Popular Music Needs to Become Political Again

Categories: Feature

Woody-Guthrie21.jpg
Woody Guthrie
Like it or not, Pharell Williams' "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.

See also: The 50 Most NYC Albums Ever

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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59 comments
TheRuggedMale.com
TheRuggedMale.com

Good Article Steve ... will share on our page. You would think with all the mediums available to promote your music, it would inspire more creativity.  Not many of the artists on the top Billboard Albums this year experienced any sort of strife in their sheltered life and perhaps that also contributes to it.  Need More Woody, Dylan, Lou Reed and Chuck D!

SteveVitoff
SteveVitoff

@JimFarberMusic we live in intense and demanding times, yet today's popular music is blah blah blah blahhhhhh. it isnt helping

Charles Mitchell
Charles Mitchell

Just because "white" rock is not political, it doesn't mean pop music is political. Listen to a lot of Hip Hop.

FormerNewYorker
FormerNewYorker

We should look north of the border for political songs, like the new song by Nickleback 'Edge Of The Revolution', an excelent anthem for social change.

Manny Lopez
Manny Lopez

Nah, when Green Day was political everyone claimed that they sucked.

Jonathan Welch
Jonathan Welch

America is being wussified it's hip to be politically correct.

Paul Halliwell
Paul Halliwell

Contemporary music reflects the belief systems of the young people they cater for. We currently have a completely unpoliticized amalgam of young people throughout USA, Canada and Europe.

Dan Grossman
Dan Grossman

I don't care what Iggy Azalea thinks about anything.

Frances Torres
Frances Torres

Agree with Collin punk rock all the lirics are politics status

Joseph Duke
Joseph Duke

You can't make money singing against The Man, man.

Mike Miczek
Mike Miczek

It's out there. Become the media and cover it.

Colin Feldmann
Colin Feldmann

Ummm.... If you look hard enough Punk Rock is alive and well. Refuse to become part of the mainstream

Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Lauryn Hill's "Black Rage" is political and brilliant.

Linda Clark Glambert
Linda Clark Glambert

Dear VV: this is an excellent question! I guess we all have to keep playing Marvin's prolific album "What's Going On" until someone steps up and answers this question!!!

Melinda Matkowsky
Melinda Matkowsky

I watched the VMA's last night. It was as if they stripped the entire show of all personality to highlight Beyoncé.

David Skeie
David Skeie

Music should unite and uplift people not divide when's the last time a song accomplished anything socially

Zen Lerock
Zen Lerock

spam noun 1. irrelevant or unsolicited messages sent over the Internet, This may have been unsolicited but it was far from irrelevant. VV asked "There's so much going on in the world. Why is no one singing about it?" and I informed that that wasn't the case. With evidence.

EvilInCookie
EvilInCookie

@kashasaltsova Дык уже. Бабло от предвыборного штаба и вперед, с попсой по стране.

Paul Maloney
Paul Maloney

Great article - after attending the Reading Music Festival in England over the weekend I walked away thinking the same. It was just a giant sing along

Ted Zep
Ted Zep

Ugh. No. They two don't belong together. It's so pompous and pretentious to jam politics into music.

Zen Lerock
Zen Lerock

Here..I'm FA M O U S in Co.Laois.Ye cheeky git

Fred Boyd
Fred Boyd

... No One F A M O U S Is Singing About It .

Jill Amodeo
Jill Amodeo

check the whole catalog of Will Hoge and support it if you really mean it!

Johnny Rocco
Johnny Rocco

Too busy sing about bitches and an anacondas.

JackAssNYC
JackAssNYC

Jake Klar is an indie artist that reminds me of Will.  Love me some Willie! Saw him live many times here in Chicago

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