Popular Music Needs to Become Political Again

Sep 16, 2014 at 3:17 am

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-AutoTune 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.