“I went to find England but it wasn’t there”, rings out the verse to the first of two Brexit-inspired singles released by Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger this week. “England Lost” was released with a black and white music video featuring the Welsh actor Luke Evans running away from his fellow countrymen in an attempt to escape British shores, while “Gotta Get a Grip” alludes to the “lunatics and clowns” running things, while also mentioning fake news and immigration. Jagger is only the latest in the long line of pop stars making their discontent about the world’s political situation heard.
Protest music has been prevalent whenever the world’s political climate most required it. Indeed, 1987 alone seems like a poster-child. David Bowie played a concert in Berlin that year, in which he sang “Heroes”, a song that directly referenced the wall dividing the city. Paying tribute to Bowie after his death, the German Foreign Office credited the pop star with helping to unite East and West Berlin, tweeting “You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.”
In the same year, the English folk singer Billy Bragg was leading a group of musicians calling themselves the Red Wedge in a bid to rid the world of Margaret Thatcher (via the means of the 1987 election). The movement supported the Labour party campaign, playing a number of major concerts, which included guest performances from the likes of Madness and The Smiths.
Step back into the 1960s and you find Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, a track mingling anti-Vietnam War sentiment with the peaceful aims of the legendary festival. Not to mention the majority of Bob Dylan’s early discography, which helped to bring the urgency of the civil rights movement to the folk music scene. His contribution began with a performance of “The Death of Emmett Till” at a 1962 Congress of Racial Equality benefit and culminated in a couple of socially critical albums and a slot at the 1963 Freedom March in Washington DC during which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Meanwhile, Nina Simone’s song “I Wish I Knew (How it Would Feel to be Free)” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” became anthems of the protests themselves.
In the 1960s, activism could come at a price. After securing a spot on The Ed Sullivan Show, at the time America’s highest-rated variety show, Dylan walked off the set after network censors rejected the song he planned on performing. The song in question, “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues” was a satirical number slating the ultra-conservative John Birch Society. What could have been the biggest break of his career, therefore, turned into a no-show. While overtly political music used to be widely common, it also used to be a venture that risked mainstream careers.
Today, responding to your socio-political surroundings as a musician can mean increased fame and profit. “Woke Pop” has shaped for itself a spot in the mainstream industry. Katy Perry’s tweets about “purposeful pop” and her performance of “Chained to the Rhythm” dressed in a Hillary Clinton-inspired pant suits are only the most recent manifestations of the phenomenon. Political pop music sells, and it has been selling for a while now.
The critical success of Beyoncé’s album Lemonade, which referenced racial politics and the experience of African-American women, was equalled only by its ranking as the globally highest-selling album of 2016. Upon its release, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was lauded by many, including the likes of Elton John, as the LQBTQ anthem for our generation. And despite Depeche Mode’s recent call to arms, “Where’s the Revolution”, falling rather flat (a bit like the majority of their new record), revolution appears to be the new pop aesthetic.
That is not to say that this movement is just a commercial ploy. All these artists were supporters of social and political causes before they decided to write a song about them. The fact that protest pop has become so fashionable can only be testimony to the changing wants and values of audiences. The global situation may be dire, but instead of seeking escapism, music-lovers prefer a weekly dose of social injustice blaring through their headphones.
There have been many signs that the disillusioned masses of today are not so disillusioned – Grime4Corbyn, the hordes that greeted Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at Glastonbury, as well as the “youthquake” that helped turn the tide of last month’s snap general election. The marked increase in commercial success for political pop music seems to be another. Today, it appears that calling out “President Orange” might provoke a Twitter shout-out from the man himself, but also bump your record up one or two spots in the charts.