I’ve noticed as I’ve done this blog that I get the most hits from the posts I write about music. (Though not always.) This might lead you to believe that at some point I am going to get smart and turn this into a music blog. But I’m not going to. You see, you don’t get great artists like Chuck D, Bruce Springsteen, or Morrissey, because those artists are unaware of the cultural and political situations that are around them. In fact those artists are great because they each reinterpret their surroundings through their own unique lens. You don’t get Fight the Power or World Peace is None of Your Business or The Ghost of Tom Joad if those artists aren’t paying attention to what’s shaking on the hill. Meanwhile although the best music can always connect on an emotional level even if you aren’t getting everything someone is talking about, you can’t really understand the full impact of a lot of records if you have no clue what is going on in the world. Music and culture/politics is a two way street. A lot of the all time great records never get made without those artist being attuned to the times. As a listener you also get so much more out of records if you understand what is going on around them.
There is a collection of George Orwell essays called All Art is Propaganda. I want to play with that and twist it and say that all music is political. Even the banal country song that is just about the singer’s truck, or the mundane rap song that is just talking about what the rapper is drinking or driving, is political. It’s not revolutionary, but it is political. It’s basically telling you that everything you are being told on TV is OK. Don’t think too much. Buy things and you too can live the dream.
When is a pop song just a pop song? Never. Motown produced a lot of great love songs, but that was a black run label that was trying to cross over to white audiences, where a great deal of the money was, during the Civil Rights era. They were making young white teens daydream about black stars. They were showing young black kids that they could be successful. During those times of division they were bringing people together.
Now that being said, you can totally, as a listener, just enjoy something on a purely emotional level. Some music just has a physicality that you get off on. I’ve been listening to a lot of TV On the Radio lately. I know that some of their stuff is political, but I am mostly getting off on the sonic inventiveness of their records.
However, what you get out of something and what it is, is two different things. If you were reincarnated in another country and didn’t understand English, you might still be completely captivated by just the sound of Chuck D’s voice, but that wouldn’t change what he was saying. (And just the sound of his voice is like a god damn cannon going off!)
So I’m not saying that you have to look for the political in all music. It’s fine to love a record because it just lifts your spirits. There are plenty of records that do that for me and nothing more. But again, that is different from saying that the culture at large didn’t shape those records. It is there under the hood if you want to dive in deeper.
So if you are a huge music fan, like I am, and you want to understand why certain records get made, or you want appreciate a lot of records on a different level, then you need to understand what is going on out there. Meanwhile, if you are a musician and you are creating something, you can’t help but be shaped by the times that you live in, even if it is not explicit in your work. You can’t separate music, or any art, completely from the world at large. Even a lot of those gospel or soul records, those that allow you to transcend your earthly problems for a couple of minutes, were often shaped by those who were suffering themselves. Whatever music you are into, it was definitely not created in a vacuum.