Music and politics have long had an intimate connection. Woody Guthrie painted “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar and sang folk anthems about rights and justice. Billie Holiday didn’t revert to slogans when she performed “Strange Fruit”—her voice was enough. When the electric-guitar pickup met napalm, a roaring cast of rock-and-roll artists made their voices heard. Later, in punk music, politics were as important to the form as spiked hair and short songs—and if some bands’ anti-establishment posing could be perceived as a marketing plan, others, such as The Clash, were earnest in their intent.
Then popular music entered a period (in which, it could be argued, it still remains) when it was less a form of consciousness-raising than a means of escape—the MP3 as the opium of the people. Countless gigabytes’ worth of data chronicle the online comings and goings of pop stars, and we eat it up: Miley Cyrus’s transformation from teen idol to mature pop star, or what Kanye said last, or Taylor Swift’s departure from Spotify. Given the recent stir about Hilary Clinton’s fast-food habits and her failure to tip at Chipotle, this shallowness might a problem with the media, not music, but there is also something more pernicious at work. In 1987, Nike shocked many when it chose the Beatles’ ”Revolution” to sell sneakers. The Royal Caribbean cruise line selected “Lust For Life,” a veritable heroin anthem by the anti-establishment icon Iggy Pop, for its TV ads a decade ago. “Fortunate Son,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s searing 1969 song protesting élitism and the Vietnam War, has been used to sell jeans. The maw of late-stage capitalism has swallowed these songs, neutered much of their meaning, and pressed them into service selling products. This has become so common that it’s hardly remarkable, but it comes at a cost: voices of dissent and protest need to be heard. And if music becomes solely a soundtrack for selling, that’s a loss.
Younger artists are faced with a larger existential problem—the collapse of the music business. Last year, only two albums sold more than a million copies, and over-all sales of all music formats are shrinking. Streaming services are the exception, but, as is widely known, they don’t pay artists well. Jay Z made this the central feature of his announcement about Tidal, his new streaming service, which is co-owned by Jack White, Usher, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Deadmau5, Kanye West, and other musicians. Geoff Barrow, the founder of the English trip-hop innovators Portishead, recently lit up the Internet when he tweeted that thirty-four million streams of his music had netted him a mere thousand seven hundred pounds, after taxes.
To get a start, young artists need to do things themselves. This isn’t terribly new. What’s called indie rock was built outside the mainstream decades ago, but, back then, the hope of a major-label triumph remained a golden carrot. Not any more. A young British band called Shopping knows the current paradigm well. The trio—which is made up of two women, Rachel Aggs and Billy Easter, and one guy, Andrew Milk, all with clever haircuts and grit under their fingernails—started making music together in 2012. They pressed their first album themselves and delivered it by hand to record stores in London. They had a hit; it sold out. But it was a hit of diminished expectations—they had pressed just a thousand copies.
The album is called “Consumer Complaints,” and it’s full of short, sharp, and snappy songs in a post-punk vein, with nods to ESG and the Gang of Four. Jagged guitar truncheons joust with stomping bass lines while the front woman, Aggs, howls like she’s descended from Ari Up and the Slits. The jocularity of the B-52’s bubbles up from time to time. Motifs from the album echo in the head easily, though the songs have a tendency to sound the same. It’s post-punk for the Snapchat generation.
Thanks to the album’s title and the band’s sneering anti-capitalist leanings, the group projects a political edge. But it turns out that that’s not exactly by design. Easter, the bassist, said that the band’s music is a comment on overconsumption and greed. “But that’s only some of the songs, and it’s kind of an accident,” she said. “We don’t have a conscious political agenda.” Milk, the drummer, observed that he sings “about fancying men and Rachel sings about fancying women,” which, he concludes, “is inherently political,” though he added, “we never discussed having a particular political message at all as a band.” However, in a climate where music doesn’t pay like it once did, except for a few winners who take all, success and politics are defined in new terms. Easter said that D.I.Y. culture “opens peoples minds to possibilities they thought weren’t possible. It’s more important than money.” Using one’s time to make music becomes a singular protest act.
De THE NEW YORKER, 21/04/2015
De THE NEW YORKER, 21/04/2015
Imagen: On their new album, "Consumer Complaints," the band Shopping offers post-punk for the Snapchat generation. PHOTOGRAPH BY JENNA FOXTON