Can Pop Music Make a Political Difference?


In the early 80’s, Morrissey, the singer of the world famous and now-defunct British band The Smiths, was asked why his group chose to pepper their pop music with social criticism.

He answered, “We feel that [our] music should be used to make serious statements because so many groups sell masses and masses of records and don’t raise people’s level of consciousness in any direction. We find that quite sinful, especially in these serious times.”

Morrissey’s opinion on the obligation of pop musicians to educate the masses is, perhaps, a bit narrow. I find it difficult to argue that pop music should never be simply entertaining, that society should be some dull, gray, utilitarian lump where there is little, if any, room for pure entertainment.

However, there is a particularly salient line of thought implied by the pop star’s incisive comment: popular music and other forms of art can be used to make serious points about society, politics, and even the economy.

No kidding.

Stewart is “just a comedian,” and, at the moment, I am “just a writer,” and an insightful critique is “just an insightful critique.” The validity of an opinion is not determined by the type of person or the type of method that delivers that opinion. A political argument is legitimate, or worth considering, if it has sound internal logic and if it is based on some fact or facts.

Yet NPR  and other respectable news organizations  feel comfortable publishing articles with headlines like, “Jon Stewart: The Most Trusted Name In Fake News.” Even Stewart himself will occasionally self-depreciatingly claim that he is “just a comedian,” to get out of a bind. The public disagrees. He is, according to an online poll conducted by Time Magazine, the most trusted newscaster since Walter Cronkite. The poll participants understand, at least on some visceral level, that performance can be a respectable and, as Stewart demonstrates, effective form of political expression. All that matters is that at the root of all of his political arguments Stewart uses facts and ultimately rationality. If he’s funny, entertaining, and popular too, more power to him.

Sure, pop songs and comedy routines have some inherent limitations that, from time to time, prevent the wholly effective communication of a message, but the same can be said of any other known method of disseminating information. TV has the whole issue of ‘sensory-overload,’ associated with its fast-paced imagery, loud sounds, and bright colors. Writing comes along with a rigid and sometimes confining structure that occasionally prevents us from doing things like accurately expressing the subtlety of human emotion. And, well, even the now-hallowed media platform, Twitter, has that pesky 140 character limit.

Instead of focusing on the limitations of popular music, just look at this art form's potential to have a massive political impact on the world’s youth. Since 2003 Itunes has sold over 10 billion songs, and that number comes at the height of an era with a music industry defined by piracy.

Keeping that tidbit of information and the fact that Itunes is just one out of a large number of music retailers in mind, we can only assume that the total number of songs consumed by the public over the past eight years is exponentially larger than 10 billion. With the inarguably pervasive nature of popular music and our ‘serious times,’ where protests are becoming a world-wide phenomenon, I can’t help but wonder why more young people are not turning to music as they scramble to find different outlets for political expression.

Perhaps many of them fear that they will lose legitimacy, that they will undergo the rather unsanitary transformation from tried and true political activist or political protestor to “just a musician.”

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons