Why Doesn’t Popular Music Feel Political Anymore?

Photo Credit: Lorena Cupcake via Flickr
Photo Credit: Lorena Cupcake via Flickr

One of the first albums I bought with my hard earned cleaning pocket money around the age of seven was Britney Spears’ self-titled album ‘Britney.’ She was everywhere, her unique voice was cool, and she had music videos – what an icon! Or so I thought. My mum warned me that Britney wasn’t a good role model to the aspiring singer I was then, “She encourages the degradation of women and negativity towards women.” With ignorance and a hint of defiance I listened to, danced to and learnt all of Britney’s lyrics in my room, happily singing them to anyone with ears outside of my room, much to my mum’s horror. Little did I recognise or understand the atrocious sexual and provocative content I was singing. ‘I’m A Slave 4 U’ shamefully places highly in my most-lyrics-remembered Britney songs. The title says it all really. So why did I think of her as some magical human? Was it because of the content of her songs? No, I hadn’t a clue what she was singing. It was the powerful effect of advertising, money.

It was through my parents’ music collections and insistence that there existed music other than pop that I found powerful female artists such as Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. The fusion of gospel’s soulful, jazzy tones with the upcoming R&B and pop sounds was delicious, more entrancing than the whinging-sounding music that was being played on the radio. And they were singing about actual issues, they strove for something in their music. Aretha’s feminist hit ‘Think’ resonated with many in 1968, topping the charts. The personal feel these women gave to all of their records was far more entrancing, musical and strong than the pop music I was listening to at the time. Today’s popular music rarely has a personal connection. Between the beat and the catchy choruses there is little space for personality, let alone any wit, questions or comment.

Thinking about popular songs I grew up to that strived to change something, sadly one of the only songs that pops into the forefront of my mind is ‘Where Is The Love?’ by The Black Eyed Peas, raising issues of race, terrorism and violence, to name a few. The rare songs that do outwardly and obviously aim to challenge societal conventions or pave the way to change receive much praise and recognition, but only until the next cool song is released. How far does the change go beyond praise? Do we know or care how ‘Where Is The Love?’ for example affected our society? Or did we just enjoy the music because everyone else did? Were we personally drawn to it?

It’s baffling that we are still listening to songs with inflammatory, degrading language that encourages the debasement of others. Thanks to technology, predominately the share feature on Facebook, people are more aware of and sometimes quick to comment on the negative content in songs. It was exciting to see outrage in people in 2013 when Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ was banned in university clubs due to it’s sexist content, however a lot of the time the content is overlooked. As long as the track has a ‘sick beat’ people aren’t bothered about the lyrics. Because of online sharing, we are quick to jump on the bandwagon and admonish certain celebrities for their comments both in their music and public life. Kanye West is one of the few who dares make strong political statements, whether people agree with him or not, and receives daily abuse because of his outward political stance. Meghan Trainor has been slammed for her song ‘All About That Bass’ because it has been interpreted to be suggesting skinny girls aren’t beautiful, as well as for her song ‘Dear Future Husband’ because it appears to be idolising the 1950’s repressed housewife, despite her claims that she satirises the lyrics of the song with the video. Is this why often artists steer clear from political and social messages? Does their need to be liked, as well as to make money, take precedence over their lyrics and music?

Women like Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin were outwardly progressive, advocating civil and feminist rights. It is recognised in today’s music that women still don’t have equal rights, however it doesn’t seem to be in the forefront of music, it doesn’t appear as much as it should do. One group that stands out as political recently is Russian punk rock protest group Pussy Riot. Because of their provocative unauthorised performances supporting feminism, LGBT rights and opposing Putin, they have been violently mistreated and reprimanded. Did they top the charts? Are they widely renown? No.

While the rise in the sexuality of music is the feature of many online comments, it must be noted that some women are promoting female sexuality through their music. Beyoncé’s most recent self-titled album has strong sexual connotations beside feminist comments. She has claimed the obvious sexuality in her music is an attempt to provoke conversation about the double standard that exists between the genders, wishing to relay and re-enforce the fact that women are sexual beings, not objects void of sexuality. Yet despite this, it is often her appearance that is commented on by men and women, not her music. The strive for equality is often undermined by other artists. Britney is now back in full swing, with her new song ‘Pretty Girls’ advocating that ‘pretty girls…do what we want, get what we want.’ Even ‘wipe the floor with all the boys.’ Great Britney, power to women. But inverting hierarchy doesn’t create equality.

The charts seem to be polluted by club hits that are merely beats with some singing lightly sprinkled on top. It’s a rarity to find songs that have strong lyrics, a repetitive melody and musically decent accompaniment listed highly in the charts. Music appears to always be a background for something else, dancing, cooking, running. We rarely sit and listen to music to enjoy the lyrics and the composition of it. Instead lyrics don’t seem to matter, they are secondary to the melody and beat. Music is ever changing and ever lasting, it is a historical tool, reminding us what troubles and issues each generation faced. For me, popular music today feels as though it lacks soul, it tells us nothing about today’s society. Or perhaps this lull in political music tells us too much about our society. Money runs the music business. If it won’t make money, it won’t be produced. It is a sign that we are becoming apolitical, spoon-fed by social media and advertising. What will music be comprised of in ten years time? Will we be dancing to cereal and car-manufacturers’ jingles? I hope not.

Isabel Gonzalez-Prendergast

About Isabel Gonzalez-Prendergast

Isabel is particularly interested in international literature, learning about different cultures and philosophies.

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