Popular music: Not just for entertainment
The importance of speaking out in modern day music
Music is essential to our everyday lives. Not only does it provide us with enjoyment, stories, motivation, inspiration, but it helps us cope with difficult situations and lift us up when we are feeling down. It is also a significant and powerful medium which brings attention to various political, psychological, and social issues. Unfortunately, controversy has risen due to the increase of this type of content within recent songs.
Some individuals are upset with musicians expressing their thoughts, opinions, and attitudes towards current situations and events within their songs, and believe that music should simply be a popular entertainment form. However, I strongly disagree, because songs effectively spread awareness, important ideas and information throughout society.
Political, psychological, and social issues have always provided inspiration for the songs of various musicians and bands. Two early examples of this from the 20th century include the controversial songs “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropel and performed by Billie Holiday in 1939, and Neil Young’s 1989 hit, “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.”
Although these songs didn’t create change, they still powerfully affected society. With dark, symbolic lyrics like, “blood on the leaves and blood at the roots /black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,” “Strange Fruit” not only brought significant attention toward it, but also criticized the horrific practice of lynching that occurred during the up until the mid-20th century in the southern United States. Young’s song criticized the political policies of the first George Bush and the societal problems that existed as a result of his poor and ineffective governing.
In recent years, more musicians and bands are writing songs which directly and indirectly express their attitudes and opinions towards current political, social, and psychological issues and problems. For example, Pinks’ 2006 hit “Dear Mr. President,” explicitly criticizes multiple ineffective political policies of former U.S. president George W. Bush, including No Child Left Behind, the lack of support for the LGBTQ community and middle-class families, as well as the United States’ involvement in war. Other songs such as “Bigger Than Me” by Katy Perry and “People’s Champ” by the Arkells indirectly express disappointment, ange,r and disgust towards having Donald Trump as U.S. president.
A second issue within popular music is psychological health. This issue is evident in Foster The People’s 2010 hit, “Pumped Up Kicks,” inspired by the frequency of mass shootings around the world. Despite this songs upbeat and catchy sound, it depicts a darker story of an isolated, outcast teenager plotting revenge.
Social issues are also frequently embodied in today’s popular music. A great example of this can be found in numerous Tragically Hip songs, including “Looking for a Place to Happen” (1992), “Now the Struggle has a Name” (2009), and “Goodnight Attawapiska” (2012), which highlights the lack of effort being done to improve the unfair conditions Indigenous communities face. A similar theme is also expressed in Gord Downie’s solo album, The Secret Path, that contains ten songs about 12-year-old Chani Wenjack, an Indigenous boy who died fleeing from his residential school.
Unfortunately, although these songs have brought significant attention towards important issues and situations which are often ignored within society, some individuals feel that musicians lack adequate knowledge about these issues and therefore should refrain from singing about them. However, to me, that is complete bullshit.
While many musicians aren’t political, psychological, or social experts, to quote P!nk, “[they’re] not dumb and [they’re] not blind.” It does not take a rocket scientist to see that anyone with a compassionate heart would want to make an effort to improve problems which exist in society. While some may think that musicians and bands release songs containing potentially controversial content to increase their publicity, this is not always true.
For example, P!nk released “Dear Mr. President” as a single only in Canada, Australia, and Europe, but not in the United States because she wanted her song’s message to be taken seriously, rather than viewed as a publicity stunt. Similarly, “Pumped up Kicks” was also not written to be a catchy meaningless single. Instead, the song was written with the hope of both initiating a stronger discussion about mental illness, a frequently ignored problem which had drastically increased in the last decade, especially among youth, and encouraging better anti-gun legislation to prevent future gun violence.
I believe it is essential for musicians to release songs which centre around a serious topic, since music is one of society’s most effective communication mediums. U of R music professor Helen Pridmore also shares this view.
According to Pridmore because “pop culture music is so widely disseminated,” it can reach a wide range of people. “We listen to artists as we don’t [with] activists. (The ideas and opinions of musicians and bands) penetrate our thoughts because we hear the message in their song over and over again.” While these songs may not directly lead to change, as Pridmore further elaborates, “they do, [generate awareness towards multiple] important issues, inspiring discussion or even action.”
I have always firmly believed that those with the power to speak out not only should, but also have a responsibility to do so. This belief is also expressed by Foster The People’s lead singer, Mark Foster, who stated (in an online article with CNN Politics) “There’s a difference between being an entertainer and being an artist. Artists [give] a voice to public culture [and being one], comes with responsibility.”
Given the current global situation and context, it is likely that these types of songs will continue to increase rather than decrease over time. The way I see it, there are two options: discourage musicians from artistically and creatively sharing their ideas further ignoring serious problems which currently exist, or encourage and support the production of music that raises awareness of serious political, psychological and social issues, sparking discussion and potentially leading to positive and essential change in the world.