Music, politics and young people have always been inextricably linked. An obvious example of this heady mix is Bob Dylan’s Blowin in the Wind, written when the singer was only twenty-one. The song became an anthem of the Sixties’ civil rights movement. A movement drawing teenagers and young adults into a world of meetings, marches, protests and at times even imprisonment. A generation of young people that sought to change the world.
In the lead up to the General Election of 1987, a group of musicians engaged young people in politics through the Red Wedge Tour. Musicians such as Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Kirsty MacColl gave musical voice to the socialist challenge to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. From a personal point of view, the music of The Smiths and the lyrics of Steven Patrick Morrissey during the Eighties made me think differently about the world around me. Meat is Murder was a rallying call for vegetarianism; I even dallied with textured soya protein myself for a time. There is a long list to choose from: The Clash, Poison Girls, The Specials, Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, Dan le Sac vs Scroobius Pip to name but a few. Young people moved by music, or composing and playing music, with a political message.
Turn the dial to 2015 and where is the rebellion? Where are the causes given life through the power of song? Will One Direction ever pen a song about contraception? Will Iggy Azalea write about race relations? Lil Mix supporting the striking Tube workers doesn’t feel very likely. There is a blandness abroad in the musical mainstream, sanitised and over-manufactured by the likes of X-Factor and The Voice. Artists like Arctic Monkeys and Jamie T catalogue life in modern-day Britain, but is there a strong political message at the heart of their music? Perhaps I am out of touch, lost on a misty-eyed wave of nostalgia. Do young people these days want to voice their dissatisfaction and alienation through music or do they choose to find a different medium?
Social media and the advance of technology seemed to have fractured that amorphous block of angst and frustration, which people used to refer to as ‘the youth of today’. The digital equivalent of the introduction of all-seater stadiums in football – breaking the power of a tribe into lots and lots of individuals. The digital age, however, does offer new ways to connect – witness the power of Twitter, central to the uprising across the Middle East in 2011. Anti-capitalist demonstrators in London in recent years have used Google maps and YouTube clips to co-ordinate their protest marches. There has been a noticeable rise in the use of online petitions to raise the profile of causes and to stimulate debate.
There are young people involved in anti-austerity marches and anti-racism protests, but their involvement feels more considered and more selective than in previous years. Politics in the 21st Century appears to switch young people off to a greater degree than at any time previously. The dividing lines between today’s political parties have been blurred to the extent that many Labour politicians are seen as being Tory-lite. Dodging the issue and sidestepping questions has moved from being a political art to become part of the everyday weaponry of a politician’s life. It is understandable that many young people feel that the politics of today is of little relevance to them and isn’t something they want to take part in.
There are, however, different ways to engage in politics – to campaign, protest, lobby and challenge. I’m interested to see what happens through Youth Focus: North East’s My Manifesto project, which aims to make politics easier for young people to get involved in. Political engagement doesn’t have to focus on the Westminster bubble, though it is fine if young people want to do that. Young people involved in My Manifesto might choose to look at regional issues or very local concerns. They might decide to explore the dynamics and tensions within their own communities. Over the next three years there are myriad issues that can be explored and challenges to be met. Perhaps we will see another generation of young people who seek to change the world. And along the way, maybe some of them will pick up a guitar and sing about it.
– Steve Watson, Development Advisor