The notion that music can be used as a medium for expressing political or socially engaged ideas is hardly new. Throughout the twentieth century disparate genres were used as vessels for the spread and popularisation of radical ideas, from the American folk revivalists of the 60s, to Disco in the 70s and Gangsta Rap in the late 80s. Politically charged messages are often informed by the characteristics of the music itself – the biting satire of Dead Kennedys, for example, is echoed in the breakneck tempo and ferocity intrinsic to hardcore punk. Musical form and lyrical content therefore enjoy a symbiotic relationship – one constantly informs the potency and direction of the other.
If music can be understood as a vessel for the spread of political messages, it is an unfortunate truth that this vessel can sometimes be opaque. When a politically charged song becomes successful – that is, when it is received positively by a large listening audience – the messages the artist wishes to transmit are swallowed by that self-same artist’s newly successful status. Rage Against the Machine were an extremely popular band in the mid- to late-90s, but did Zack de la Rocha’s lyrics really incur a more engaged and revolutionary fanbase? I would venture that they didn’t – at least, not in a way that may be deemed significant. The effect the band had was primarily an emotional one –their music made fans feel rebellious, but it did not necessarily force them to think more critically or consider the contemporary political landscape for themselves. The minutiae of RATM’s politics could be ignored too easily, with Tom Morello’s stomping riffs and de la Rocha’s snarling raps enough to excite even the most apolitical of fans. Theirs was a paradox that plagues many so-called ‘socially conscious’ artists operating under Late Capitalism. Since the 1960s, anti-establishment messages have been repeatedly co-opted by the market and popularised in mainstream culture. Through sheer semantic satiation, symbols of resistance are emptied of their once subversive content, to such an extent that anti-capitalism itself becomes a commodifiable trend (see Che’s face printed on mass-produced t-shirts, manufactured in third-world sweatshops).
In his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, the late Mark Fisher discussed this paradoxical situation in which “even success mean[s] failure”, highlighting the experience of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain as evidence of the impossibility of circumventing Capitalism’s ironic capacity to critique itself. “Cobain,” Fisher wrote, “knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché”. (CR p.9). Fisher identified how political and/or anti-establishment music eventually comes up against the obstacle that is its own marketability. In spite of whatever rebellious, anti-corporate message it contains, the music’s commercial appeal constitutes its own failure. In order for a subversive message to be heard, widespread listenership is required; but the more widespread listenership is acquired, the more that same subversive message is tamed by the laws that govern mainstream popularity and the market.
On Massive Attack’s recently released Eutopia EP, however, we are presented with a politically engaged work that feels somehow different. It seems obvious that Eutopia will never become a mainstream hit, will never make it to the top of the charts, and this is primarily because its subversive message refuses to be sublimated or corrupted. Massive Attack have made it impossible for the listener to enjoy these tracks without engaging critically with the messages they contain. The politics are placed front and centre, divorced even from the music, which underlies it like a backdrop. Unlike Jello Biafra’s sarcastic sneers or Cobain’s cries of disaffection, the words of the three experts on these tracks contain no musicality. They are not sung, rapped, or performed. They cannot even be labelled spoken word, for this too requires some consideration of rhythm and cadence, some effort to build and release tension – in short, an ear for poetry’s inherent musicality. In contrast, the words on Eutopia are prosaic. They refuse rhythm, spilling across musical structure, ignorant of dynamic qualities, divorced from the language of verses, bridges, and choruses. Shunning performance, the words speak directly to the listener in a way that is impossible to ignore. We are encouraged not to sing along, but to listen; not to feel, but to think. The music functions more as a stage from which these voices – otherwise lacking a widespread audience – may be amplified. On Eutopia we hear words break free from the limiting constraints of music’s irrationality and primality. It is content finally given the opportunity to circumvent form.
