Glastonbury and the Corbyn effect

Julia Alsop argues that Jeremy Corbyn is using the political nature of music to bolster his image as the ‘cool’ politician

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A single man, delivereing a performance on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, attracted the largest crowd the event has seen since The Rolling Stones performed in 2013. No, he wasn’t an international pop star, or an ageing rock icon, but the long-sock wearing Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who delivered an empowering speech urging festival goers to, “build bridges not walls.”

However, in amongst the joyous welcome he received from the festival crowd, public figures such as Nigel Farage announced how appalled they were at the apparent politicisation of a music festival, broadcast on national television. As a music student, I find this reaction strange – music is a way of representing our identities, political or otherwise.

A close relationship between political affiliation and music is nothing new. Take the concept of national anthems: ‘God Save the Queen’ is  forcefully pro-monarchy, underpinned by Christian ideology, and expresses ideas about how Britain should relate to other cultures that are rather questionable in the modern world. But this anthem is used at public events as a way of instilling a sees of national pride, and British identity.

Famously, musicologists have debated the role of political ideology (and possible rebellion) in Shostakovich’s music during the Soviet era, at a time when political leaders held tight control over what art was considered to be appropriately ‘Soviet’. The Communist Party  used music as a tool for establishing political unity, but it can also be a force for political change: think of The Sex Pistols in the 1970s, releasing songs such as ‘Anarchy in the UK’, with a fan base intent on questioning government and societal expectations.

Indeed, there are many historical examples of the success of music that seeks political and social change  – the global hip-hop movement (shout out to Prelims Music!) has revolved around minority demographics identifying with the struggles of Black Americans. In Tanzania, hip-hop has become a channel for speaking out against governmental corruption, the widespread AIDS epidemic, and for artists such as Zay B to empower young women to persevere with education, rather than slipping into prostitution.

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Now if we look back at British music festivals, Corbyn isn’t the only politician to be seen at one by any means. Whenever I attend Glyndebourne Summer Festival (at an opera house in East Sussex), I like to indulge in a tongue-in-cheek game of ‘spot the Tory MP’. The music itself is exceptional, and the audiences are diversifying all the time, but they are still dominated by the wealthy, white, and elderly. It is true that the Tories aren’t there explicitly making speeches with political motivation, but the obvious demographic alongside a few recognisable faces do indicate an element of class and political leaning that is no different to Glastonbury. Although, I must confess I found it particularly amusing spotting a notable politician who has voted against gay rights issues at an opera by Benjamin Britten, a famously gay composer of the last century.

So where does Glastonbury fit into this political and musical landscape? It has not shied away from political musicians performing in the past. The Rolling Stones, who fielded a spectacular audience in 2013, have never been adverse to discussing politics, and Mick Jagger has famously described himself as an anarchist.

The real reason that people have complained about the politicisation of Glastonbury is because they recognize how powerful a tool it can be in the hands of a politician like Corbyn. He is the only political leader of the moment who seems to be able to appeal to the younger voters en masse and, if the General Election results and turnout of young people are anything to go by, he is going from strength to strength.

Jeremy Corbyn has cultivated the image of the unexpected bonafide ‘cool’ politician, and perhaps Britain’s first for a significant amount of time. Us Brits frequently gawp at Justin Trudeau in rainbow ‘Eid Mubarak’ socks, twirling through the streets at Pride in major Canadian cities (could I have a bigger crush?), or cringe at David Cameron as Barack Obama’s effortless backhand shot causes him to sweatily hang off  a ping-pong table. Corbyn is not perfect, but he does have a public persona that is at ease with itself  – whether it’s when confiding that the naughtiest thing he’s ever done is far too naughty to say (wheat farmers needn’t worry), or engaging with residents of Grenfell Tower, or attending a music festival popular with younger generations. And it seems that for the moment at least, it is those with whom we identify that we ultimately vote for.

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Corbyn’s speech at Glastonbury was about, “building bridges not walls”, and this is a message that many musical acts also strive for: creating a community of shared identity and values. The music and politics of Glastonbury are intertwined with the identities of the majority of British youth. But whilst this identity is associated with young people, it is not defined by them, but also by an ideology of progression and innovation, as can be seen in the new musical acts appearing each year.

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