In the 2000s, the tragedy of 9/11, the reality of fighting two wars and the presidency of George W. Bush provided fodder for rage. The politically charged narrative of Green Day's smash American Idiot harnessed the spirit of Joe Strummer, railing against the hawkish political climate of the day, as well as vapid commercials and reality TV. The album was a tour de force that gloriously mocked the stupidity of our elected leaders and the apathy of the masses. But it also sold by the bucketload and relaunched the careers of the power punk trio.
That same year, 2004, Kanye West announced his arrival with The College Dropout, for which West took on all comers: consumerism ("All Falls Down"), religion ("Jesus Walks") and racism and poverty ("Never Let Me Down"). There was also a refreshing element of self-awareness, as Kanye simultaneously embraced the benefits of success while finding them repugnant. On the track "Breath On," West rapped, "Always said if I rapped I'd say somethin' significant/ But now I'm rappin' about money, hos and rims again."
This has haunted West since. On the one hand, we respect him for his brilliantly blunt declaration that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" as predominantly black New Orleans neighborhoods waited in vain for government action after Katrina. On the other, we cringe when he stumbles onstage and interrupts Taylor Swift's VMA acceptance speech.
On last year's Yeezus, he too often descended into a narcissistic haze. The track "Blood on the Leaves" uses a sample from "Strange Fruit," a hugely significant song from the civil-rights era, but only as a backdrop for a tirade against "second string bitches" and the female "gold digger." Lines like "Put my fist in her like the civil rights sign" and "Eating Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce" have made West's political soapbox incredibly fragile. And to many, he has even become a farcical figure, his every utterance feeding into the media's depiction of him as a caricature of the egocentric modern celebrity.
Not that we should just be looking to punk and hip-hop to inspire political change. What about EDM? The forebears of today's electronic dance music were forged in the black and gay subcultures of Chicago and Detroit, partying among those who'd been systematically marginalized by society. In 2014, though, no one wants to be lectured on a rowdy club floor. Club promoters and fans want to see the DJs living it big, spraying ravers with four-figure bottles of Champagne, not pause to engage in a discussion about Republican gerrymandering of electoral districts or the dangers of hydraulic fracking.
Not that we masses particularly mind. If we're not gazing at our own navels, we are gaping at Miley Cyrus as she swings naked on a giant wrecking ball for four minutes. Songs about the dispossessed and the downtrodden just don't do it for us anymore. It's more pleasurable to sing along to lyrics about sex, success and good times than be reminded of the evils of the world.
However, political music isn't some bygone genre like disco, swing revival or ragtime. It's no easy feat to simultaneously pull off a didactic message and a killer tune. Popular music can be bucolic, banal and trivial. But there needs to be a balance. After all, ambivalence and apathy are not very rock & roll; having a social conscience is.
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