This shift is not enough to make Eutopia immune from criticism, of course. For a start, more care could have been taken to ensure that the music works unerringly in aid of clarifying the spoken text. On the Young Fathers-featured track in particular, the Edinburgh trio’s vocals distract the ear from Professor Guy Standing’s engaging speech on the need for the establishment of a universal basic income. It is a struggle to prevent the mind from flitting agitatedly back and forth between the words on screen and the sung performances, and as a result it feels like the song isn’t quite sure where it wants your full attention to lie. Saul Williams’ track succeeds in this regard, his vocal performance framing Professor Gabriel Zucman’s words like a chorus. This difference between the two tracks may seem insignificant, but it is enough to make the latter sound more holistic than the former, a piece-in-itself rather than a sound clip haphazardly layered across an already completed song. (From a purely musical standpoint, however, the Young Fathers track is the best of the three – YF’s vocal harmonies and those gliding synthesisers towards the piece’s close are nothing short of gorgeous.)
Regarding the project’s visual aspects, I also wonder whether more could have been done to ensure the images fully serviced the experts’ arguments. The written text onscreen is a necessity, and it is a fair concession that too much visual stimuli would result in sheer sensory overload. The Young Fathers track does particularly well in matching the visuals with the text. The constantly morphing faces reflect the theme of universality central to Standing’s argument; it is thought-provoking without ever drawing too much attention away from the message being put forward. The endlessly shifting skull motifs on the Algiers-featured track, meanwhile, do point (however vaguely) to the the humanitarian crises that face us in the guise of Covid-19 and the global climate emergency. Still, the map of Kashmir which closes the Saul Williams track does leave me scrambling. Kashmir is no tax haven – not as far as I am aware, at least. Is this therefore a subtle reminder not to ignore the region’s ongoing occupation by Modi’s Indian forces? Or are the visuals there to serve purely aesthetic purposes, my preoccupation with them one more example of unnecessary over-analysis? I remain unsure.
These are, admittedly, minute criticisms. In general, Eutopia is an engaged artistic statement and a highly important work, prescient for the crises we currently face. The chaotic events of this past year have made it essential for us to start questioning the previously unquestioned, to examine the failures in our current systems and to establish the groundwork for constructing their replacements. The word ‘Eutopia‘ is defined as a place of “practical aspiration”, a state of possibility that exists in opposition to the “impossible concept” of Utopia. Massive Attack’s message is clear – the time for dreaming is over; we must start considering how a better future can be brought about through legislation and tangible change which seeks to divert us from our current course of environmental, economic, and social catastrophe. The arguments made by all three experts are apt and convincing. Not only do they highlight some of the greatest problems we currently face – massive wealth disparities, the global climate and health crises, concentration of economic and social power in the hands of a tiny minority – but they also provide the very solutions which we must start lobbying for without hesitation.
It may be a stretch to suggest that Massive Attack have created some revolutionary new form for political music with Eutopia. Perhaps a similar project has been completed before, by an artist as equally well-established as the Bristol group are – if so, I would be happy to hear it. But no matter the extent of Eutopia’s originality, this EP does behave differently from what we have come to expect of political music up until now. On Eutopia, critical engagement is placed on a higher rung than enjoyability. Meaningful messages are separated from musical forms, and this makes them essentially impossible to ignore. Eutopia exemplifies a new way in which music may be used as a medium for sharing ideas, whilst also interrogating the artist’s role in creating a brighter future. Instead of resorting to anti-establishment clichés which serve only to strengthen the profit-led system, artists can use their platforms to amplify expert and dissenting voices, those who would otherwise be shunned in our age of populism and mistrust. Eutopia therefore represents a new form for engaged artistry, one where political critique is no longer used to inform music, but where music is used to inform political critique.
A change in how artists use music requires a correlative shift in how we as listeners choose to engage with our music. When the message is presented to us as loudly and as clearly as it is on Eutopia, our only means of ignoring it is to cover our ears and pretend we don’t hear anything. Singing along absentmindedly is not an option – when presented with new ideas we have a responsibility to take note. For an engaged artistry to be effective it requires an engaged audience. When we start listening with our brains as much as we listen with our ears, we are making the choice to involve ourselves in a dialogue, to participate in an exchange of ideas. Only then can music regain its once revolutionary status, not as a commodity or an empty form of mindless entertainment, but as an artform, a means of instructing us and helping us consider the possibilities that exist for constructing a better world than the one we currently inhabit.
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester: O Books, 2009).
Massive Attack x Young Fathers – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-1YI-neupU
Massive Attack – CRISTIANA – ALGIERS – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoBYMAla9_8
Massive Attack x Saul Williams – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=balF4lf-Rt4