Why Scotland Has a Reputation for Making Potent, Political Pop
This summer, a major exhibition and the annual Edinburgh International Festival has said as much – but how much truth is there to that idea?
Young Fathers, Chvrches and Mogwai (L-R: Photos by Julia Noni, Danny Clinch and Brian Sweeney)
Every so often, an idea circulates enough times to turn it into the stuff of urban legend. Things like ‘honey is as good a cough suppressant as cough syrup,’ or ‘Tyrells are Tory crisps’ or ‘Vaseline can double as lube when you’re using latex condoms’ (that last one is definitely not a thing, please steer clear). This summer, one refrain kept cropping up in music: there’s something particularly potent about Scottish pop groups. Fergus Linehan, the director of the Edinburgh International Festival (and an Irishman), reckons as much. “I mean, for a country of 5 million people,” he begins, his voice trailing off as we talk. “I could name 20 really good Scottish bands without drawing a breath. Scotland’s just really strong at pop music.”
The festival’s Light on the Shore events – featuring acts from The Jesus and Mary Chain and Mogwai to The Vaselines and The Pastels – are one of many that have recently allowed Scots to take pride in their home-grown pop. In June, you may have scrolled or flipped past articles about The National Museum of Scotland’s exhibition Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop, most of which focused on the diversity of Scotland’s music scene.
But, all these bands and so many others share the same thing: they are perceived as being distinctly political. Does it mean they all are though? Scotland, especially since the high turnout for the 2014 independence referendum, has been described as a politically active country, often with a bit of romanticism. Might automatically labelling Scotland’s pop as political show that we don't totally understand the complexity of its music scenes? After all, the arts only reflect the society in which they flourish: some will be opinionated, some will avoid talking about politics altogether, because they think it’s none of their business to influence people in that way, or maybe simply because they don’t care. How political is Scotland’s pop music really?
Sure, some of the most successful Scottish pop artists in the past have been vocal, in particular in the 1980s in a context of wide-spread Tory mistrust. Margaret Thatcher’s policies decimated Scotland’s industry and the poll tax in 1988 created an unprecedented wave of anger. So naturally, anti-Thatcherism remained solid and “was strongly represented in popular culture in a way it wasn’t in England”, as Jeremy Tranmer, a Contemporary British History and Politics lecturer at France’s Lorraine University, tells me. This explains why bands like Orange Juice and Aztec Camera supported the miners’ strike in 1984 and 1985 by playing at benefit concerts, and others like Simple Minds denounced Thatcher in their songs.
Thirty years later, Scotland debated leaving the UK altogether, with some of the nation’s well-known artists erring strongly on the side of voting Yes to independence. Stuart Braithwaite, Mogwai’s guitarist, is one of them. “We’re political but not political as Billy Bragg for example”, he explains, an obvious nod to the fact that the majority of Mogwai’s showgaze-y songs don’t feature lyrics. “But as individuals, the band members are political, we express opinions”.
Braithwaite and his bandmates are in similar company. Craig and Charlie Reid of The Proclaimers (yeah, the “500 Miles” band) gave £10,000 to the Yes campaign in 2014, while Franz Ferdinand, Amy MacDonald, Mogwai and Frightened Rabbit performed a huge gig in Edinburgh just days before the vote to galvanise Yes supporters. “The pro-independence campaign put forward a lot of progressive values, such as getting rid of nuclear weapons, and that appealed to a lot of artists who are mostly left-wing”, Braithwaite says. “That’s probably why a majority of musicians are pro-independence”.
It’s easy to see working-class perspectives through a rose-tinted lens that assumes they’re inherently progressive. Linehan reckons a lot of Scottish pop really does tell local social stories in deprived communities, though, where “You definitely feel that late 70s to 80s anger and social justice. It has a kind of independence.” Living in unprivileged social classes may be why some young people turned to music. “Making music doesn’t require large amounts of money”, Braithwaite says, adding there were also many places where young people could play.
Laurence Estanove, a Paris-Descartes University lectures currently writing a book on Glasgow’s music scene, also highlights the economic and social dimension of Scottish pop music. “Pop music is popular music, in the sense of the people’s music,” he tells me. “It’s the music of the majority. Glasgow, more than Edinburgh, has a strong historical socialist identity, that is bound to resonate in its music”. On top of that, “this experience of living on the dole has inspired many Scottish artists, and also helped them financially to get into music”. Tranmer also makes the analogy that, “music had the same role as football for some young Scots: it was a way of succeeding”.
That being said, let’s make something clear: Scotland has produced many politically active musicians, but “they were a minority. Political musicians are always a minority in the music community, even if they talk a lot in the media”, Tranmer continues. Maybe this is just the way our society now works: you don’t meet that many people who are active members of a political party or a charity, or who have already attended a political rally. Even The Proclaimers are now complaining that political music has disappeared.
When you look at current Scottish music that’s doing well the country’s borders, you shake a political mixed bag. It becomes clear that being vocal about politics in your actual lyrics isn’t the same as holding, and sharing, political views too. Take Chvrches. The synthpop group categorically refused to endorse any side of the 2014 Scottish independence debate. But, at the same time, Lauren Mayberry speaks out about LGBT rights and feminism in interviews and on social media. Calvin Harris’ broad-stroked, chart-aimed songs don’t back a party or address grave global issues, but he tweeted he was very upset when the Tories used one of his songs in their 2017 party conference. Arguably Young Fathers are one of the most political by virtue of just being themselves, from their multiracial line-up to their visuals and refusal to adhere to one genre definition. In 2015, the band said they didn’t want to be labelled as political, but they do address topics such as racism and identity. This confirms what Toni Morrison once said: “All good art is political! There is none that isn’t.”
Something can be said of the fact that Scotland grew an independent music industry, somewhat separate from the London-centric one designed to be destination for bands and musicians from around the UK.“ The bands tend to hang about up here or they keep on coming back here”, Linehan notes. By the 90s, labels like Postcard Records shone a “spotlight over Glasgow which attracted the London music industry,” Estanove says, “with people from majors flying over en masse to Glasgow to find the latest sensation.”
Ultimately, there’s no simple answer here. Trying to squash decades of music from one country into a neat category feels a bit silly. And so, nudging various artists into a single ‘political’ and ‘potent’ definition isn’t useful if just taken at face value. That being said, Scottish rock and pop have seemed to lean into their Scottishness more since the 60s – until then, the notion of Scots singing in their own accents – like the Proclaimers – or in Gaelic, as Runrig did, seemed about an enticing as a cold deep-fried Mars bar. Broadly speaking, energetic local scenes normalised Scottish culture, and let some people see their identities portrayed in a way that wasn’t derogatory or sneering.
So if you want Scottish pop to be political in the militant meaning of the word, then you’ll be disappointed. But polis, the Greek root of the word, also means “affairs of the cities” and “related to citizens”. In that sense, Scotland’s pop music is unashamedly political, carrying with it individual experiences and tragedies, the soul of its towns and cities, the dreariness of its weather, the humour, the anger and the ambition of its youth. And that’s an urban legend worth reading, at least a bit.
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