2015: The Year Music Got Political Again
From #BlackLivesMatter to Tony Abbott, musicians had plenty of targets this year.
Put politics in music, the saying goes, and you’ve lost half your audience. Any sign that a musician is more interested in personal political agendas rather than simply entertaining people risks all their previous and future work being seen in the light of their beliefs.
But as a year in which the Pope released a progressive rock album with a song imploring action on climate change, 2015 seemed like the perfect time for all rules to be thrown out the window. Here’s a little of what musicians wanted you to pay attention to over the past 12 months:
The Fall and Fall Of Tony Abbott
This should come as no big surprise. Tony Abbott’s greatest ability as a Prime Minister may have been to inadvertently force Australians to pay attention to politics when they would rather ignore it, and this soon rubbed off on Australian musicians. The frequency and fervour of artistic protest against the Abbott government was unlike anything we’ve seen over the past few decades.
In January, The Smith Street Band took precise aim at the then-PM with an aggressive ode called ‘Wipe That Shit-Eating Grin off Your Punchable Face’. The digital release made headlines for not only its emotive name, but also its take on the government’s refugee policy.
“Hopefully a lot of people around our age and our demographic will think about it and become a bit more aware of this issue,” songwriter Wil Wagner told the Sydney Morning Herald. “But who really gives a shit what a 24-year-old in a band thinks?”
The eventual pressing of the single sold out in four hours, so clearly more people were interested than Wagner anticipated.
“So wipe that shit-eating grin off your punchable face / These people are human beings that you’ll destroy and displace … Drowning refugees at sea / Kiss babies screaming vote for me.”
Andrew Bolt And Conservative Rhetoric
Also in the sights of Australia’s songwriters was News Corp columnist Andrew Bolt. In September, three-piece Melbourne group The Basics leapt back into action once drummer Wally de Backer (aka Gotye) had finished messing around with his side-project to release The Age of Entitlement (the name a reference to ex-Treasurer Joe Hockey’s widely-criticised speech). A mix of power pop and impassioned political polemic, it set about bringing anyone who missed their Basics Rock and Roll Party press releases up to date fast.
“They give us news that’s made for children / and racist crap from Andrew Bolt / When they said they’d stop the boats, they meant they’d hide them / Far too busy to bother with that lot.”
The following month, The Drones’ single Taman Shud exploded onto the airwaves. A song that mercilessly deconstructed the definition of the Aussie bloke and the ideology of Andrew Bolt among its machine-gunning of Australian identity. The Drones’ long awaited follow-up to I See Seaweed was expected to be the album that finally broke them into the national consciousness.
And, though the ferocious first single Taman Shud did get mainstream attention, is was maybe not in the way they expected. An enraged Bolt responded via his popular column, singling out many of the song’s eristic qualities that inspired others to start a campaign to get it into the Triple J Hottest 100.
“Why you think the whole world’s gotta be like you?/ Fuck western supremacy / I ain’t sitting around being Gallipolised / One man’s BBQ’s another’s hunger strike / Why’d I give a rat’s about your tribal tatts?/ You came here in a boat you fucking cunt”
This work from The Smith Street Band, The Basics and The Drones shows a real resurgence in the protest song: a tried-and-tested method of interrogating culture and mobilising political action with an audience. When The Basics follow a sunny Beatles-esque romp like Roundabout with Time Poor’s fury at the power wielded by Australia’s most popular columnist and perceived national apathy, they’re addressing the sizeable group eagerly awaiting Gotye’s next stroke of pop brilliance. They’re telling them this is more important, and why, in ways, impossible to ignore.
“The songs seemed to me not so much political but more social,” Basics drummer Tim Heath told The Mornington News. “[They are] a comment about culture and a part of the Australian psyche that was becoming complacent, complaining about things but not doing a lot about it. It’s important for artists to make people think politically and socially and show a different perspective on the world.”
Asylum Seekers And Federal Government Policy
In 2015 there were few bigger social or political issues than Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. And if you can measure success in social media metrics (which, in some ways, you absolutely can), Australia’s biggest popstar Cody Simpson made a huge move against it.
In August, the young singer handed over his Twitter account to a Syrian asylum seeker for 24 hours. Instead of his usual tweets like “Long and prosperous life ahead! Time to make art!”, “Freedom doesn’t exist if nature is illegal!” and the odd anti-vaccination rant, Simpson’s 7.5 million followers were treated to a blow-by-blow account of Thair Orfahli’s journey from Syria, via Lebanon and Egypt, to Germany.
The harrowing journey of an asylum seeker became a source of inspiration for Skipping Girl Vinegar this year whose euphoric single ‘Refugee‘ , from the LP The Great Wave, marked a career high point. Similarly, The Basics’ joyous ‘Tunaomba Saidia‘ recounted the journey of an asylum seeker from Uganda to an Australian detention centre.
Taking things one step further, Blue Mountains hip-hop group Thundamentals were one of many acts who donated the proceeds from a tour, a show, a single or merchandise to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in 2015. The Smith Street Band’s anti-Abbott effort mentioned above raised over $8,500 for the same organisation. Meanwhile, Gold Class’s Adam Curley wrote the towering Pro Crank about another controversial government policy, the development of Abbot Point coal mine, a battle that seems set to continue.
Activism Overseas: US Police Violence
When Australians tackle social issues they usually do it head on and with little fear of being typecast. Midnight Oil, Redgum and John Williams shrug off any fans who might stop buying their records on account of being seen as unpatriotic flaming lefties. In the US, different pressures apply. While the Dixie Chicks lost swathes of their audience when they voiced dissent to America’s role in conflicts in the Middle East, American hip-hop acts have little to lose and much to gain from adding their voice to one of the year’s most pressing international news stories: police violence.
Police impunity, injustice and #blacklivesmatter heavily influenced the work of two of the years most acclaimed albums: Kendrick Lamar’s searing To Pimp a Butterfly and Freddie Gibbs’ relentless Shadow of a Doubt. Run The Jewels’ cat-themed remix album Meow The Jewels and NASA, Sean Paul and Lizzo’s Hands Up Don’t Shoot! also both raised tens of thousands of dollars for charities supporting victims of police violence.
In October, hip-hop monoliths Usher and Nas debuted their song ‘Chains‘ via music streaming website Tidal. To hear the song, the listener must switch on their their laptop camera, submit their likeness to the site’s facial recognition software and join a series of faces of people killed by police.
Finally, making a pitch as the year’s most powerful song came Janelle Monae and Wondaland Records’ brutally simple ‘Hell You Talmbout’. Reciting the names of people of colour killed by law enforcement, it’s impossible to ignore the raw emotion in the voices of those singing lyrics such as “Trayvon Martin, say his name” over and over as a chain-gang funk percussion loop plays underneath. The song has already inspired dozens of videos in response, in part thanks to the rhythm track being made available for download.
“Walter Scott, say his name / Walter Scott, say his name / Walter Scott, say his name / Walter Scott, won’t you say his name?”
“We recorded it to challenge the indifference, disregard, and negligence of all who remain quiet about this issue,” Monae wrote on Instagram. “Silence is our enemy. Sound is our weapon.”
As many countries wade deeper into a war against people within their own borders and a decentralised media makes the job of governing more difficult and leaders more defensive, music proves one of the most direct weapons of communication and a powerful ideological recruitment tool.
In 2015, acquiescent silence became that much harder to find.
Andy Hazel is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne who works at The Saturday Paper.