Following the success of his debut album, Hypersonic Missiles, Geordie singer-songwriter Sam Fender has been touring the UK and sharing the uncut insight into working class life that has gained him such popularity within catchy guitar-driven songs. I caught him at his show in Glasgow in November. Fender’s crowd is diverse; there were plenty of middle-aged fans, as well as Glaswegian lads, and the expected 16-year-old indie girls. They all come together in support of the message that Fender carries: that which criticises the establishment and gives voice to the unheard northern working class in all its glories and flaws.
Fender’s song “Dead Boys” hauntingly questions the high male suicide rate in his hometown of North Shields, inspired by Fender’s personal experience of this loss. Within the anthemic repetitive chorus, Fender desperately asks why this issue is never discussed. With the crowd in Glasgow screaming the lyrics, Fender has expanded awareness and embedded such taboos in new pop culture. In “Spice,” Fender explores the narrative of a promising male leaving school, who then turns to drug-dealing as a result of the absence of guidance and support entering the world of work. “Spice up your life,” Fender chants in the chorus, “who would want anything else?”–highlighting the hope offered through narcotics with dark undertones of hindsight. Whilst performing this song, grotesque, though rather humorous, illustrations of Trump and Johnson–their heads attached to the bodies of evil creatures–flash onto the back screen, casting blame upon these figures, who Fender suggests could be responsible for these epidemics through lack of adequate support systems for young people.
With such political undertones, Fender’s performance has led me to question the role that musical icons play within greater societal issues. Is merely stating a political stance enough, and is it the place of these figures to express any at all? Many more high-profile artists seem hesitant to express such views, in fear of being divisive or distracting from their purpose as a musician. To exemplify, Taylor Swift famously retreated from publicly holding a political position until the 2018 US midterms, allegedly encouraged by her record label to abstain so as to preserve her image as an uninvolved “good-girl” and maintain her wide audience. Through her absence of opinion, however, many press voices painted her as a Republican: apparently, the only possible explanation for her silence. Now a vocal democrat, Swift participates by advocating for LGBTQ rights, both in the content of her songs (“You Need to Calm Down”) and through donation and support of the Equality Bill. Is it right that Swift is using her platform created through previously unpolitical music to push an agenda? Yet, would ignoring the potential her voice could have to implement change be a waste of power? Regarding Swift, it seems only right for her to contribute her large accumulation of wealth towards something more meaningful, but emerging artists such as Sam Fender don’t yet have the means to produce material change on such a level. For them, is merely voicing an opinion enough?
In his song “White Privilege,” Fender acknowledges the potential hypocrisy of him being seen to represent the interests of the northern working class. He stresses the issues he wishes to solve, casting blame on the government and the right-wing media, but also criticising “smug liberal arrogance,” finishing the song by stating that he is purely “mansplain[ing]:” “Cause I’m a white male, full of shame.” The addition of this song to Fender’s album has been deemed cringe-worthy and attention-grabbing by some critics, yet the touch of nuance to Fender’s otherwise unwavering political message is appreciated. Even he questions his ability to speak for a larger group without becoming problematic, but, in desperation, speaks regardless, dismissing other means for change, such as online petitions, for their performative and removed nature.
So, is providing an alternative narrative all that artists like Fender can do? Does Fender’s success in pushing this political message rely on his genuine working-class background and personal experience of inadequate policy? Would it be okay for him to express this political stance if he were middle class and removed from struggle? Surely, he already entered this bracket following his success in the music industry. I think that it is easy to be sceptical of artists’ integrity and motivation, but an increase in voices that diverge from the dogmatic media message should be encouraged. The form of music is a brilliant vessel too, due to its wide audience and accessibility. The re-examination of norms should not be limited to the ivory-tower of academics in highly cryptic journals. Ultimately, if the idols of young people are rethinking society, rather than reinforcing the status quo, why shouldn’t the youth have a go themselves?