Fortnightly(ish) Review: Punk Using Its Power for Good and Evil


Iranian nuclear facilities were recently attacked by malware.  The malicious software, of unknown origin, pumped AC/DC’s ‘Thunderstruck’ through the infected computers’ speakers.

It’s probably fair to say that the annual United Nations General Assembly is generally considered to be a bit of a yawn-fest.  This year though a concert called ‘Global Festival‘ is being held concurrently with the UNGA.  Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Foo Fighters, Band of Horses and the Black Keys are playing, with the aim of raising funds for various causes including polio eradication, which is facing a $500 million shortfall.  The concert doesn’t raise funds through ticket prices: there are none.  Instead, patrons must earn their ticket by completing actions recommended by various global organisations, such as signing petitions and writing letters.

Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan decided to let the world know that he takes his cues from Springsteen this week.  His speech was widely panned for being dorky and embarrassing, but nonetheless praised for being tactically clever.  It both effectively conveyed a message (Swan and the Labor Party are pro-worker and, like Catwoman and Bane in the latest Batman flick, anti-billionaire) and managed to garner significant coverage despite the stiff, Olympic, competition.


Russian female punk group Pussy Riot have been making many a headline over the past couple of weeks because the trial of three of its members has started.  They even have Anthony Kiedis getting political.  If you’re wondering, they have officially been charged with ‘hooliganism’.  Foreign Policy gets a bit overexcited and claims Pussy Riot (who seem to be singularly lacking in musical talent, even for a punk band, just by the way) has “perhaps given punk rock a future as a global force for justice and freedom”.  They reckon that – until Pussy Riot – the “high-water mark of punk’s geopolitical relevance” was Crass’s 1982 song critical of the Falklands War, ‘How Does it Feel to be the Mother of 1000 Dead?’ and subsequent production of a hoax tape, widely believed at the time to be a conversation between Thatcher and Reagan.

The shooting of six American Sikhs in Wisconsin earlier this month is a reminder that punk can also be a vehicle for those with less progressive views.  The shooter was a “frustrated neo-nazi” and leader of a racist punk band.  The same is of course true of any genre.  I always associate hip-hop with progressive, leftist politics because that was its major theme when Australian hip-hop got good in Sydney and Melbourne in the early 2000s.  Here in Mongolia though, the country’s most prominent rapper is proudly xenophobic, frequently rhyming against China and the Chinese.


Inside Story has a brief article on politically and religiously motivated repression of music.  The author draws a distinction between musicians victimised for the content of their music (Pinochet’s exeuction of musician Victor Jara) and for the form of their music.  Apparently the Nazis could not abide twelve-tone music – the form devised by Austrian Arnold Schoenberg.


Fortnightly(ish) Review: Hip-hop in Mali, Nepal, Springsteen and Uzbek Elite Pop

Mali: coup, secession, food crisis and hip-hop

Mali is in the midst of great political turmoil.  In March a military junta ousted the President, suspended the 1992 constitution and took control of the country, which had been due for Presidential elections in April.  The government’s mishandling of the Tuareg rebellion in the country’s north was cited as the motivating factor for the coup (I wrote about that rebellion in an earlier post).

Following the coup Tuareg rebels, namely the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), declared an independent Azawad covering a broad swathe of the country’s north, including Timbuktu.  To further compound matters Islamist group Ansar Dine has made a counter-claim to stewardship of Azawad, and central Mali is part of the Sahel, a region facing a severe food shortage.

So seemingly out of nowhere (although not to all), Mali has been transformed from a bastion of west African democratic consolidation into “the Afghanistan of West Africa”.  Well, at the very least it faces directionless military rule and possible bifurcation.  Some young Malians have expressed their frustration with their country’s politics, both pre- and post-coup, through hip-hop as detailed in this article on Bridges From Bamako.  The article makes the interesting observation that hip-hop crews in Mali are fulfilling the role traditionally ascribed to civil society, the latter having been co-opted by the political elite.  This is surely the case in a number of other countries too.

