It might seem odd, at a time when politicians are held in such low esteem, that a group of British MPs are part of a project that’s in the running to win an iconic popularity contest – the Christmas Number 1 spot in the singles chart.
Alongside a host of musicians including Steve Harley, David Gray and KT Tunstall, a cross-party group of MPs is appearing on a single to raise funds for the charitable foundation set up to continue the work of Batley and Spen MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by hard-right winger Thomas Mair in the run-up to the Brexit referendum.
It’s a cover of the Rolling Stones song You Can’t Always Get What You Want, also recently in the news when Donald Trump used it after his victory speech. Cox’s internationalist, progressive vision was utterly at odds with Trump’s ethos, so there’s an aspect of the charity single that could be read as trying to reclaim the song from reactionary forces.
But there are other factors at play, too. The single confirms the convergence of the popular cultural and political mainstreams. This trend has been increasingly evident from the political end for a long time. The New Labour 1997 campaign’s use of Things Can Only Get Better was perhaps the high watermark of electoral success in conjunction with pop. It certainly illustrated the political turn towards a media friendly strategy in the “news bite” culture, and the increasing prominence, if not prevalence, of spin that followed in the wake of rolling television news and the expansion of the internet.
Public relations aside, it’s also unsurprising that politicians would naturally lean towards appearing on the Jo Cox single. Generations of MPs have now grown up with rock. The Parliamentary band MP4, whose members appear on the single, is an ongoing endeavour, as is the Rock the House competition.
Philip Hammond’s decision to waive VAT on the single, likewise, echoes not just the Stones’ decision to forgo their royalties from it but the “official” endorsement of previous chancellors to facilitate charitable releases. This was a bone of contention in the case of Do They Know It’s Christmas, which kick-started the charity single trend in 1984.
Activism to fundraising
But this Stones cover also reveals how the convergence of political activism and popular music has evolved since the 1980s. Post Live Aid, activist pop has slowly but surely moved from the realm of the social towards the commercial.
Pop’s interventions in activism and the policy sphere used to involve a stronger grassroots component at the forefront. From the Aldermaston marches in the 1950s, where popular jazz marching bands provided the soundtrack, to the CND, through to Rock Against Racism in the 1970s, political pop tended to be driven from the local sphere upwards. Drawing on this dynamic, and the association with a “counter culture” that had opposed the Vietnam war in the 1960s, the likes of Joan Baez appealed to a “rock community” at Live Aid. “This is your Woodstock,” were her opening remarks.
But Geldof’s Live Aid emphasis was explicitly on fundraising and the use of top-down star power to both drive home the point and fill the coffers. This represented a profound shift in the association of pop and politics.
Consider the phenomenon of the “charity single” and the ironies and paradoxes that it embodies. On the one hand, it could be said to dilute pop’s capacity to speak for the margins, in the mainstream at least. Certainly the Stones – fronted by Sir Mick Jagger – have long made their peace with the establishment since the fraught relationship that existed when they wrote You Can’t Always Get What You Want. This was once a band clouded by controversy in the wake of drug busts and associations with Hells Angels. No longer.
But while it is becoming easier for politicians to get directly involved in the pop process, the charity single may also make it easier for pop stars to have a direct effect – certainly one that’s measurable – albeit primarily in financial terms. Despite controversies after the fact about the long-term effect of Live Aid, there’s little question about its fundraising capacity. Or about it cementing the idea of musicians as actors on the political stage.
This also echoes broader, underlying cultural and political shifts since the end of the 1970s. There’s been a general move away from notions of collective activity, community and the role of the state, towards the concept of individual responsibility. Reebee Garofalo has compared the Live Aid model to Woodstock as representatives of pop politics: the latter embodying a communitarian ethos, the former framing the audience as consumers.
The ostensible onus on individuals to make a difference by digging into their wallets has been a central feature of pop’s claim to benefiting the public good since Live Aid. But even when there has been mobilisation around an issue and a specific policy focus, as with Live 8 in 2005, the scale of success is debatable. Arguably Geldof’s greatest diplomatic achievement at Live 8 was less in brokering any lasting G8 action on third world debt than getting the fractious members of Pink Floyd onto the same stage again after decades of animosity.
This isn’t to decry the charity model. Nor to deny the activism that takes place further away from the pop centre – there’s still a need for a line between grassroots action and the corridors of power. In the long run, these changes just shine a light on the evolution of musical forms, and consequently their social and political positioning. With grassroots work increasingly oriented towards the internet, it’s perhaps inevitable that maturing forms like rock gravitate towards a space closer to the media and political centre.