Social Commentary in Music

April 22, 2009

I’ve been an avid listener to music since I was about 10 years old. My parents listened to Big Band music (Glenn Miller, Dorsey Brothers, etc) a lot when I was young, so it’s been a part of my life as long as I can remember, but when I listened to my favorite type of music as a teenager, I quickly noticed something: there was almost always ‘social commentary.’ I don’t mean ‘teenage angst’ or love songs, or party songs – those things were present in the Big Band music of my parents (they didn’t listen to Cab Calloway).

I liked rock music. Specifically, what we called “hard rock.” A good portion of that music talked about government oppression, but even more devoted itself solely to the war (Vietnam, for you youngsters out there), or to the draft, racial and gender discrimination, unjust laws, unjust taxation, an out of control federal government, and a host of other societal problems. In many of the songs, there was anger. In fact, in many of the songs, there was a LOT of anger. But it was focused. There were also protests – a lot of them. They weren’t usually polite affairs, with proper government-issued ‘permits.’ In fact, if you had suggested that they ask the government for permission to protest, you would have been laughed out of the room.

And things changed. People came to see the war in Vietnam as the injustice it was. Gender and racial discrimination were tackled. The draft was eliminated. When the war and the draft were no longer an issue, most of the people in that generation basked in a brief glow of satisfaction, and then immediately went on to other things, like having a life, raising a family, a real job, etc.

Fast forward several decades, and now we once again have a war on foreign soil (two fronts this time), there is talk of mandatory ‘national service’ ( a draft, by any other name is just as repressive, and this one will be gender-blind), global narco-wars, fueled by the enormous profits created mostly by US drug laws, which has made it so profitable that entire countries have been corrupted simply by the huge profits to be had in the growing, manufacturing, transportation, and selling of the stuff.

Where is the social commentary? I see a lot of young white guys driving BMWs blaring rap “music,” and singing along about how bad it is to be a poverty-striken black youth in the inner city. Of course, the white guys in the BMWs are usually pulling up in front of a GAP store to get a new pair of $200 jeans, but the irony never seems to sink in. I see teenage white girls singing rap lyrics about how thrilled they are to be a young black drug dealer who shoots other black guys for fun before raping his girlfriend.

What I DON’T hear is music expressing anger against the war in Iraq, or the war in Afghanistan. I don’t even hear music expressing outrage over 9/11. Why? I wish I knew.

My band did a “protest song” a couple of years ago. I don’t want to think that only a bunch of guys over 50 are pissed off enough to write protest songs.

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Music as a Political Force

December 14, 2008

During the upheavals of the 1960’s, music was a powerful force of change. Many popular songs talked of the need for elimination of racial discrimination, cessation of the unpopular and immoral war in Vietnam, the injustices of the government, and immoral policies of the industrial leaders. These topics were, of course, a main subject of the Folk movement, but were a central topic of most American rock acts as well, albeit from a different angle.

Sure, there was plenty of “fluff” foisted upon us as a way to allow kids to experience rock music in a way in which the government approved – remember “bubblegum?” Hardly any convincing social commentary there!

Then came “disco,” and the resulting focus on how good someone looked when attending the local nightspot, rather than anything that the songs had to say. It was suddenly more important just to be seen at the trendy club of that week than if the lyrics of the songs talked about anything at all. In fact, the most popular things played in the clubs were “club mixes,” where a non-vocal groove was extended ad-infinitum. Nobody listened to the words, cared what they talked about, or even if there were words at all! As long as the coke flowed, and the dance floor and disco lights were available, the crowds were happy.

To counter this sugar-coated pablum, “punk” came on the scene. Once again, song topics ranged from typical teenage angst to injustices in society – mostly protests against “class” status. After all, Vietnam was no longer an issue, the “civil rights” movement had pretty much wound down, and the economy seemed to be fine.

Then came the death knell to most meaningful music – MTV. Now, not only did not matter what the subject of the songs were, it didn’t matter if there was any real substance to the music either. It was more important that the bands’ videos were good quality, the band was good-looking. On top of all that, it was almost a priority that the song talked about nothing at all, since it had to once again fit in a 3-4 minute slot, and still leave plenty of space for pictures of the band and scantily clad young women. “Video Killed the Radio Star” indeed.

Fast forward 25 years – where is the protest in music now? MTV no longer plays videos, but has relegated itself to spewing out “reality shows” that are as far removed from “reality” as is possible. The government-controlled media feeds us nothing except barrages of news about Brittany Spears, in the hopes that we will actually become interested in her. Hardly a bastion of political controversy, and therefore the government deems her safe for the public to hear. The “Nu Metal” movement had some potential for political commentary, but appears to be more determined to just eat itself with non-focused anger, which many of its fans seem to focus on themselves, rather than any justifiable and logical target.

Where is the commentary on government abuses? Where is the outrage over the on-going wars in the Middle East? Where is the shock at the constant and on-going corruption and abuse of power by the government?

How is it possible that out of the entire younger generation, which will be most affected by the unConstitutional actions of our government in the economy, infringement of our rights, and constant meddling in foreign affairs, nobody has anything to say? Do they not know what is being done to them? Do they not care how it will affect them? Or, are they just too chickenshit to say anything about it?

I have a 4 year old, and I certainly hope that his generation is nothing like the current crop of “young adults.” I hope that his generation will stand up for themselves, because the current batch of 20-30 year olds apparently don’t have the balls to even think about it.