What is happening in Mali is compelling, particularly when you’re sitting in a country which is also 20-odd years into democratic rule and subject to endemic corruption, and is about to hold a parliamentary election.  Mali’s Presidential election, which was to have taken place in April, was initially postponed  to May.  It has now been put off until 2017, along with parliamentary elections which were originally scheduled for this July.

What’s a country like Nepal doing with politicians like these?

Just under a month ago Nepal’s protracted constitution writing process collapsed.  I wrote a fairly detailed article about it on South Asia Masala so I won’t harp on about it here.  All I will say is that things are not looking any rosier now than they did a month ago.  This week the hardline faction of the ruling Maoists finally made good on its threat to split from the party.  The newly formed Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (it has dropped the ‘Unified’ from the original Maoist party’s name) rejects parliamentarianism and will not rule out a people’s revolt or a return to all out war.  Meanwhile, as Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai toddled off to the UN’s environmental gab-fest in Brazil, his government was censured by the Electoral Commission for making changes to key police personnel despite its caretaker status, and accused of curbing press freedom for demoting a state TV executive for televising opposition protests.

Amrit Gurung, lead singer of Nepathaya, a band I blogged about when I was still living in Nepal, has added his voice to the debate in a couple of articles in the Nepali Times.  In the first, published a few days before the Constituent Assembly expired, he added his view to the debate over whether or not Nepal’s states should be defined on the basis of ethnicity.  Gurung made the case in favour of ethnic inclusiveness, stating he is Nepali before he is Gurung or any other identity.  He reiterated that position in his latest article published this week.

Who Da Boss?

In a recent article The Guardian argues that Bruce Springsteen is the last protest singer (at least in stadiums), taking a swing at Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Coldplay, U2 and Glastonbury in the process.  The author also sort of has a go at Neil Young and Bob Dylan.  I think.  And Jarvis Cocker and Sting, he says, have chosen the wrong issues to protest.  Personally I don’t think all musicians need to foist their politics on their fans.  In fact most time I think it’s preferable they don’t.

The article’s survey of stadium rockers is far from exhaustive: why mention Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, but not Pearl Jam for example?  Another politically engaged musician is Ry Cooder, who is preparing to release a uber-political album in the lead-up to America’s November Presidential elections.  The video below contains some of one song from the album, the excellent ‘Mutt Romney Blues’, about Mitt Romney strapping his dog to the roof of his car on a 12 hour drive.


Central Asia has a new pop princess: GooGoosha, aka Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimova.  Unsurprisingly, the music is terrible.

Obama’s Campaign Mixtape

Soundtrack for this post: ‘I Got You’ by Wilco, ‘The Weight’ by Aretha Franklin and ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. & the MGs.

*Note: from now on the above link will be to a playlist containing all soundtrack songs.

Obama’s campaign team is stepping things up.  Last week they published a 28-song 2012 campaign playlist on free online music library Spotify, a service which is not currently available outside the US and western Europe.  The complete list is at the bottom of this post.

As with the list of desired endorsements released a month ago (see this post), if nothing else, the playlist demonstrates admirable eclecticism.  There are a few correspondences with the endorsement list – No Doubt/Gwen Stefani, Wilco, James Taylor, Ricky Martin and Al Green – but Obama’s staffers have somewhat freer rein here given the likelihood of an individual declaring support is not a constraint (though an artist’s political persuasions aren’t completely irrelevant:  they can kick up stinks at their music being used without permission, particularly if they aren’t politically sympathetic).

Still, the Spotify list feels very much like a pragmatic collection of music, intended presumably to create rousing atmospheres at campaign events, rather than a collection of songs anyone would be passionate about (a true mixtape).  None of Obama’s favourite artists, as listed on his facebook page, are present.  (Those artists are Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Johann Sebastian Bach (cello suites) and The Fugees).

Obama’s home town Chicago is represented by the funk of Earth, Wind & Fire and soul group The Impressions.  The latter’s ‘Keep on Pushing’, an early civil rights movement anthem, is the only overtly political song on the list. The song was also a commercial success on its release in 1964.

