Sunday, September 30, 2007

Thinking about The Clash, Popular Music and Social Change

I was excited to find at my front door the other day a copy of music journalist Chris Salewicz’s new book Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer, which I will soon be reviewing for PopMatters. As the late lead singer and rhythm guitarist for The Clash (as well as a solo artist later in his career), Strummer was both an excellent songwriter and a gifted lyricist, finding ways to incorporate political and cultural subjects into a variety of musical contexts without sounding preachy or redundant. The result was albums like London Calling (1979)—widely considered to be one of the best albums of rock history—and the commercial smash Combat Rock(1982). Yet as Salewicz alludes, Strummer sometimes felt disillusioned about his (and others’) ability to actually affect social and political patterns. In a September 1989 interview with the British music magazine Melody Maker, he expressed his frustration about the end result of the decade, where “[British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher became God, [and] ninety percent of the papers are right-wing and brown-nosing” (454).

Strummer’s comment allows us to consider what has become a familiar question: can popular music truly bring about social change? There are some legitimate arguments suggesting that this is possible. As an example, my former professor and thesis adviser contends that the underground music scene in Indonesia (particularly the heavy metal subculture) played an important role in creating the social pressure that helped end Suharto’s authoritarian presidency in 1998. Moreover, there are plenty of examples where successful bands and artists find themselves in a position to try to enact social changes outside of music: Bono’s highly visible efforts are one example, while a slightly less noticed endeavor that is just as critical would be Jars of Clay lead singer Dan Haseltine’s humanitarian organization Blood:Water Mission.

In considering The Clash’s relationship to social change, I would suggest that it’s fruitful to remember that while they may not have been able to do much about the British political climate during the 1980s, they nonetheless were among the vanguard of the punk movement and contemporary rock culture. As John Nichols of The Nation and John Lewis of The Guardian both argue(among numerous other sources), the band became an indispensable musical and lyrical influence for two generations of bands within punk and other genres, many of whom chose to emphasize social and political concerns in their work. It’s also reasonable to assume that at least some of The Clash’s fans over the past thirty years that didn’t start their own bands have used London Calling and the band’s other albums to consider particular social or political issues in a different manner. While this process is too diffuse to form an argument along the lines of “The Clash (direct cause) = social change (tangible effect),” it allows us to consider how certain other bands and musical trends can slowly create trends that (when combined with other contextual factors) serve as catalysts for change, whether on a local, regional, national, or global level.

Salewicz documents an early interview that Strummer gave where he admitted that punk rock probably wouldn’t bring about large-scale change, “ ‘[b]ut after saying that—and I’m just saying that because I want you to know that I haven’t got any illusions about anything, right—having said that I still want to try to change things’ ” (185). The Clash may not have been able to stop what they saw as regressive social and political policies in Britain and the U.S., but in their own way, they ultimately did “change things” in a manner that few other popular music bands ever have. Accordingly, they provide an excellent example of how music can impact our thinking about society and culture.

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