Why is popular music no longer the powerful message conveyer it used to be?
The commercial pop we have now, the Ed Sheerans, the Chainsmokers, the Taylor Swifts, will never be a carrier for social change in the way music once was. Id like to examine the true reach of mainstream pop and learn about why more mainstream artists arent utilizing their voice to its fullest potential.
What is pop music? When the term originated in the late 1950s, it was used to describe a new music that was increasingly popular with middle class teenagers.
It was more commercialized and more accessible than rock and classical music and, most importantly, according to British musicologist Simon Frith, was not driven by any significant ambition except profit and commercial reward […] and, in musical terms, it is essentially conservative. (3). This defining characteristic remains the truest.
What is the pop music we have now? Its a sound technically crafted to fill a market need of extremely accessible, easy to dance to music that can serve as a backdrop to a materialistic lifestyle.
Frith calls this music provided from on high (by record companies, radio programmers, and concert promoters) rather than being made from below … Pop is not a do-it-yourself music but is professionally produced and packaged (3). This modernized pop music is not in itself problematic, but its shameless pushing of capitalist propaganda and the lack of social awareness directly in front of a new and young generation of music listeners is.
This isnt saying we are entirely devoid of true artistry in mainstream pop; The Kendrick Lamars, Beyonces, and Childish Gambinos are using their power as artists to comment and critique on the state of our country, but everyone else seems to be asleep at the wheel. Why arent all popular artists using their voice to speak out?
Lets look at Bruno Mars specifically. According to Chartmertric.io, his music (on Spotify alone) reaches around 31 million people monthly. Each day he gains 20,000 new Spotify followers, 12,000 Instagram followers, and gets nearly 7 million views on YouTube. His music is constantly in the top curated Spotify playlists expanding his overall audience reach to 172 million people; thats almost every single free and subscribed user on Spotify. And yet none of the songs hes released in the past 10 years offer any sort of commentary or critique. He is preaching to the youngest generation of music listeners that everything in the world is seemingly okay. In closer examination, Bruno Mars plays on average 186 shows per year (pollstar.com). Almost all of which are arenas averaging 15,000-20,000 seats. Lets say theres 17,500 seats per arena and he averages 80% tickets sold each of the 186 shows. That exposes him, live in person, to 2.6 million fans a year. At none of these shows did he choose to mention any type of commentary or even reference the political climate of our country. Similar statistics can be applied to Taylor Swift, The Chainsmokers, Ed Sheeran, the list goes on. What needs to happen in order for these (white) artists to wake up and use their voice for social change? How would our country be different if Katy Perry and Eminem used their voice to defend Planned Parenthood? Or if Post Malone used his voice to continue raising awareness of the water situation in Flint?
In the 60s and 70s Artists like Marvin Gaye, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Sam Cooke regularly spoke out about injustice and called for action. Look at the song Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone, deemed one of the most powerful songs of the civil rights movement in 1964.
But that’s just the trouble
“do it slow”
“do it slow”
“do it slow”
“do it slow”
“do it slow”
“do it slow”
In response to murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham Baptist Church bombing that killed 4 black children, Nina released this song on a live concert CD from a performance at Carnegie hall. Look at the meaning in this refrain, do it slow, taking a shot at government officials, white liberals, and even other black activists that were interested in gradual equality. She unapologetically states that it needs to happen now, not later. This song is precise and compelling. Nina is clearing stating a problem, a question, and a stance on the issue. When she performed this song to the 3600 seats in Carnegie Hall she falsely introduced it as a show tune but the show hasnt been written yet(1) as if to mislead the audience, making them listen even more intently. Nina was using her platform to speak out and clearly deliver a message. To quote Dr. Bill Banfield Without artist and compelling viewpoints, we would simply not hear and would silently watch the fire burn. (61)
In 2000, Bruce Springsteen became one of the first major white artists to write a song tackling police brutality following the death of Amadou Diallo in American Skin (41 Shots). He faced enormous backlash from some fans and a boycott against his music was instated by the union representing police officers in NYC. The song has resurfaced since and been re-recorded and played live following the deaths of Trayvon Martin and again after George Zimmerman. Despite backlash and boycotts, his 10 shows at Madison Square Garden in June of 2000 following the debut performance of this song would sell out night after night; many people commended Springsteen for exercising his right to free speech and standing up against injustice.
Why are artists nowadays scared to exercise that same right and clearly state their thoughts? Is it possible that many of these artists are so far removed from society that they truly cant relate? Has the current music industry failed its members by pushing the top players so far from the real world with money and fame that they can no longer appropriately comment on whats really happening?
After the release of Sgt. Peppers Lonley Hearts Club Band in May of 1967, it would go on to sell 2.3 million copies by the end of December 1967. After the digital release of Drakes latest album Scorpion, the physical CD was delayed by around 2 weeks, causing a massive drop in album sales. However, Drake went on to break several streaming records surpassing over 302 million streams on the first day across Apple Music and Spotify, over 200,000 album-equivalent units. Even with a decline streams over time, it would only require about 2-3 weeks for scorpion to reach and surpass sales of one of the most popular albums on the 1960s. After Scorpions release, Drake had 7 songs charting in the Billboard top 10 at once, topping The Beatles record holding count of 5. The way we consume music has changed so much, the meaning of those charts held far more significance in an era of everyone buying albums. However, because of the internet, social media, and television, Drake is forced into the public eye on a much more regular basis. When The Beatles were most popular, there was no YouTube or TMZ where fans could see videos of them live; They would stare at the back of the record case and see photos and words. Technology has diluted popularity but increased visibility and forced the artist to live a more reclusive life thus further removing them from a connected and informed society.
Artists like Drake dont use their massive reach to speak out because by speaking out you risk alienation; youre not longer appealing to the most people at one time. It isnt as profitable and the commercialization of artistry has top recording artists hard-pressed to do anything but appeal to the masses. To reiterate, this pop music we have now is a sound technically crafted to fill a market need of extremely accessible, easy to dance to music that can serve as a backdrop to a materialistic lifestyle. So, when did pop become de-politicized? Other genres of music have remained pointed towards specific demographics. But when did pop stop doing the same?
The term sellout was coined in the 1960s at a time when the intersection of music and politics was most vivid. What was once a career threatening statement has now grown to be not only accepted, but a necessary part of most major artists careers.