Popular music needs to become political again

Woody-Guthrie21.jpg
Woody Guthrie

Like it or not, Pharell Williams's "Happy" is likely to be the top-selling single of 2014. And yes, its buoyant '60s soul vibe and simple, positive message is modern pop perfection. But scanning the rest of this year's biggest hits, one is struck by a consistent theme: All of these songs are distinctly apolitical. Contemporary slang and the loosening of certain taboos aside, they could have been written in 2002, 1992, even 1982.

Granted, popular music is supposed to provide some kind of escape from everyday life. However, shouldn't it also sometimes reflect what is going on in the wider world at the time of its release? We are not living in a post-Auto-Tune utopia. Persistent economic problems, a deliberately obstructionist U.S. Congress, NSA surveillance, an expanding underclass -- these are issues that seem ripe for mining by contemporary musicians.

Songs that spoke for the masses, questioned the system, and pointed the finger at the wrongdoers brought social relevance to popular music for decades, from the folk anthems of Woody Guthrie in the '40s to the socially conscious hip-hop of the late '80s and early '90s.

That deified decade, the 1960s, is usually seen as the apex of it all, when the struggle of the civil rights movement and the quagmire of the Vietnam War incited some of the era's greatest songs. The singer-songwriter fare of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez that epitomized the early '60s was drowned out in the latter half of the decade by the more visceral and downright angry screams of Country Joe and the Fish, the MC5, and even the Rolling Stones. By the beginning of the '70s, Marvin Gaye asked "What's Going On?" and had perhaps the most political Billboard topper in music history. America had lost its way, and the hitmakers of the day told us so.

Socially conscious soul continued to muse about the plight of black America well into the '70s. The hedonism of disco muted the trend, before political rock returned with the howls of punk -- a pissed-off counterpoint to the delirium of the dance floor.

In the next decade, rap and hip-hop picked up the mantle for black America, as Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, and NWA countered the mostly superficial nature of '80s pop by spitting rhymes about self-empowerment, standing up to oppression, and the often-ignored social ills of the Reagan era.

By the beginning of the 1990s, that kind of opinionated, black-power-inspired hip-hop had morphed into gangster rap. Of course, it was easier for media and government to represent the likes of Tupac as a danger to society, indoctrinating America's youth, black and white, with violent fantasies, flaunting the thug life as something to aspire to.
In reality, Tupac could instill hope and encouragement as well as rebellion, but such nuances seemed too complex for ignorant politicians and greedy record execs. Those who had the power to change things wanted to deal with Tupac about as much as they did the social conditions that created him.


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17 comments
Stefanie Megan Brown
Stefanie Megan Brown

So....we made a mistake when we replaced Public Enemy & KRS-One & Queen Latifah with LMFAO & Lil' Jon & Nikki Minaj? ......oops.

deepcyclegarage
deepcyclegarage

My question is how can Bob Dylan support a war criminal? Masters of War indeed! A never ending loop of Black Sabbath's War Pigs seems in order. The other day when O-Bomb-ya sent more troops to Irac all the news was about Biber and some hacked celeb' boobie and penis pics!? The anti war "left" up and left when Obama got in office? And if ya bring up the larger war, more deaths, ect. the "Lefties" always say "well he didn't start it!"......... Music with substance will not get air play on the corporate owned media.....

Arielle Prinzing
Arielle Prinzing

City Pages should write an article about the many local artists who DO have a message. There are a lot of local hip hop artists with not only a message to share, but with talent and passion. Let's see an article about them!

Todd Wardrope
Todd Wardrope

Oh man. What's going on? is your idea of political?

Tim Brokaw Brackett
Tim Brokaw Brackett

When five or six old white guys are deciding what commercial radio will play, the odds are pop music will not get political again.

Sarah Holliday
Sarah Holliday

For the most part the deep messages are hiding in the music that the mainstream media eschews. Ever hear of the band Snog?

Justin Tha Realist
Justin Tha Realist

Right I miss that from hip hop now its nicki minaj lil Wayne iggy jeezy either talking bout partying or being in the trap

perfumemonsters
perfumemonsters

@citypages MB the lack of political themed songs iza response to all the new ways we can xpress our dumb opinions?

Matthew Gramlich
Matthew Gramlich

I can't believe the author got paid to write this nonsense.

Angela Eide
Angela Eide

We need some rock and roll artists in the charts! Enough with the prefab pop stars singing about absolutely nothing. Music should be inspiring and have a message!

Benjamin Gray
Benjamin Gray

As much as I dislike most pop music, I think it's fine the way it is. People need happy things. Or things to get drunk and tear up the dance floor to.

Dan Krzykowski
Dan Krzykowski

Hey, do you have any more articles about the Juggalo festival?

peevesfacebookemail
peevesfacebookemail

i'd agree the culture at large could stand to be more class conscious but if you get too worried about your music having good politics, you're not seeking art, you're instead looking for propaganda

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