Pop Stars Getting Political Again? It's About Time

The likes of Taylor and Kanye could be enough to kickstart a whole new generation into engaging with politics
Associated Press

Taylor Swift has tweeted her support for the Democrats ahead of the US mid-terms. The response from many people has been “So what?” but from where I sit it’s pretty significant.

This, of course, is happening at the same time that Bob Geldof has had an open letter to Theresa May printed in the Observer. Signed by some of the biggest names in UK music – Ed Sheeran, Daman Albarn, Jarvis Cocker – it urges the prime minister to “imagine Britain without its music,” and warns that the UK is about to make “a very serious mistake regarding our giant industry and the vast pool of yet undiscovered genius that lives on this little island”. Of course, the letter was great, but had he cast his net further afield he could probably have achieved a great deal more.

Throughout my fifty-year career as a music industry executive, I’ve seen many artists across the musical and political spectrums speak up about political events. But, like many, I’m surprised by Swift’s tweets last week. For an artist known for her outspoken feminist views, her silence on Trump was conspicuous throughout the presidential election campaign. Many speculated that she was reluctant to cause upset among the Republican-voting parents of her young fanbase. I can’t help but hope that last week’s comments will herald in a return to the political awakening in the music scene I remember from my early days at Chrysalis.

For me, this is a sign that, after a period of relative silence, artists are becoming less reluctant to show their stripes. In the 60s and 70s, when the proliferation of “underground” FM radio stations, liberal attitudes to drugs and the Vietnam war combined to produce a profound cultural shockwave, and an environment was created in which artists felt impelled to speak out on political issues. Since then, artists have shied away from standing up and being counted.

For those of you wondering why Vietnam is relevant today, it is impossible to overstate its cultural resonance. Music and anti-war demonstrations were intertwined. At the height of the war, over half a million Americans were in action. It united everyone, and audiences found their release in music.

The Crosby, Stills and Nash record Ohio, described by the Guardian as the “greatest protest record” is the best example of this; written by Neil Young, it reflects his outrage at the Kent State shootings where four unarmed students were fatally shot by the Ohio National Guard.

At around the same time, the Country Joe & The Fish anti-Vietnam anthem at Woodstock – “Be the first ones on your block, to have your boy come home in a box” – resonated with millions across the US who felt the war was unjust. It was a huge thing at the time.

Vietnam continued to be as significant 15 years later, when Paul Hardcastle released 19, an infectious dance record and a huge hit, which was about the average age of soldiers fighting in Vietnam, using passages from a television documentary called Vietnam Requiem to emphasise the point.

It’s been said that the Vietnam war was ideologically fought, and lost, in American campuses, and today our unlikely heroine will lead the charge against racism and bigotry among an even bigger fanbase of high school students across America, and this time they have smartphones instead of radios.

But the era of the protest song was far from over. From my own personal experience, The Specials’ song Ghost Town highlighted youth unemployment in Coventry in the recession in the late 70s, and Free Nelson Mandela was of course a huge anthem which contributed to the international appeal to release the future South African leader from jail. Another one of my records was by The Proclaimers’ Letter From America, which was about how American companies were buying up Scottish businesses and closing them down.

That said, to some extent artists are afraid to speak out, and when you consider the fallout after the Dixie Chicks criticised then President George W Bush prior to the Iraq war in 2003, they are right to be. Taylor’s fan base is not dissimilar – country, middle America, flyover states – so a lot of her initial fan base would have been from Trump-supporting families.

I think she’s made a brave decision to speak out, but the timing is no accident. Once again, we can see how different cultural influences are converging. You don’t need to write a protest song when you have Twitter – a virtual battleground for politically conscious artists to communicate directly with their audiences – and Taylor’s announcement that she is going to support Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for the House of Representatives has, I hope, sounded the call for other artists to declare their politics – much to the dismay of their record labels, who I am sure would prefer them to be politically neutral.

While some people will dismiss the announcement as the latest stunt in her feud with Kanye West, who met with President Trump in the White House last week, I think not only are Taylor’s reasons solid, heartfelt and genuine, but might also be enough to kickstart a whole new generation into engaging with politics. If the pendulum truly has begun to swing, I’m hopeful that this era of divisive politics so prevalent in the US and the UK may soon come to an end.


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