Panic on the streets of London, Europe on the brink of collapse, the Arab world in rebellion – but where was the protest song? Laura Snapes looks at how 2011’s unrest was soundtracked
It’s easy to draw a protest singer wielding an acoustic guitar and a mouthful of neat rhyming couplets about the state of the nation. That is, if you’re living in the ’80s and doodling on a dog-eared copy of Socialist Worker. Befitting of recent dramatic, unnerving events, the profile of the politically engaged musician has morphed into unpredictable shapes, many of which you’ll find lurking in our Albums Of The Year list far from the obvious shadow cast by traditional rabblerousers.
Of course, our list contains no direct responses to the unrest that’s permeated 2011 – those will come next year – because these smart artists understand the value of considered responses. They’re a far cry from Jon McClure’s knee-jerk reactions to this summer’s riots: “All the bins and bus stops set alight”, ‘Riot’. Incisive!
Requiring no introduction is PJ Harvey’s ‘Let England Shake’, released a full 95 years after the Gallipoli Campaign that inspired it. Despite its dusty subject matter, the album bears messages that are just as relevant to today’s enduring, fruitless conflicts – as NME’s Mike Williams wrote in his 10/10 review of the record, it highlights “the same mistakes being repeated across our history”.
Tune-Yards’ riotous second album, released on 4AD, ‘Whokill’, tackles more recent events. Band lynchpin Merrill Garbus recorded her second album in Oakland, California, following widespread local riots in response to a policeman shooting an unarmed black man. When the officer was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter rather than murder, the city erupted, which Garbus tackles on ‘Doorstep’. The record itself is a microcosmic look at the contradictions of being politicised: taking in female oppression while unashamedly admitting “my man likes me from behind/Tell the truth, I never mind” (you’ll hear other interesting explorations of femininity in 2011 releases by Planningtorock and Anna Calvi).
Merrill revels in the liberation of violence while condemning those who wield it detrimentally, as do Danish punks Iceage. They appropriated fascist imagery in response to Denmark’s political climate, where the Danish People’s Party – who oppose “Islamicism” and reject multiculuralism – won 12.3 per cent of the vote in this year’s polls.
At the start of defining existentialist tome The Blood Of Others, French author Simone de Beauvoir takes a Dostoyevsky quote as its epigraph: “Each of us is responsible for everything and to every human being.” It’s a position whereby not acting is to be guilty, a do-or-die urgency that underpinned Wild Flag’s debut. Carrie Brownstein and Mary Timony’s lyrics command, “dance all night or turn to sand” on ‘Electric Band’, and despair at those who observe life from a distance on ‘Short Version’.
Björk’s app-based ‘Biophilia’ – her first studio album in four years – is the result of its maker’s no-messin’, carpe diem ethos – as she told us of confronting the Icelandic enviro-political turmoil that partly inspired the record, “I decided I would just have to get my hands dirty and just go to the core.” Björk’s message is that the world’s problems can often be answered with self-reliance, generosity of spirit and – warm your cockles – love.
Albeit in nuanced fashion, the financial crisis also gets its dues: although wordless, Battles’ ‘Wall Street’ is gaudier and more brash than the rest of ‘Gloss Drop’, its excesses conceived as the soundtrack to Patrick Bateman and pals sunning on their yachts. And on ‘Year Of The Tiger’, the glorious closing track of St Vincent’s third album, ‘Strange Mercy’, Annie Clark sings, “Italian shoes like these rubes know the difference/Suitcase of cash in the back of my stick-shift” like Bernard Madoff running for the border, before wryly asking, “Oh America, can I owe you one?”
None of these artists have been politically galvanising voices in 2011, but it’s arguable that that’s because causes for dissent have been so disparate and plentiful. While pundits have been looking for someone to fit the mould, this lot have been quietly breaking it from beneath the surface, retooling perceptions of what a protest singer is – for the best. Make 2012 the year we celebrate them and their diversity, rather than bemoan the lack of a single, homogenous voice.
This article originally appeared in the December 10th issue of NME