Is woke politics the death of rock’n’roll?

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Sunday 10 October, Church House, London


In June last year, Grammy-winning US country band the Dixie Chicks announced they would now simply be The Chicks. Famous for criticising the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the female trio decided to drop ‘Dixie’ from their name because of its ‘controversial’ association with slavery and the American South.

Musicians on this side of the Atlantic are feeling political pressure, too. Earlier this year, indie popsters British Sea Power dropped the ‘British’ from their name, instead now going by the moniker Sea Power. In the past, the six-piece once claimed an apparent obsession with Second World War leader Field Marshal Montgomery, and even appeared on the BBC’s primetime Sunday nature show, Countryfile, to talk about their love of the British countryside. Yet now the combination of ‘British’ and ‘Power’ was too much for the band.

In June this year, banjo player and lead guitarist Winston Marshall felt obliged to quit platinum-selling folk tubthumpers Mumford & Sons after attracting flak for his praise of anti-Antifa journalist Andy Ngo. In a goodbye letter to the band, Marshall wrote: ‘In the mania of the moment I was desperate to protect my bandmates. The hornets’ nest that I had unwittingly hit had unleashed a black-hearted swarm on them and their families.’

But not everyone agrees that popular music should be subject to the political mood of the moment. Aussie legend Nick Cave has argued: ‘Art must be wrestled from the hands of the pious, in whatever form it may come – and they are always coming, knives out, intent on murdering creativity. At this depressing time in rock ‘n’ roll though, perhaps they can serve a purpose, perhaps rock music needs to die for a while, so that something powerful and subversive and truly monumental can rise up out of it.’

Is popular music finally growing up and beginning to acknowledge its hitherto historical amnesia and irresponsibility? Or is this willingness to go along with current political trends the antithesis of convention-defying, free-thinking rock’n’roll?

Dr Philip Kiszely
lecturer in performance and cultural histories, University of Leeds; author, Hollywood through Private Eyes

Joel Mills
senior music programme manager, British Council

Dr Carlton Brick
lecturer in sociology, The University of the West of Scotland