The opening line of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” (1967), in which he sings “There’s something happening here / But what it is ain’t exactly clear,” is something you’ve probably said to yourself (many times) in the past year with regard to the 2016 presidential election. Let’s get right into it. Music is a creative outlet for artists and a source of entertainment for listeners. But more importantly, though perhaps often forgotten, it’s a powerful tool for social change.
Of course, I’ve only been alive for two decades and can’t speak to the experiences of growing up among the political movements of the 20th century, but I can point to the musical legacies. To be able to discuss the contributions of, say, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in my 20th-century history classes was, honestly, pretty inspiring. This begs the question: what will our textbooks include in the musical narrative from today? Please note, this column is only 500 words and should only serve as a conversation starter on the topic.
On first glance, I would struggle to call popular music today “politically charged.” Now, I’m not ignoring the works of Beyoncé, Kanye, Kendrick and countless others, but I’m interested in how much politics has permeated the masses. When I look to music broadcasted on the radio, I hear songs with lighter themes. Why might that be? Are we more apathetic about current events? Do artists feel that music with thematic messages wouldn’t yield high success?
A friend showed me a project called “30 Days, 30 Songs,” which describes itself as “written and recorded by artists for a Trump-Free America.” The artists came together to speak out against the rhetoric of the Trump campaign. I am a little disappointed that I discovered this only two days before election day, but regardless, I recommend checking it out.
In looking at pop music, the prevailing themes appear to be more about accepting our shortcomings and breaking social norms. I chose to look at traditional pop because, if the purpose is to spread ideas using music as a vehicle, this is the music that has the highest impact on a large audience. Even Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza,” (2016) which bangs like any other EDM song, actually breaks from its genre, which stereotypically promotes drinking, drug use and partying. While I admit I am not a fan of Meghan Trainor’s music, I have to hand it to her with her latest hit, “NO” (2016), which berates the concept of men sleazily picking up women. In regard to mental health, 21 Pilots does a nice job of illustrating the stressors of conforming to today’s society.
But, again, would I say that music today is politically charged? Some songs are without a doubt. Yet on a whole, I think that the distributive influence of music could and should be harnessed further.