18/01/2013 11:13 | By Stephen Jones, contributor, MSN Music

Thom Yorke’s David Cameron rant is dangerous tribalism

Stephen Jones argues it's time for musicians to stop the name-calling when it comes to politics...


Thom Yorke (© PA)

Twitter was awash with faux shock yesterday as Radiohead front-man Thom Yorke claimed he’d ‘sue the living s*** out of’ David Cameron were he to use his music in an election campaign. Punchy stuff, but naturally the 44-year old singer is far from the first musician to speak out in these sorts of terms since David Cameron began revealing his surprisingly cool taste in music some years ago.

There were, of course, those standard bearers of political activism, Keane, whose drummer Richard Hughes tweeted in 2010: “Told the Tories played Keane at their manifesto launch. Am horrified. To be clear - we were not asked. I will not vote for them.”

"The Tories, it’s true, don’t have a long list of musical spokespeople"

The Tories, it’s true, don’t have a long list of musical spokespeople, and that’s unlikely to change given recent unpopular cuts to the arts, among other things. But, to me, this outburst from Yorke is slightly out of character.

Never one to be pigeonholed, Yorke has resisted speaking explicitly in favour of any major political party during his career. Instead, he’s generally chosen the far more admirable path of attacking both sides – focusing on issues rather than party politics - whether through music (one example being the veiled New Labour/Iraq war protest of You and Whose Army?) or through his admirable work campaigning against climate change.

All in all, it’s proved a more authentic form of activism and has meant that when he opens his mouth on political issues, he’s usually worth listening to.

That’s why I was a little surprised to read yesterday’s reports of what he had to say in Dazed & Confused. "I can't say I love the idea of a banker liking our music, or David Cameron,” he told the magazine, “…But I also equally think, who cares?’

In fairness to him, that latter ‘who cares?’ does soften things slightly, but the point he’s making is clear: to many people it may as well read ‘this music is not for you’.

It reminded me of the equally unimpressive comments of former Smiths guitarist and fellow indie icon Johnny Marr, who tweeted emphatically earlier in the PM’s reign: ‘David Cameron, stop saying that you like The Smiths, no you don't. I forbid you to like it.

"How sad it would be if a young Tory supporter felt they couldn’t listen to Kid A"

When I was a flag-waving teenager I might have been impressed with this sort of vague tribal politics from one of my idols. Now I just think it’s dangerous. Forgive me for extrapolating slightly, but how sad it would be if a young Tory supporter (there are some out there, honest) felt they couldn’t listen to Kid A – for my money the greatest album of all time - just because they happen to believe in free market economics.

Speak up, but don’t point fingers

More seriously, I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for saying that musicians, or celebrities of any kind, should be prevented from speaking their mind on politics. That’s what we call debate, and it’s done pretty well for us, on and off, for a few centuries now. Equally, as a musician myself I’d be furious if a song I’d written was used to promote something without my consent.

It’s quite another thing, however, to effectively banish those you don’t agree with from liking your music altogether. Part of the joy of music is the ability for any listener to interpret it however they like. Indeed, if asked, many artists themselves would argue that even the creator has no right to say whose interpretation is right or wrong once their work reaches its audience.

Far from identifying with and celebrating the working classes (as, at least, bands such as The Smiths and The Jam once truly did), many musicians nowadays seem simply to be reversing the roles in a class war they profess to hate; often in the attempt to chase some sort of cheap cultural relevance. Picking on a ‘posho’ doesn’t teach those that look up to an artist anything other than to point fingers and, worse, exclude those that think differently to them.

Do musicians have a duty to make their political position known? Not at all, but they can’t have it both ways. Thom, Johnny (and any other rock stars who happen to be reading), please spare us the tribalism. It won’t make you more popular.

NB: While writing this, Labour MP and shadow minister Diane Abbott just tweeted Yorke’s comments, as if to say: ‘look Radiohead don’t like the Tories – nor should you’. If that doesn’t prove the point, I’m not sure what does.

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