A specter is haunting Britain — more specifically, the specter of ska. Since its release last week, the song "Liar Liar GE2017,” by a band called Captain SKA, has quickly ascended the U.K. singles chart, catching up with the likes of the Justin Bieber remix of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito.” The "liar" referenced in the title is British prime minister Theresa May, the second woman ever to lead the nation's Conservative Party, who is currently in the midst of a heated reelection campaign. Like Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to lead the party, May has shown that women in positions of power can be just as unsavory as men; after initially opposing the vote to leave the European Union, she now calls Brexit a “great national mission." Captain SKA, true to the long tradition of British musicians taking the absolute piss out of their political leaders, beg to differ.
"Liar Liar" can't be played on British radio because of rules forbidding explicitly partisan statements during an election season, but it's been widely disseminated elsewhere. You can find the video on YouTube, where it has well over a million views. It starts with a long, dark shot of the London skyline with a line of text stating, “3.7 million children currently live in poverty in the U.K.” as somber, low ska horns blow. “By 2020 this number is predicted to rise by a further 1 million.” A guitar part drops in over a video clip of May promising to “build a better Britain.” The quote ends with a sinister reverb on “Britain.” Then Captain SKA’s vocalist comes in: “She’s a liar, liar!”
Who is Captain SKA? Research reveals they are a group of London session players who decided, under the guidance of trumpeter/producer Jake Painter, that musicians weren't making enough noise in response to the right-leaning government's so-called austerity measures. On the song, lead singer Adeolla Shyllon croons, “Nurses going hungry, schools in decline / I don’t recognize this broken country of mine.” Over footage of the prime minister belly-laughing, Shyllon adds, “They’re having a laugh / Let's show them the door / Then cut the rich, not the poor.”
The video continues to show footage of May smiling and laughing while listing social-safety-net programs that May has cut. It ends with an admonishment of “TORIES OUT” and the election date of June 8; at one point, Shyllon pleads that “people rising up is the only plan.” Proceeds of the song are going to the People’s Assembly Against Austerity, an initiative begun in 2013 whose demands include rent control, living wages for all, and an end to austerity cuts on social services.
The version of “Liar Liar” that's climbing the charts is in fact a reworking of a version from 2010, which Painter wrote to protest massive public-spending cuts. The new lyrics are tailored specifically to May, listing her crimes such as the underfunding of the National Health Service and cuts to police departments and education. May’s 180-degree turn on Brexit is also brought up as the damning evidence that she is a political opportunist and supreme hypocrite. The band believes the song’s success proves that people are hungry to overturn a system of “government of the rich, for the rich.”
What’s more surprising in 2017 — a populist return to progressive leftist politics, or a fourth wave of ska? Ska’s long history of fusing musical styles across genre and racial lines makes it a natural vector for political content. And what better way to respond to the wave of xenophobia that has swept Europe and the world at large lately, culminating in Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, than with a genre steeped in cross-cultural fusion? The first wave of ska is thought to have been born in Jamaica out of local musicians inspired by American R&B, and the two-tone ska of the 1970s was a largely U.K.-based chemical reaction between first-wave ska and punk, with many of its bands featuring racially diverse lineups. Third-wave ska, in turn, fused two-tone’s horns and skanking sound to California pop-punk energy and reflected the racial diversity of 1990s California.
Ska has never really gone away — there’s always one more pickle left to skank. But “Liar Liar” is the biggest chart reappearance for the genre since the ’90s, even if it’s more of a watered-down, Amy Winehouse/Dawn Penn–styled pop skank than a pure two-tone tribute. And just because a song endorsing a political message is charting doesn’t necessarily mean a real-world effect is forthcoming. Progressiveness on the pop chart doesn’t often translate into tangible change. There’s always someone who ignores the lyrics and just likes the groove. As for the effect of “Liar Liar” on next week's election? I’m sure it will get some credit if Jeremy Corbyn manages to pick it up, pick it up, pick it up.