History Through Pop: Elbow’s “Leaders of the Free World”

This post (first post of the new year–a happy one to you all) inaugurates a new feature on this blog: History through Pop. Music, that is. In my collection of tunes, I’ve noticed a few songs that nod at, refer to, or expound on historical events, and this feature will examine those songs. Today’s tune: “Leaders of the Free World” from Elbow‘s 2005 record of the same name.

At one level, this song is a not-so-thinly veiled (and well-deserved) attack on Bush (“FECKLESS son,” as the lyrics go); a great performance at Seattle’s KEXP a few years ago makes that much clear. But there’s also a wonderful recognition of the importance of appreciating and understanding the past, particularly one line of the second verse:

“But I think we dropped the baton like the 60’s didn’t happen. Oh no.”

Guy Garvey (lyricist for Elbow) here seems to lament the failure–our failure–to realize the promises and potential of the 1960s, particularly the hope for peace. That failure, Garvey seems to be saying, is due to historical forgetfulness: “like the 60’s didn’t happen.” We have forgotten what people accomplished during the 1960s, such as forcing an end to the Vietnam War and bringing civil and voting rights to the south and beyond. Unfortunately, the only lessons that seem to have stuck are bad ones, such as how to appeal to racists without looking like a racist yourself (a mostly Republican strategy; see Nixon and Reagan; ), and how to diffuse the energy of mass protests by circumscribing those protests (where they can be held, for instance) while simultaneously appearing to embrace the exercise of “free speech,” gutted of content.

There’s another lesson from the 1960s, too, that I hope we are beginning to realize: the folly of carrying too far the concept of “the personal is political.” This became the refrain of feminists during the 1970s, and for good reason; gender relations, even/especially at the personal level of the home, shape power relations. But it went too far, and people gave up on changing society in favor of “revolutionizing” themselves, from running off to communes to embracing individual spirituality. People had different reasons for drawing inward: some honestly believed that the revolution had to start within one’s self; others were frustrated with the slow pace of economic and political reform; and many others had probably never really been committed to the project in the first place and had just been along for the personal ride/high. Whatever the reasons, the result was to effectively strip the 1960s of its collective energy–which actually had the power to bring about change–and replace it with individualism, which has proven to be far too susceptible to co-option by political and economic structures. This, I think, is how we “dropped the baton” of the 1960s, choosing the individual sprint to personal satisfaction instead of the team relay for reform and revolution. A powerful lesson. Cheers to Elbow for providing such a rocking tune to go along with it.

One thought on “History Through Pop: Elbow’s “Leaders of the Free World”

  1. Pingback: History Through Pop: Eminem’s “I Love the Way You Lie” « The Academy's Bench Warmer

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