If pop musicians are extraordinarily lucky, they have a moment. Sometimes it lasts a season, sometimes a bit longer, but in general, singers and songwriters tend to be time-stamped and sealed in their original era. But every so often, someone sticks it out long enough to become relevant again, irrespective of nostalgia.
Billy Bragg was already a gifted writer of tough and tender love songs ("A New England" and "St. Swithin's Day" are evergreen classics) when he was politicized by the labor crisis of Margaret Thatcher's Britain, specifically the miners' strike of 1984–85. Galvanized against the social momentum of conservatism, he formed the hard-left musicians' collective Red Wedge and became a dedicated student and practitioner of the socialist folk tradition—musically ("There Is Power in a Union") and politically.
Bragg's music of the period was stirring, smart, and emotional. On albums like Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, Workers Playtime, and The Internationale, his gift for simple, indelible melody allowed him to make blunt calls to action that could bring even Reagan's America to its feet. See: "Help Save the Youth of America" or "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward."
His best political songs were like a conduit for the history and promise of protest music from Lead Belly to the Clash. And he never stopped writing funny, heart-wrenching love songs.
As the 1980s gave way to the prosperity gospel of Clinton and Blair, Bragg's pop moment passed. But he never stopped touring and never stopped standing with the people he'd always spoken up for.
Fast-forward to 2017, and the prevailing anxiety that a divided left will ever find a means of reversing the politics of selfishness, ignorance, racism, and division that seem fully entrenched on both sides of the Atlantic. Into this moment steps Billy Bragg, whose unwavering commitment to the struggle is more resonant now than it has been for decades.
To hear him extol the practical value of socialist principles—which is to say, collective provision as a necessary function of any democratic government worthy of the name—is invigorating. Songs may not change the world, but they can grease the gears. And unlike so many people making noise about this subject right now, Bragg (armed with an unimprovable East London accent) makes it sound not only like common sense, but like it's right around the corner if we only pull together. There's no greater asset in an age that invites cynicism.
His certitude—powered by 30 years of experience—really helps ease the disorienting sense that you're the only sane person left in the fucking world. Which is also what the best pop music has always done.
Though you can't really separate the message from the messenger, it's also worth mentioning that Bragg is one of the most charismatic, entertaining, and hilarious performers on the circuit. It's not like there's ever been a bad time to see a Billy Bragg show. But at the moment, it feels like there's never been a better one.