re all taking it really hard,” Cassy said. “We’re a family and we lost 22 members of that family last night.”

Ariana began her gig in Manchester with the song that has opened every night of her current tour: “Be Alright”. In it, she repeatedly reassures the crowd, “We’re gonna be all right.” It’s a phrase that her fans are clinging to after the attack. So, too, are the lyrics of “Better Days”, by Grande and her support act Victoria Monét, which was also performed the night of the explosion. “There’s a war right outside our window,” the words go. “I can hear the sirens . . ./I can hear the children crying . . ./I’m hoping for better days . . .”

“It’s hit us all very hard because we’ve lost some of our own,” said one Arianator who runs a popular Twitter account about the tour. “People we interacted with on a daily basis. People that just wanted to have a night of fun. These are dark times, but we are looking forward to better days.”

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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