Popular Music, Politics, and Prudence

Today via social media I received news of an exciting alumni success. Lauren Johnson, a young woman with a tremendous voice, whom I taught six or seven years ago at ICMP, came to my attention, thanking her circle of contacts for acknowledging the success of her band’s new song. Lauren did not actually feature on this particular release, but Captain Ska’s “Liar Liar GE2017” had made it to no. 1 on the UK iTunes download chart. The song gently mocks Teresa May, sitting Prime Minister and leader of the UK’s governing Conservative Party, highlighting some untruths she has told during and leading up to her campaign to lead the country for another parliament.

Protest songs have not been all that popular for a while. Perhaps people felt no need to pay attention to political singers, or maybe broadcast media have preferred to divert attention away from issues beyond the allure of sex, romance or dancing. Either way, it was heartening, indeed thrilling, to note that the BBC – that bastion of British Values (e.g. championing the monarchy, reifying the free market economy and de-emphasizing news stories about tragedy affecting non-whites) – had banned the song from airplay, along with popular London radio station, Capital FM. I was naturally excited for my former student, and felt a flush of pride to be connected (albeit incredibly remotely) with her band’s success.

Along with many other countries, the UK has experienced an increased polarization in national politics of late. In June of 2016 the people of this country voted to leave the European Union. This news landed in our laps as the result of a nearly 50/50 split among voters. As such, the EU referendum has tangibly divided the county. I spent the previous 40 years assuming that near enough everyone in Britain felt much the same about most things as I did, or cared so little about our differences that they didn’t much matter. The referendum proved that all wrong, and placed each citizen in one of two diametrically opposed positions – we all became for or against, in or out, patriotic or not, proud of our nation’s heritage or (un)justifiably ashamed.

As an academic, I prefer more variegated debate to reductive yes/no stand-offs and name-calling. That being said, I also love a good fight. And so, it appears, do many of the British people. Teresa May announced, with less than two months’ notice, that there would be a general election this summer. The declaration was widely perceived as an opportunistic ploy to crush the fading threat from the Conservative Party’s main opposition (the Labour Party), thus giving May and the Tories a resounding mandate to do whatever they wanted, leaving the loonie left, with all their compassion, nuance and unaccountable distaste for unwarranted war, to their inevitable ruin.

What began to happen, though, is that hundreds of thousands of UK citizens registered to vote, apparently seeing this election as an opportunity to steer the country away from the demonstrably disastrous and increasingly cruel neoliberal ideology that has become the mantra of mainstream politics globally in the last 35 years. People of all generations suddenly and very vocally began supporting a democratic socialist political figurehead. The governing party’s campaign has been characterized by stoic aggression, arrogance, slander and outright lies, whereas the opposition party has rallied to garner the support of millions through reasoned debate and a platform of nurturing mutual respect and care, appealing to people’s better nature. One result of this renewed engagement in politics in Britain is a feeling that individuals and groups might actually have a say in what happens to them in the futre, on which Russell Brand alights in this article. This personal and political agency is exhilarating, and prompted Captain Ska to record and release “Liar Liar GE2017”.

My school faced a dilemma, however, when news of this song’s no. 1 status reached us, since we wanted to celebrate a fantastic alumni story of commercial success and social relevance, whilst also taking care to adhere to our apolitical institutional stance. The school’s policy is as clear as day: we do not take sides in political matters. While the policy exists for sound reasons, it nonetheless felt like we might be missing a trick. Many of our students are very politically aware. There are strongly divergent views between current government and opposition parties with regard to how society funds and engages with arts and with higher education. All of my teaching during the last academic year has been on courses designed entirely to foster debate and critical thinking, which is arguably the sole purpose of “Liar Liar GE2017”; the song’s title is so accusatory as to demand interrogation of the evidence for its claim. Wouldn’t it be valuable at least to draw attention to the discussion?

So, I am thrilled for Lauren and Captain Ska, and my colleagues are delighted at our former student’s success, but collectively we remain prudently straitjacketed into supporting the political status quo. We must be doing something right, though, if one of our alumni has reached the no. 1 spot despite a ban of their song by mainstream broadcast media in a day and age when people have mostly stopped buying music anyway, and in which political protest songs are deeply uncool. Congratulations to Captain Ska. I neither endorse nor oppose the views they express in this song.

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Gareth Dylan Smith is Assistant Professor of Music at Boston University, founding editor of the Journal of Popular Music Education, and a drummer. His research interests include drumming, meaning and value in music making, teaching and learning in popular music, and eudaimonia. Gareth lives online at

One thought on “Popular Music, Politics, and Prudence”

  1. You should indeed be pleased for your student.

    Regarding Captain Ska, I took a screen print of a part of the video with apt words visible, and made it into a front window poster, including the reference number and the YouTube video frame and so on, in the hope that people might see it and buy it.

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