Popular Music and Politics

It is almost impossible to imagine a life without music. We listen to music for various reasons but most of us listen to it for one simple reason: entertainment. Rhythm and the melody give us great pleasure. Even sometimes we think that certain songs describes our lives and us. When we think deeper about music and its impacts in social life, we realize that music has more functions than entertaining people. Music has been used as an effective medium in political discourse the sense of increasing society’s awareness and drawing attention to the problems in the world.

Some artists are aware the power of music in social life and they compose songs about wars, famines, poverty and lacks in administration. Some of them became successful thanks to the power of music in expressing thoughts and sharing with others. However, not all of them are that lucky. Due to the misunderstandings of lyrics and the lack of attention to political issues by audiences. To clarify the relationship between music and politics, firstly we must know the concepts of popular music and political discourse.

According to Wikipedia, popular music is commercially recorded music, often oriented toward a youth market, usually consisting a relatively short, simple song utilizing technological innovations to produce new variations on existing themes. Again according to Wikipedia, political discourse is a field of discourse analysis, which focuses on discourse in political forums (such as debates, speeches and hearings) as the phenomenon of interest. Since that we know what is a popular music and political discourse is, we can analyze the phenomenon of political music.

Even though there isn’t much example at 21st century, political music and artist were a big deal at 60’s and 70’s. there were protest and patriotic songs all over the nation and festivals were held. One of the most successful festivals of music history, Woodstock is one of the best examples. Even though there were more than 500,000 people at the festival, the atmosphere was very peaceful. According to Bennet: … The Woodstock festival of 1969 is remembered as much for its ‘bringing together’ of the counter cultural generation as for the music performed.

The event represented a milestone in the use of music as a springboard for the more expressly commercial of rock and pop events which were to follow… (Bennet, 2004) Other examples are the amnesty international tours and live aid. Amnesty International tours succeeded adding 200,000 new members to the organization. Live aid reached more than two billion audiences and raised funds for the organization. Also, it draws attention to famines in third world countries.

On the other hand, not all of the festivals reached their goals. Rock Against Racism aimed and failed to end racism. According to Williams: … While the campaign failed to put and end to racism, it mobilized hundreds of thousands of people and was leading factor in the decline of the National Front’s proportion of vote in 1979’s general election… (Williams, 2009) We can reach the conclusion of even it wasn’t successful at reaching their goal, Rock Against Racism changed lots of things in society.

Examples above, strongly indicates that music is an effective medium in political discourse. The power of music comes from enabling people to express themselves and share their thoughts with millions. Even without the lyrics, a rhythm or a melody can express sorrow, happiness, love, hatred or aspiration. With the lyrics added, music is almost unstoppable. According to Williams: … Music supplies a voice and allows for the creation of a shared experience and collected vision amongst those who desire to change.

It also enables the translation of extreme political radicalism into a more accessible, and often more effective, outlet… (Williams, 2009) Bands such as Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead and Country Joe and The Fish are good examples on this notion. They are still remembered by their success in transferring their anti-Vietnam war beliefs to their audiences. Bob Dylan is evaluated as the most successful artist at composing protest songs in history.

In contrast with all of these successful bands, artists and festivals, music accomplished a few things as a medium in political discourse. The main reason for this sad incident is people are selfish and they basically ignore problems of the world. As a result of consumerism, people became more apolitical. Majority of people do not understand or ignore what the lyrics are really about and they listen to it just because of the sound. Rhythm or melody gives them temporally pleasures and as a result, lyrics fail to change their ideas or increasing the awareness.

Grossberg noted that: … On the other hand, so much activity is attempting explicitly articulate rock to political activism; on the other hand, this activity seems to have little impact on rock formation, its various audiences or its relations to larger struggles… (Grossberg, 1992) Rhys Williams commented on Grossberg’s argument and said that: … Grossberg’s argument, for example, rests on a perceived ‘radical disassociation’ of the political content of the music of artists, such as Dylan, U2 and Pearl Jam, meaning that listeners derive pleasure from listening to their music, but do so without either agreeing with their politics or even being aware of them.

However, there are many factors that serve to disprove this cynical point of view, and illustrate that many listeners do indeed have their ideological horizons both defined and expanded by their association with political music… (Williams, 2009) As much as I want to agree with this statement, social life indicates that Grossberg is right on this notion. To sum up, as it mentioned above music is an effective medium of political discourse in senses that increasing the awareness and drawing attention to social issues.

Power of music, due to enabling people to express and share the feelings and thoughts, is sadly limited because generally lyrics are not well understood by the majority of society and they listen to it because of the rhythm and the melody and as a result, music failed to change the horizon of audiences on politics. References: 1) Williams, R. (2009, April 10). Is Popular Music an Effective Vehicle for Political Discourse? [Blog post]. Retrieved on 22 March, 2010 from http://blogcritics. org/music/article/is-popular-music-an-effective-vehicle/ 2) Bennett, Andy (2004): Remembering Woodstock. Ashgate 3) Grossberg, L. (1992): “Is There A Fan In The House? : The Affective Study Of Fandom” in L. Lewis, The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media. Routledge.