I am forever being asked about what rock stars think. You know, about things. Obviously not while they’re trashing hotel rooms (which is what they do all the time, the media believes, or they wouldn’t be rock stars). No, what do they actually think about issues of public and personal policy? It’s startling – particularly at this point in history – that so very few rockers seem to regard the taking of a political position as the remotest part of the sell.
So while the millions who marched with the Stop the War Coalition included a significant number of unusual suspects, the list of rock icons that pinned their colours to the cause was meagre and thoroughly humdrum. Enter stage left Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Damon Albarn, Miss Dynamite, Massive Attack, Peter Gabriel, Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno and Blur. And … er that’s just about it.
Once upon a time (if rose-tinted nostalgia is not deceiving me) music was synonymous with political dissent. I knew of Peter Paul and Mary primarily through Ed Stewpot Stewart and Puff the Magic Dragon: but for an entire coffee house generation (and beyond) these guys owed their cred as much to their political attitudes and moral and ethical outlook as to their music.
Civil rights, the anti-Vietnam war campaign, Ban the Bomb – Peter Paul and Mary played a prime, high-profile role in all these movements, propagandising, mobilising opinion, and organising demos, fundraisers, and teach-ins. Latterly, they moved on to represent the interests of underpaid farm-workers, and battled against the gun lobby.
Forty years later, S Club Seven, Gareth Gates, Will Young and the Cheeky Girls have been strangely quiet on the conflagration that looks set to engulf the children and grandchildren of an earlier era of peace and love. In fact, they’re consistently quiet on anything that has anything to do with anything other than being celebrated, making bland music, and generating gossip over their relationships and sexual preferences.
The pester power of pop/rock leads kids to buy into a lifestyle. The evidence is there for all to see in the empty bank balances of their parents. Rock leads them to buy into attitudes and opinions, but there is a curious lack of any political dimension to current thinking, and a curious lack of leadership from the role models who could make a real difference to the rising generation.
I asked the teenage son of a friend of mine what he thought about the issue. He was withering. It was complete crap, he told me, Blair was Bush’s puppet, it was an oil issue pure and simple, the French were no better (the only reason they opposed it was because they’d too many interests out there signed and sealed already), and basically everything else was just bullshit.
As for trying to do anything about it? What’s the point, he said. They want a war, they’ll have it anyway, and if you go on a march, it’ll only delay it a bit. So radical cynicism is now the order of the day.
Given that many teenagers only get inflamed when you start criticising their taste in music, music could be the key to stirring their passions politically, and making them feel that they have the power to make some difference.
My friend’s 14-year-old son wasn’t impressed that Billy Bragg (who?) was making a stand, and Miss Dynamite didn’t do much for him either. But if the Chillis, Sum 41, Eminem and Rammstein had got up there: now that would have told him this was something worth fighting for. Their music (mostly) pisses parents off, which is a very necessary function. How much better, though, to go for broke, get a bit productive, and piss off the state as well by protesting against the war, in as obnoxious, loud, and ungovernable a fashion as possible?
And with the media currently so focused on war, a bit of radical rock action would provide the papers with the celebrity input they crave, without a taint of tastelessness. (Although, that said, if an act decides to set out a stall against the war, it won’t be doing itself any disfavours in terms of sales and profile). It would also put a bit of heavy metal guts, edge, anger and anarchy into a protest that seemed, on Sunday’s evidence, to be just a little too polite. Everybody – even the crusties and travs – seemed to be acting like somebody’s well-heeled liberal parent.
Maybe the rock icons of this age are toothless tigers, a bunch of easy-living no-goods whose rage is all front, a force for nothing bar their own inflated incomes and egos. In which case, forget it, dismiss the Dylans, Seegers, Geldoffs, Bonos and other humanitarian rock crusaders as unfortunate blips in musical history, and let’s get on with selling the T-shirts.