FEATURE: Vote for Us: The Artists Going Deeper When It Comes to Inspiration




Vote for Us


IN THIS PHOTO: The Specials released their first album in eighteen years recently with Encore/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images 

The Artists Going Deeper When It Comes to Inspiration


THERE is some definition needed here...


 PHOTO CREDIT: @marcooriolesi

because, for the most part, artists have not really pushed against the conventional for many years. There is, mind, something coming out that shows more depth and political motivation than recent years. I think certain genres have always put social awareness and politics first but, in terms of the mainstream and the artists at the forefront, it has been a long time coming. I wonder whether our Government and their rather slipshod handling of Brexit negotiations means that, finally, artists have had enough. It is not everyone who is making this shift but I am pleased to see politics, harder-hitting subjects and something more aware coming through. Most of the mainstream still deals in love tropes and the usual fare; a lot of bands are still hooked on themselves but I do love the artists who look out and are actually talking about the world. One might argue the fact artists have been talking about the state of the world for decades! This is true but I would argue (the fact that) this is one of the most intense and unbalanced times in recent history. I have campaigned for musicians to stray away from the bedrooms and the inner realms of their own minds and actually address what is happening around them. There were many reasons why the return of The Specials delighted me and many. The fact that their last single, Ghost Town, was released thirty-five years ago left many nervous and a bit unsure.

How would the legendary Ska band come back? Would it be a soft affair and would they still have that magic? The fact that their single, Vote for Me, sort of continued where Ghost Town left off meant that it was a pleasant and easy transition. I was worried the band, as they are a bit older now, would swap politics and the crumble around us for something more comfortable and safe. Maybe Vote for Me is not as sharp and anthemic as Ghost Town but it definitely is a relevant and of-the-moment track. One can see veiled disappointment and the dissatisfaction with our leaders. On their new album, Encore, there are frank tales of mental-health issues – their lead, Terry Hall has bipolar affective disorder – and one hears stories and lyrics that are actually quite intense. I think there has been a hesitation regarding discussing mental-health and issues like politics. It has been sprinkled through music through the years but there seems to be more of a concentration among today’s artists. I think most know the leaders we elect are going to de-prioritise important issues that will impact us and, instead, are clearing up the mess they have made. In a social media age, how easy is it to talk frankly about stuff like mental illness and politics without incurring judgement and harsh opposition?


 IN THIS PHOTO: Ariane Grande (who is one of few Pop artists unafraid to talk about politics)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I think a lot of people actually do want to discuss these things but the always-capricious nature of social media means only one person ranting and attacking you can do a lot of harm. I do like what is in the mainstream but I think there is a perfect opportunity for the biggest artists to, with slight risk, go somewhere a bit darker. It is all well and good talking about heartbreak and commercial avenues but, given the fact so many teen listeners experience mental-health issues, should they not be more conscious? Some Pop artists like Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande have talked about that sort of thing in their song but how often does politics and the larger world infuse their sounds? Maybe it is a gamble to do that sort of thing but there are artists willing to break from the conventional. The Special are doing it and Foals, on their new track, Exits, talk about political departures, mental-health and thought-provoking matters. Look at IDLES and how their 2018 album, Joy as an Act of Resistance, really struck a chord. There are many other artists tackling deeper subjects in music and it is good to see. I think there is a danger, if everyone did it, it could be oversaturating and a little heavy. I look around genres away from Hip-Hop and Rap and I do wonder whether what is being said is actually attuned to the modern age. Sure, talking about social media and its affects is impressive but what about the divisions in the world and the rise in mental-health problems?

Not only is this sort of approach to music brave and new but there is an educational aspect. We can all bond with artists who talk about their pains and heartaches – many can empathise and it is good to have that common bond. I actually think there is a lot of anger regarding modern politics and this culminates in personal stress, confusion and a real sense of dislocation. In the same way fun and upbeat music can be an escape and release, so too can songs that take our pains and observations and make sense of them. In an interview with The Guardian, various personalities asked The Specials questions and one of them related to depression and airing it out. A lot of depression and anxiety, for musicians, can arise from deciphering what defines ‘success’. Getting to the top of the charts is not as important as, say, releasing a song that carries a real message. I think that is a message that needs to be put out more: you are worth a lot more than chart positions and streaming figures. In the same interview, the reporter looked at The Specials’ lyrics and how they have retained their sense of observation and attack at a time when it is really needed:

Lyrics take on the personal and the political, the US and the UK, though more ambiguously than the Specials’ original precision attacks. On BLM (Black Lives Matter), Golding talks us through three racist experiences from his past. And then there’s Vote for Me. Golding points out that the Specials’ (as opposed to the Special AKA) last release was Ghost Town, so it seems right that the next release, 38 years later, is Vote for Me. Hall agrees: “With Ghost Town we didn’t say, ‘This is the right way, this is the wrong way’, we just said, ‘Things are pretty shit, really’. And we’re saying the same with Vote for Me. I find it difficult to vote on anything, really. Whereas before, we were staunch Labour. Now, I feel like I don’t trust you, I don’t like your face. On a personal thing with Corbyn, I definitely can’t do it any more. But what are the alternatives?”


PHOTO CREDIT: @sharonmccutcheon  

It must be strange to make a comeback now, to return in your middle age at a time when Britain itself appears to be determined to return to the more depressing parts of the early 80s.

“Well,” says Hall, “if we’d released a record at any point in the last eight years it would have been relevant. Because not a great deal has changed. There’s different names for it, like Brexit, which sounds nuanced, but isn’t far from the one called ‘unemployment’ and the one called ‘racism’. Look, we didn’t plan it. We didn’t say: ‘Let’s get a mix done quick, because Brexit’s out at the end of January’”.

Maybe I am getting side-tracked but I feel one of the reasons music has not made a particular huge impact or affected real change is the fact artists are still unwilling to get involved. Bands like IDLES and The Specials are just the tip of a growing iceberg. Whether discussing racism or global warming...I feel musicians have a role and a chance to really make an impact. I think back as recently as a few years and was not aware of that many albums that has a political edge or artists taking that stand. The likes of PJ Harvey could definitely please that desire but there was this mainstream of rather bland and aimless music. Now, I am seeing more mobility and consistency. I look back at 2016 and 2017 when we got big political statements from Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and Neil Young but that was an exception.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Beyoncé (her 2016 album, Lemonade, was lauded for its documentation of social issues and political mindset)/PHOTO CREDIT: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

I think a lot of artists without huge label and commercial pressure are more mobile and willing to explore subjects that are becoming less taboo. It is hard to ignore issues as huge as mental illness, racial attacks and political disintegration. If we ignore it and just use music as this rather shallow if fun medium, is that a chance missed? Do we get leadership and awareness from our leaders? I think the arts world is much more influential and important when it comes to discussing and highlighting problems and divisions. Not only does that provide oxygen to the subject but it opens up conversation in a way less controversial and more unified than social media. In many way, people are looking back and fondly remembering music how it used to be – rather than move forward and adding something new. Perhaps, decades ago, artists were bolder and the fact movements like Britpop resonated was because there was truth and a common spirit. I feel, the bigger the music industry gets, the more we are scattershot and divided. I am pleased to see bands and artists opening up in music and, at a very tense time, unafraid to create a little sense of unease and discomfort. I think it brave to witness music that opens its soul and, when needed, provides a boot to the bottoms of the politicians who continue to deceive and obfuscate. So long as we do have something more escapist and fun to balance out the more serious and ‘relevant’ music then it can only be a good thing. Some artists might be reticent regarding being confessional and political but, at a time when all of us need some guidance and voice, going off piste is actually...


 IN THIS PHOTO: IDLES are a band who always put deeper, less commercial subjects are the forefront/PHOTO CREDIT: IDLES/Getty Images

A very good thing.