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18 August 2016

The songs I write are usually described as “personal” – but for me they’re political

“Political songwriter” was a monikor reserved for Billy Bragg, or Paul Weller, or the Redskins. But not all political music is in-your-face.

By Tracey Thorn

After all these weeks of overwhelming news events, thoughts of dread and awfulness and apocalypse, a funny thing has happened to me. I’ve started writing songs, which I haven’t done for a year or more. Not about the dread, or the awfulness, or the apocalypse, but in spite of them, or perhaps more than that – as a deliberate alternative, a need to counter the negativity by doing something creative.

I talk to Ben about this and he reminds me of the lines by Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times/Will there also be singing?/Yes, there will also be singing./About the dark times.” I love that, though I’m not so sure it’s exactly what I’m doing. I don’t want to write an anti-Trump or anti-Brexit song, and I probably couldn’t if I tried. I was never the kind who wrote overtly political songs.

I was regarded as a confessional songwriter, though all my talk of love was often more a means to describe the state of things between men and women than an attempt to be romantic. Our first single, “Each and Every One”, was intended as an angry lyric about being a female musician, patronised and overlooked by male music critics. My band the Marine Girls had attracted several reviews along the lines of “not bad for a girl” and so the opening lines addressed this: “If you ever feel the time/To drop me a loving line/Maybe you should just think twice/ I don’t wait around on your advice”. It was the instructions of music critics I wasn’t waiting around for, but I wrote it too subtly, and so it was heard as a lovelorn lament, a lonely girl waiting for a letter from a boy.

In contrast, the description of “political songwriter” was reserved for Billy Bragg, or Paul Weller, or the Redskins, with their in-your-face lyrics: “Keep on keepin’ on/Till the fight is won . . . No point in fighting anyway/If we don’t win the day/No point if we don’t/Shoot the bastards afterwards”.

I always preferred songs containing specific characters, personalising the politics. Stories are better than slogans, and so Paul Weller’s “Eton Rifles” is better than his “Walls Come Tumbling Down”, as it seems rooted in an actual event (however imaginary). Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” is loved for the richness of its detail, the “new winter coat and shoes for the wife/And a bicycle on the boy’s birthday”, and my favourite Billy Bragg lyric is “Between the Wars”, a peace-seeking plea for sanity in a nuclear-weaponised world. The lovely lines “Sweet moderation, heart of this nation,/Desert us not, we are between the wars” have always stayed with me, and came into my mind again recently, as we seemed to be disintegrating into furiously polarised factions. I tweeted about how much I loved those words, and Billy replied to me, saying that back in the day they brought him a huge amount of grief from the SWP. Plus ça change.

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Frustrated at finding that all my songs were read as personal and domestic (which happens to many different kinds of writers who happen to be women), I tried as I went on to be more overt in my feminism. I wrote “Ugly Little Dreams” about the actress Frances Farmer, and it sounds angry and still current to me – “It’s a battlefield Frances/You fight or concede/Victory to the enemy/Who call your strength insanity” – and “Me and Bobby D” about the lives that men could be revered for yet which were more or less impossible for women: “Sure, I’d love a wild life/But every wild man needs a mother or wife”.

I tried to subvert gender stereotypes in “Protection”, talking about a woman standing in front of a man to protect him, and ending with the line “You’re a girl and I’m a boy”, and in “Hormones” I described being a menopausal woman with menstruating teenagers. These weren’t the bog-standard lyrics of the charts, and most of the songs got nowhere near the charts, but they are still not regarded as truly political.

That’s not going to change now. I’m doing what I have always done: writing songs that are “personal” on the face of it, but which come out of a desire to escape feelings of powerlessness and despair. Singing in the dark times.

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This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge