THE multi-million-pound record sales of the most successful recording artists are surely an indicator of how much our society has valued their art, thoughts and considerations on all matters. From Peter Gabriel to Bruce Springsteen, Coldplay to Billie Eilish, Western music artists have taken huge financial reward from highlighting what they saw (and still see) as repression, planetary injustice, moral harms and sometimes torture and death for those that society deemed beyond the pale.
In 2022 things apparently got so emotionally charged that many recording artists signed the Global Citizen pledge, calling for increased focus on poverty and climate change.
Western civilisation has lapped up the rock and roll product. Billions of records by our moralising artists have been bought. Some, like Springsteen, have sold close to a hundred million albums on their own account.
This writer has not been immune to having his emotions piqued by this or that call down the decades to ‘free prisoners of conscience’ (from Peter Gabriel) across the world. Who can forget Springsteen’s classic rendition of War (‘Whaaad is it gurd faw?’ etc) from his 1985 live album? Springsteen being a well-known critic of the Reagan White House and spotlight operator on the horrors of Vietnam and its associated veterans.
A mixture of music and moral tone is extremely powerful and musicians have never missed an opportunity to ‘stand up’ for the newer, more fashionable causes. For Peter Gabriel, Coldplay and Ed Sheeran that’s metamorphosed into a fight against climate change. The quintessentially English band, Marillion, fight the good fight as well. On their latest album, An Hour Before It’s Dark, the lyrics implore the listener to ‘Be Hard on Yourself’ – eschewing the modern-day luxuries of consumerism for the betterment of Planet Earth.
But it is hard to escape the feeling that the wheels could be about to fall off the touring juggernaut of supposed do-gooding that our popular musicians ride. Social media is making it quicker and easier to chip away at the veneer of moral superiority that publicists and marketeers have used to boost record sales down the decades.
An obvious case in point is Marillion themselves. A recent Instagram posting from their bass player, Peter Trewavas, showed the caption ‘after 5 days at home, we’re off again’ against a picture of a major airport. The destination? Florida, for some sunshine. Clearly for Trewavas, the mantra of ‘be hard on yourself’ is just for the listener, not the band.
Peter Gabriel’s first single in many years is 2023’s Panopticom. A catchy ditty indeed. We can all sing along to the tune where, in his own words, Gabriel states his desire to ‘create an infinitely expandable accessible data globe’, presumably so that the world population can be free of lies and diversions. It is likely that he has not considered the human rights or data privacy implications which would make creating the ‘prisoners of conscience’ he so famously worried about much, much easier for many governments.
Naturally, Gabriel is defender of the rock and roll faith on climate change, giving his concerns about the environment much space on his website. With no sense of shame, he also makes it his business to send plenty of trucks and heavy lighting rigs round the world to make money from concerts. It’s bad luck that this all produces CO2.
The hypocrisy has been evidentfor decades to those paying attention. Springsteen’s 2012 song Easy Money rails against the nasty capitalist bankers and rentiers, spivving from those who cannot afford it. In 1992 Springsteen decided to release on the same day two CDs (Human Touch, Lucky Town) which could quite easily have been one, better-edited album. Springsteen’s own drive to make some easy money must have overcome him.
Paul Simon has been a mainstay of protest folk rock for at least 50 years. Not as overtly political as Bob Dylan, he is well-known for his support of the Democrats and the (now very authoritarian) ‘Great State of New York’. It is only recently that we found out he actually spends plenty of time at his homestead in Texas. Probably the free-est and most Republican state in the USA.
Perhaps individual cynicism about our cultural leaders grows with age. But there appears to be more at stake now than ever before. Our recording artists collectively demand investments of trillions of dollars in an effort to solve their pet peeves about the injustices of our planet. Never have they been more financially able to fork over the money themselves. Ever hear of rock stars giving extra hundreds of millions to their respective government exchequers to construct windmills or housing projects? No, that’s not something that happens very often. The collective call is the monotonous demand for pooled resources (tax increases to you and me) and collectivisation. A strategy which has led to the deaths of hundreds of millions over the past century or two.
As a younger man I looked fondly to Marillion and their lyrical longing for leadership. In reference to a messed-up world, the 1984 album Fugazi asks: ‘Where are the prophets, where are the visionaries?’ In 2023 it has become clear that prophets and visionaries are the last thing we need on this planet. Much more helpful (and paradoxically radical) would be a call for freedom. The last person to sing about that was the supposed bête noire of serious music lovers everywhere: David Hasselhoff, Berlin Wall, 1989.
Come back, The Hoff, all is forgiven!