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The political importance of Billy Bragg

Last month, punk-poet Billy Bragg made headlines as he made the decision to change the lyrics of his classic single ‘Sexuality’, updating the words for the modern age. Halfway through his UK tour, Bragg came to the conclusion that it was time to alter his creation. The result was that his line: “Just because you’re gay, I won’t turn you away / If you stick around, I’m sure that we can find some common ground” was changed to: “Just because you’re they, I won’t turn you away / If you stick around, I’m sure that we can find the right pronoun”.

The move prompted fury from gender-critical activists, a debate which resulted in Bragg penning an op-ed in the New Statesman, a piece in which he discussed at length the reasons behind him taking the decision to update the song’s lyrics. “Last week, I found myself under fire from gender-critical activists on Twitter, who were agitated to discover that I had changed the lyrics to my 1991 single ‘Sexuality’ when performing the song live on tour,” Bragg explained. “Although music cannot change the world – it has no agency – it can change your perspective and challenge your prejudices,” he added.

He proceeded to deconstruct the arguments against his decision to change the lyrics, explaining how “gays and lesbians” have nearly the same “benefits and protections” as everybody else but, as he was keen to point out, that the transgender community remains marginalised. Bragg argued that this is not only by homophobes, but those within “liberal circles” as well. In making his point, Bragg evoked the punching down argument that is often used in explaining the confusing societal standing that the trans community are in. 

His conclusion was an important one, as the musician stated: “I’m not erasing the gay community when I change the lyrics to ‘Sexuality’, I’m simply updating them to reflect the changing times we live in. My hope is to encourage others of my generation to do the same with their long-cherished notions of an inclusive society”. This balanced and objective perception Bragg espoused shows just how important of a figure the musician has been for British and alternative culture since he first broke onto the scene with 1983’s ‘A New England’ and his debut album, Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy.

Effectively emerging out of the punk and new wave scene of the late 1970s, in terms of ethos, Bragg was heavily influenced by The Clash, a band that he saw perform on their 1977 ‘White Riot Tour’ and then the historic Rock Against Racism festival of April 1978. Across his career, Bragg has explained how ‘Rock Against Racism’ was an important turning point in his life, and has cited it as the moment where he first truly understood music as a tool of political activism. Being surrounded by like-minded people helped to form his left-wing views and, afterwards, he was inspired to challenge injustice wherever he came across it, as prior to it he’d “turned a blind eye” to casual racism.

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Over the years, Bragg has consistently named The Clash as a huge influence on his ethos, in both the musical and extra-musical. Of Joe Strummer and the band, he said: “It wasn’t so much their lyrics as what they stood for and the actions they took. That became really important to me. Phil Collins might write a song about the homeless, but if he doesn’t have the action to go with it he’s just exploiting that for a subject. I got that from the Clash, and I try to remain true to that tradition as best I can”.

A humanitarian since his experience at Rock Against Racism, Bragg has been an outspoken opponent of fascism, racism, bigotry, sexism and homophobia and other injustices. This unrelenting quest for good has brought him into conflict with a whole host of undesirables. In the 2000s, he frequently came into battle with the British National Party (BNP) when challenging their oppressive doctrine at byelections and protests. In a 2004 Guardian article, he said: “The British National Party would probably make it into a parliament elected by proportional representation, too. It would shine a torch into the dirty little corner where the BNP defecate on our democracy, and that would be much more powerful than duffing them up in the street – which I’m also in favour of”.

Although many perceive Bragg as plainly a militant member of the left-wing, he’s so much more than that, and over his career, the musician has consistently shown compassion for those he’s diametrically opposed to, something that a lot of people on both sides of the argument could learn from. 

His critiques of Margaret Thatcher and her government are well-known, but after the ex-Prime Minister passed away in 2013, he urged the public not to celebrate her death. He said: “The death of Margaret Thatcher is nothing more than a salient reminder of how Britain got into the mess that we are in today. Of why ordinary working people are no longer able to earn enough from one job to support a family; of why there is a shortage of decent affordable housing… of why cynicism and greed became the hallmarks of our society. Raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady changes none of this. The only real antidote to cynicism is activism. Don’t celebrate – organise!”

As important musically as he is personally, Billy Bragg is a national treasure. Consistent, courteous and intellectual, Bragg has showed that to fight for what you believe in, you don’t have to be an arsehole; rather you can be a good human being and still achieve your desires. There’s something to be said for filling your music with something palpable, the essence of the genuine self, something that the vacuous artists of today could do with hearing. 

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