Pop Music Needs to Be More Political. Here's Why.

Categories: Soapbox

Jim Louvau

By Steve Brennan

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-Auto-Tune utopia. Persistent economic problems, a deliberately obstructionist U.S. Congress, NSA surveillance, an expanding underclass -- these are issues that seem ripe for lyrical lampooning by contemporary musicians. But no, we'd rather just twerk across America with Miley Cyrus.

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.

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Neither the "Artists" (and I use that term losely) or the Fans care about politics. They are either too ignorant, or too caught up in the Self-Absorbed, Entitled society we live in today. Do you really think Miley Cyrus gives a poop about what's happening in Gaza? Can Nicky Minaj even name a country in the middle east aside from Dubai? 

Trying to force people like this into sending or receiving any message in the music would be like trying to force a square block into a circular hole.

The real problem is that these artists are allowed to flourish in today's society. There is plenty of music that speaks to the injustices of this world, but it is largely ignored, because you can't twerk or cruise to it


Frieda Payne , "Bring the Boys Home" circa 1968 recorded at either Motown or United Sound in Detroit. As used to be said,"It's got a good beat, you can dance to it. I'll give it an eighty five"

Decent analysis. I'll give it an 85  


in the underground detroit techno parties there wasn't any discussion, we just released energy in unity together with banging hard tunes on the dance floor.  dark and thumping, just a way to release energy.  there was no judging and black white gay and straight kids all hung out together to enjoy the dance floor and the music and not to judge each other.

The problem is the major labels and quest for money instead of staying underground and doing what you want because that's what you want to do.

the underground still exists but it's getting exploited every step of the way.


Speaking of rickety soapboxes, American Idiot was politically-charged? LOL.

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