Although light on explicitly political songs, there are a number of songs that easily lend themselves to political interpretation.  Two concern increasing elevation – Ledisi’s ‘Raise Up’ and Sugarland’s ‘Stand Up’ – and two more deal with physical movement – Raphael Saadiq’s wonderfully retro ‘Keep Marchin” and ‘Roll With the Changes’ by arena hair rockers REO Speedwagon.

Obama’s 2008 clarion calls hope and change are largely absent.  REO Speedwagon’s song is more about resilience than transformation.  Electric Light Orchestra introduce an upbeat aspirational note with ‘Mr Blue Sky’, but Obama as visionary for positive change is definitely not the story told with this playlist.

Obama’s cool youth credentials are covered (for me, unsatisfactorily) by Portland hand-clappers AgesandAges and Brits Arcade Fire.  Any cred earned is however more than spent by the proliferation of contemporary country on the list.  There’s Sugarland (twice), the Zac Brown Band, Dierks Bentley, Montgomery Gentry and Darius Rucker (also twice).  This selection really doesn’t do country any justice, and must surely have been compiled by someone with zero fondness for the genre.  And yes, Darius Rucker looks familiar because he was the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish.

The cringe-worthy patriotism award goes to Dierks Bentley’s ‘Home’.  There’s a nice and non-obvious Aretha Franklin: a cover of The Band’s ‘The Weight’.  A surprising number of non-American artists found their way into the list: Florence + the Machine, E.L.O. and Noah and the Whale (the UK), Arcade Fire (Canada) and progressive totems U2 (Ireland).

The Ricky Martin song is interesting.  For a start it’s from 2011 – who knew he was still releasing music?  It features Joss Stone and is pointedly mature.  The Latino dance anthem stylings he made his career on are wholly absent.  In fact Latino music, along with other major genres like hip-hop and hard rock, is conspicuous by its absence from this list.

It was only a matter of time before a politician misused Bruce Springsteen’s new single, ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, a cynical take on post-Katrina America’s priorities.  It is a bit surprising it happened this quickly.  Obama and Springsteen have a history, with the latter appearing at the former’s campaign events in 2008.  Interestingly, The Boss is not on Obama’s dream endorsement list for 2012.

We could give Obama’s aides the benefit of the doubt and surmise that the inclusion of ‘We Take Care of Our Own’ was due not to a misreading, but was instead a conscious ploy to give the list some edge, or even to appropriate the song’s anger and signal the incumbent’s sympathy for the Occupy movement.  Still, such a bitter song sticks out sorely on a list dominated by light, upbeat pop and safe Americana.


The list:

‘Different People’ by No Doubt
‘Got to Get You into My Life’ by Earth,Wind & Fire Experience feat. Al McKay Allstars (live)
‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. & the MG’s
‘I Got You’ by Wilco
‘Keep On Pushing’ by The Impressions
‘Love You I Do’ by Jennifer Hudson
‘No Nostalgia’ by AgesandAges
‘Raise Up’ by Ledisi
‘Stand Up’ by Sugarland
‘This’ by Darius Rucker
‘We Used to Wait’ by Arcade Fire
‘You’ve Got the Love’ by Florence + the Machine
‘Your Smiling Face’ by James Taylor
‘Roll With the Changes’ by REO Speedwagon
‘Keep Marchin” by Raphael Saadiq
‘Tonight’s the Kind of Night’ by Noah And The Whale
‘Keep Me in Mind’ by the Zac Brown Band
‘The Weight’ by Aretha Franklin
‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’ by U2
‘Home’ by Dierks Bentley
‘Everyday America’ by Sugarland
‘Learn to Live’ by Darius Rucker
‘Let’s Stay Together by Al Green
‘Mr Blue Sky’ by Electric Light Orchestra
‘My Town’ by Montgomery Gentry
‘The Best Thing About Me is You’ by Ricky Martin feat. Joss Stone
‘You Are The Best Thing’ by Ray LaMontagne
‘We Take Care of Our Own’ by Bruce Springsteen

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