We have probably all heard enough about Ed Sheeran by now, a 26-year-old singer/song-writer who recently made chart history when he became the first ever artist to have two songs simultaneously debut in the US top 10. Given that his newly released album ÷ swamped the charts, controlling 9 of the top 10 spots, it is fair to say that UK pop music is currently defined by this one artist. We are currently at Ed Sheeran saturation point, however, he may go on to influence pop culture by writing hits for other artists, such as Justine Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’, OneDirection’s ‘Little Things’ and Taylor Swift’s ‘Everything’s Changed’. What this says about modern pop culture, is not very reassuring. Firstly, it is evidence of a broken system, where power has been taken from the individual musician and given to the commercial music giants or those few fortunate artists who have their backing. Secondly, it shows that music rises to popularity not because of its artistic merit, but through clever marketing, promotion and branding strategies. The consequences of this system is huge damage to multiculturalism, diversity and opportunities for struggling, independent musicians.
Ed Sheeran’s chart topping love songs contain inspirational lyrics such as “The club isn’t the best place to find a lover so the bar is where I go” and the phrase “Come on, be my baby, come on” repeated eight times. In this period of monumental and concerning political change, many cultural figures, including Brian Cox, have spoken out in need for the re-birth of the protest song. Catlin Moran recently claimed on desert island discs that “If we did have a band like Pulp singing songs like ‘Common People’ we might not have Brexiteded”. This may be an overly-optimistic statement, but the influence of culture shouldn’t be under estimated; children learn from books we give them to read, people are affected by the TV shows and films they watch and the songs they listen to. People connect through the arts, films, music, art, literature all form our cultural identity and people share their tastes and preferences along with the values and beliefs they embody. So perhaps if the UK top 10 was filled with protest singers trying to derail Brexit, impeach Donald Trump, provide shelter for refugees and fighting for equality and diversity, then we would be on our way to creating a more compassionate and tolerant society.
Nonetheless, the problem isn’t that there aren’t protest singers out there writing songs and performing against the rise of right wing populism and xenophobia. At nearly every protest event that I have performed at I have also encountered other musicians and I have watched countless videos on youtube from famous protest singers such as Billy Bragg as well as many unknown song-writers like me recording in their bedrooms. There is a long history of protest songs in folk music, such as Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome”, which are resurfacing at protest rallies. And contemporary folk musicians are continuing to release protest songs, personal favourites of mine include Nancy Kerr’s ‘Ginger Bread’ and Isembard’s Wheel’s version of the ‘Union Minor’s Song’. I was absolutely overjoyed to discover a song written by Passenger called “A Kindly Reminder” that features the lyric, “It’s not okay to grab women by the vagina.” However, Passenger’s brave release is a rarity amongst musicians that are pop chart successes. It isn’t that musicians and artists aren’t concerned by the developments in politics, the problem is that the industry is driven by money and greed, this prevents them from expressing their views because of the risk of damaging their fan base. In this scenario, Ed Sheeran has shown it is much safer to sing about how he’s “in love with the shape of you” (because he couldn’t possibly love you for your mind or political opinions).
However, it’s difficult to know how to challenge the current system which is a product of a capitalist society because that also isn’t going to change in a hurry. The answer is that change must come from the grass roots and work its way up. Commercial giants and media moguls aren’t easily going to relinquish their control of the market share of the creative industries. So consumers will have to make a conscious effort to source music and arts locally, support independent musicians and community events. In return they will be rewarded with much more meaningful cultural experiences in intimate venues where they will have the opportunity to meet artists, get to know them on a personal level and watch them grow and develop. This would also greatly help the growth of diversity in culture as more individuals are given an opportunity to express their creative talent and no single individual is allowed to dominate. The growth of platforms such as ‘So Far Sounds’ which allows music lovers to host musicians at live events in their homes is somewhat reassuring. The ‘European House Concert Hub’ is another, international example of a community of arts lovers who are rejecting popular culture and celebrating, the local, the unique and the diversity which absolutely does exist in our society. We just need to see more efforts to champion it.