No future: has pop lost its radical edge?

Sunday 21 October, 6.30pm until 7.30pm, Garden Room

When some commentators described the student anti-fees protest in 2010 as a ‘dubstep rebellion’ they fed into a tradition of the powerful relationship of pop music and politics. From Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing In the Wind’ and the Rolling Stones’ ‘Street Fightin’ Man’ through to Gil Scot-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and Public Enemy’s ‘Fight the Power’, popular music has often had a close relationship to powerful social movements. The likes of M.I.A and even Ed Sheeran feel moved to take stances on social issues, while in the UK, rapper Plan B’s ‘Ill Manors’ was hailed as a vital protest song in the wake of last summer’s riots. In the US, in recent years even leading country stars have thrown their support behind Occupy (rather than the Tea Party), gay marriage and against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even controversial rap collective Odd Future confounded fans and critics alike when member Frank Ocean spoke openly about his bisexuality.

Yet, one writer argues, the economic and political turbulence has led more to ‘the New Boring’ than radical rebellion. Punk and urban music can happily soundtrack Jubilee concerts and the Olympics opening ceremony as much as footage of riots and upheaval. Newsnight can feature Dizzee Rascal or Odd Future and cause less controversy than historian David Starkey, while stars such as Adele can be hailed as non-conformist for enjoying their food and the odd drink. Yet, internationally, the plight of imprisoned Russian feminist-punks Pussy Riot and the emerging hip-hop scenes across the Arab Spring nations offers a reminder that popular music can have genuine anti-authoritarian credentials.

Has contemporary music lost its edge, or is it just that the political battlegrounds have shifted? When their politics are contemptible, can and should we separate the artists from the art as easily in popular music as we might do in other art-forms? Are ageing rebels guilty of retromania when discussing protest music of old, or is there a genuine sense that popular music is currently lacking a maverick, original spirit?

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Lindsay Johns
writer and broadcaster; (non-residential) Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African & African-American Research at Harvard University

Barb Jungr
singer, writer and performer; CDs include, The Man in the Long Black Coat and From Stockport to Memphis

Alan Miller
chairman, Night Time Industries Association (NTIA)

Pedro Quintino de Sousa
researcher on Portuguese and European literature, CLEPUL (Center For European and Lusophone Literatures and Cultures)

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer
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