The timing looks a bit suspicious, right? Just days after I published a column about the dangers of falling for Ian Brown’s Covid conspiracy rants on Twitter, Noel Gallagher – a man never knowingly muffled – joined the anti-mask fray, insisting that going maskless could only affect himself, like a resident of Bethnal Green in 1941 arguing “well, if everybody else has got their lights off I’m not going to be hit by any of their bombs, so if I draw a big target on my roof in Catherine wheels and let the Luftwaffe have a pop, it’s entirely on me”.
Three days later Brown released a protest song called ‘Little Seed Big Tree’, railing against “Masonic lockdown”, microchipped vaccines and “mass mind manipulation”. That very same day music’s least ‘people person’ Van Morrison, who you’d assume would have relished sitting miserably in a room on his own for six months, announced a batch of anti-lockdown tracks. All of a sudden, ‘red pill rock’ is a thing. What did I know? Who’s funding me?
Throughout the history of modern music, troubled times have produced protest songs. Vietnam, ‘70s poverty, Thatcherism, Mondays. They’ve generally come from a progressive, rebellious, anti-authoritarian and primarily left-wing standpoint; the voice of The People berating The Man with machines that might not kill fascists but should at least keep them out of Glastonbury if they have any shame at all. It’s the righteous stance of the artist speaking for the downtrodden, oppressed and war-torn: Strummer, Dylan, Baez, Costello, Ochs, Lennon, Bragg, D. When the right wing have historically targeting liberalism in song, on the other hand, the very best they can hope for is Mike Read’s ‘UKIP Calypso’. Racist accent optional.
The pandemic, however, has turned protest music on its head. Lockdowns, masks and vaccines – essential measures for tackling a health crisis unprecedented in our lifetimes – look a lot like fascist oppression if, like many a cloistered rock star who hasn’t heard the word ‘no’ since they turned 23, your concerns aren’t for the greater good. Being anti-authoritarian, skewering cruel leaders and fighting for freedom can suddenly mean defying the only sensible and successful actions that Boris has (belatedly) taken.
So Brown sings of “Doctor Evil” with “a plan to chip us all, to have complete control” and being told to stay indoors “for the new world order” and he sounds, to irresponsible ears, like a classic rebel folk hero for the 4chan age. Van Morrison warbles about the “fascist bullies…pretending it’s for our safety when it’s really to enslave” in ‘No More Lockdown’ and, overnight, he’s Dylan for divots.
In fact, these songs are protesting science rather than authority. I won’t insult your intelligence by going too deep into why the red pill rockers are talking rubbish. It should be pretty obvious to anyone capable of operating a handkerchief without ruining a shag that masks are going to help reduce virus spread. Unless you’ve recently come down with a bothersome case of polio, I don’t need to point out the upside of vaccines.
Are you really that worried about Bill Gates getting a tracking device into your pancreas? Two words: Pokémon Go. Here’s a quick nibble on a bona fide red pill, conspiracists – pick up your phone and tap the Maps app. See that pulsing blue dot where your house is? That’s you. You’re already being tracked. You happily carry your own tracking device around in your pocket, gratefully upgrade it to more intrusive models, type all of your opinions into it and let it hang all your passwords on its handy little keychain, no questions asked. Bill Gates and all the other big tech cronies already know where you go, and you pay them handsomely for the privilege. You think they need to spend billions of dollars sneaking a chip implant into your brain to control your thoughts and actions through expensive 5G towers? Here, have a cookie. Mmmm, you love cookies, dontcha? T&Cs? T&Zzzzs more like, am I right?
Contrary to Morrison’s cry of “no more taking of our freedom, and our God given rights”, no freedoms or rights are being abolished by short-term measures intended to protect the country from further catastrophic death rates. With the Coronavirus Act lasting just two years, nothing’s yet been written permanently into law because of the pandemic. Yes, now more than ever we need to stay alert to abuses of power; no self-serving regime lets a good crisis go to waste. Boris Johnson – the result of Big Bird and Snuffleupagus having hate sex – has already handed half a billion in largely unfulfilled emergency equipment contracts to his donors and grousemates, most of whom previously thought PPE stood for Panama Papers Exposé. But when Noel complains about the possibility of being fined £1000 for not wearing a mask on a train, his freedom not to care if other people’s nans die isn’t being infringed, it’ll just cost him a grand a pop. For a few brief months, callous selfishness has a price.
The frustrating thing is, the red pill rockers are being played like meme-guzzling fiddles. Johnson has mishandled this crisis with a criminally cack-handed incompetence. He’s caused tens of thousands of avoidable deaths, brought on the worst death rate in the world and deepened the economic impact by failing to shut the country down in time. He surrendered control of lockdown just to ensure that Dominic Cummings gets his Brexit bonus. He’s put millions of jobs, small businesses and venues at risk and now he’s chasing the virus around the country like it’s a fucking roadrunner you can flatten with a ‘localised’ anvil. The Tories’ record on the pandemic is ripe for powerful, informed protest anthems.
Instead, Noel, Brown, Morrison and their ilk are providing Johnson with exactly the excuse he needs to reframe any coming disaster as one of our own making. Just this weekend, Matt Hancock rode the Sunday TV sofa carousel embedding the PR line that we’d be entering a second lockdown not because millions were told to go back to work, school and university, or bribed to risk their lifelong lung capacity for a half-price Wagamama, but because people like the anti-mask protestors wilfully flouted the rules.
By amplifying unsubstantiated conspiracy theories designed to distract, divide and destabilise, the red pill rockers aren’t challenging power, they’re playing into its hands, the real mind-controlled puppets in 2020’s pandemic Punch & Judy show. Oh, and if any nefarious New World Order types are reading this, I’m very much available for funding. DM me, babes.