If someone had told me on January 1st 2020 that Right Said Fred of Deeply Dippy fame would be one of the few high-profile voices in Britain to speak out against government tyranny, I’d probably have given them a number to ring, and a wide berth. Yet this is exactly what happened during a surreal year in which the music industry, like many others, came to a virtual standstill.
As we entered 2020, like many I’d been feeling for some time that the popular music industry wasn’t in great shape. Everything sounded so samey and predictable. At live shows, audiences were no longer watching the artists; in many cases they’d be at concerts either stood still pointing a mobile device to the stage, or filming themselves gurning into their Smartphones while the band played on in the background. It seemed a far cry from the glorious chaos of the mosh pit I’d experienced, and the pioneering maverick spirit of the past. It felt like the music was going through the motions.
Of course, I’m generalising here, but when viewed in hindsight and in context of how the year has panned out, from a symbolic perspective it could be said that the creative stagnation audible in the music was heralding the decay of the industry itself. For some, this might seem an outrageous suggestion but it’s difficult not to see this allegorically.
I’m not in the least bit jingoistic but the passing of Dame Vera Lynn seems so poignant in terms of 2020. Just over a month before her death she was interviewed and spoke about the power of music to comfort during hard times, urging people to “keep smiling and keep singing”. How ironic it is that we have had bureaucrats warning people of the dangers of singing as a possible means of spreading the virus. How anal (and cowardly) can they get?
The same month that Dame Vera Lynn gave that interview, Little Richard died. Again, this was of such importance. Here was someone who changed the world with his creativity, and without being in the least politically-driven, his music effected powerful change in the social climate of the USA, and beyond. Without Little Richard, in the UK there would have been no Beatles, no Stones, and nothing of the powerful music scene that gave so much joy to generations of people, at the kind of venues that are now in danger of closing.
It’s been more than refreshing to see, along with a series of protests opposing the measures in the UK and across the globe, a body of research challenging the measures, independent of government and corporate media, calling into question the need for the lockdowns, their effectiveness and legality. Surprisingly, this has not come only from the alternative media; some opposing voices have also come from the heart of the mainstream. Again, who would have thought that such mainstream figures as Kirstie Allsopp and Richard Madeley would number amongst the rank of dissenters? By contrast, there’s been precious little in the way of dissent from other sectors (educational, health, sport, religious groups etc).
What’s been most noticeable to me has been the response to the developments from the infrastructure of the music industry, as well as most popular artists themselves, and not only in the UK. As I write this, there’s been practically no challenge to the government narrative; Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Ian Brown, Sir Van Morrison, Zuby, Noel Gallagher, Joe Jackson, and most unexpectedly Right Said Fred have been exceptions to this. On the whole, many artists – including those that have made their name and fame through ‘anti-establishment’ content, artists that had hitherto never shied away from outspoken social comment on the most provocative of topics – have been largely silent. The few that have spoken out against the measures have been rounded upon by mainstream media and even some of their fans as ‘conspiracy theorists’ and other predictable replies. At the same time, legions of their audience have been fully supportive.
In a youtube video discussion in October 2020 with Vincent Dunmall of Save Our Rights UK, author/alternative music researcher Mark Devlin (whose work focuses upon how popular music has been used as a form of social engineering) surmised whether the controllers of the industry had pulled the plug on it, so successful as it has been in its objectives. It’s a fair suggestion; after all, there has been precious little in the way of resistance from any corner of the industry.
One would think that in a scenario where careers are being threatened, there would be more of an outcry. Such a protest would be welcomed, I’m sure. The object here isn’t to judge nor attack anyone. It’s a commentary on the state of popular music in our society in general, in particular from that area which had always been regarded as the ‘counterculture’.
‘Cancellation’ took on another meaning in 2020. We have the ‘slow cancellation of the future’ articulated by Mark Fisher in his Youtube talk of the same name. Then there’s the literal cancelling of gigs. Finally, we have ‘cancel culture’, wherein anyone can be effectively banned from public life if they’re deemed guilty of ‘WrongThink’. It’s tempting to consider whether it’s the combination of all three that has rendered musicians largely mute.
Stagnation and atrophy in any life situation usually is a sign of the ending of something, and the need for something new. While most of us would have neither expected nor be supportive of the kind of change that is occurring, it is a strange coincidence. In many ways, we’re seeing the death of the old, out of which we’ll hopefully see the birth of something new, and better.