Music can change the mood, not the mindset
Musicians can make a big difference, but can’t expect to inspire political movement, at least not in this country. I hope that more politically motivated bands join the fray, as it does ultimately dismay me that music has become so generally devoid of political meaning, and the advent of an exciting cultural movement could well be imminent. But for now, for most of us, to whatever extent we are the heroes of our own narrative, music serves only as the soundtrack to our development.
By Ralph Allen on Thursday, January 7th, 2010 - 1,041 words.
There is an idealised view in certain circles that music can not only reflect but inspire political and cultural movement. I was once of this mindset, believing that music could potentially impact on political discourse and be a force to be reckoned with. An ever-developing cynicism has led me to depart from this view and adopt a more realistic approach to the tangible achievements that can be achieved through music. More often than not, music can at most change a mood, not a mindset.
I could never disparage the potential importance of music to our lives. We are all affected to some degree by the music we grow up with, even if that means purely an associative song from our childhood that takes us back to a certain time or place. It is a very rare thing however for the course of one’s life to be defined by an avid interest in a particular artist. We can more easily be influenced, inspired, maybe guided by the artists we grow to love, but I think at its most influential, our connection with music boils down to fairly deep identification, a certain recognition and clarification of emotion.
I have previously written about the general superfluity of lyrics regarding songs as wholes, and how a political sentiment is rarely heard amidst more conspicuous components. I still stick by this, yet I don’t think it’s all utterly hopeless. Although the Beatles changed the course of history far more significantly than any band ever will or can, this success owed itself far more to their extraordinary talents, the fledgling music scene in the 60s and their unmatched consistency, than to the power of their lyrics or political beliefs. But they still played a large part in shaping the culture of the time, a reaction and counter reaction to all kinds of influences. So in this sense the impact musicians can make cannot be discredited.
Those considered truly revolutionary artists, like Victor Jara, exist neither here nor across the pond, the two countries which account for the vast majority of mainstream record sales in both. Though this is more likely a reflection of a more widespread political apathy. Zack de la Rocha, for instance, is not a revolutionary; he is a great musician, has a massive appeal to angry adolescents and has made an undeniable difference in activism, but he’s part of no revolution, nor has he really contributed to one. Maybe under different political and social circumstances, a band like his could inspire political cohesion or movement. This isn’t meant to be a personal indictment of his talents or efforts, but I know for most people Rage Against The Machine are just a great band and not much more.
I was impressed with the Christmas number one campaign, and bought my copy, but other than representing a victory for alternative music in the face of polished pop, it will achieve no political change. It raised a lot of money for Shelter, which is brilliant, and that is what high profile bands are best for-raising money for and awareness about causes.
I don’t think somebody like Thom Yorke, a musician who expressly supports various causes — in this case most vocally The Big Ask, a Friends of the Earth climate change campaign — particularly inspires any of his fans to activism. I identify myself to some extent as an environmentalist, and I am a huge Radiohead fan, but the former is not a product of the latter. I am glad he does campaign and raise awareness, but it’s impossible for a musician to be held in high enough regard that his beliefs could convert people to a cause. The fame attributed to their music will always far outweigh that of their philanthropic achievements.
Those who do identify themselves wholly with an artist, the die hard sycophants and dangerously obsessed, would be in a similar position had the artist in question never existed. That level of obsession has to be targeted at something.
Similarly any Rage fan who is involved with activism, who may identify themselves as an anarchist, I’m sure would have ended up on a similar path had Rage not entered their life. In my adolescence Rage made me aware of certain left wing authors and political events that I much later in life learnt about more comprehensively, but I couldn’t really be arsed with Chomsky when I was 15. My political standing has in no significant way been influenced by the music I love. It takes a deep connection to grow obsessed with a band; one I didn’t understand when I was younger. Whether that connection is served by similarities in expression, emotion, political orientation or style, they are never mutually exclusive.
I write fairly political music, but I am aware of the dangers of potential alienation. I still believe that you should stick by what you stand for, but my belief that lyrics are little listened to makes the former easier to maintain. In hip-hop it is generally believed that the more political you are the less successful you will be, but I play into a genre in which lyrics take a backseat to most of the other aspects of a song. Rage Against The Machine fall into this category; they have great lyrics, which fans love to rap along to, but amidst the moshing the real meaning is lost.
I think that with activism you should play to your strengths, and writing music is what I’m best at, so I think it is the best platform for me personally to make a difference. In the danger of inferring that I am generally bad at everything else I do, I’m not saying I’m necessarily good at music, but I think it’s what I’m best at. Musicians can make a big difference, but can’t expect to inspire political movement, at least not in this country. I hope that more politically motivated bands join the fray, as it does ultimately dismay me that music has become so generally devoid of political meaning, and the advent of an exciting cultural movement could well be imminent. But for now, for most of us, to whatever extent we are the heroes of our own narrative, music serves only as the soundtrack to our development.
Listen to Ralph’s music: www.myspace.com/ralphabetdrclod
After graduating from Bristol Ralph became a youth worker. He now lives in London as an unemployed yet aspirational musician and activist and occaional factory commentator. www.myspace.com/ralphabetdrclod
Articles by this author
The role of culture is fighting the UK cuts
It is not, especially now, enough for music to be detached from meaning and reality. It is viewed by too many as an extension of our morbid celebrity culture. Rather …
Axing BBC 6 Music will scupper chances of budding musicians
Persistence is an integral aspect of success and the frustration of a seemingly impenetrable industry leads too many potentially brilliant musicians to abandon their course. Without radio stations and …
Music can change the mood, not the mindset
Musicians can make a big difference, but can’t expect to inspire political movement, at least not in this country. I hope that more politically motivated bands join the fray, as …
Give youth services more money and it will benefit society and the economy
If youth work is properly invested in now, the ultimate cost to the economy would be minimal but the benefits to our society would be immeasurable …
Superfluous Luxuries: How science was put in the service of greed
The metaphorical conception of oil as the earth’s blood is only too accurate; we are bleeding it dry and the life-force we have invested far too much in will soon …
Volunteering is the way out of post-graduation blues
In these troubled economic times I was finding it difficult to find a graduate job, but when I started volunteering I found a job not long after that was fulfilling …
It’s time for music to get politicized and accurately reflect our generation
It is rare for musicians to successfully straddle the line between mainstream appeal and forthright political activism, but it has happened in the past, and rising artists must begin engaging …
The perils of 21st century activism
Despite my illusions, the student population is one full of apathy and posturing when it comes to activism. We need movements that have a long-term strategy, otherwise it's a pointless …