Music and politics: What’s on your iPod?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What’s on your iPod? Personally I have an eclectic mix — from hippyesque acoustic folk through to American “gangsta” rap and random electronic post-modern wankery you'll only hear on Triple J.

Musically, we all enjoy different stuff. Most readers of Green Left Weekly would have broadly similar political beliefs, so why the difference? Why don’t people who converge politically also enjoy similar cultural tastes?

People have different musical tastes. People are into different genres, in the same way some of us prefer different foods. And no one genre is better than another. By the time music hits the highly controlled mainstream, it’s often had any controversial content edited out.

More often than not, mainstream music doesn't carry a progressive message. Music videos are notorious for sexist imagery, and lyrically often reinforce conservative opinions on gender and sexuality, among other issues.

But culture isn't doomed to corporate slavery. There is a very contradictory relationship between cultural expressions like music, and politics. Some music, such as Rage Against The Machine, Dead Prez or (and I cringe to say it) Midnight Oil are obviously and overtly political.

Political music occurs across genres but lyrically chooses progressive messages that can challenge the established status quo. This can become especially powerful if such cultural icons link up with and lend their support to real-life struggles, such as Midnight Oil did with the Nuclear Disarmament Party.

Through its profile, it was able to give a voice to a popular struggle and help the movement reach out and strengthen its position.

To add to the contradiction, songs can be misinterpreted. Bruce Springsteen's “Born in the USA” is sure to make any list of patriotic US songs — but was written in protest at unemployment and war. The Beatles' “Revolution” is a song talking down to people who are optimistic about revolutionary change, but I've found a surprising amount of leftists who rate it among their favourite.

Culture and music, like every other aspect of our lives, is a battleground. Punk and hip hop were both musical movements that came out of angry working-class youth being pissed off at the world. From this basis, they were both highly political in their early incarnations. However, as the genres became popular and music corporations moved in, the new executives continued to put pressure for political views contrary to the acceptable “mainstream” to be abandoned or at least left off stage.

But these battles haven't been lost. The term “sell-out” is something all bands would dread. Fans don't just blindly follow bands that tone down an image and disappear into board rooms. Angry youth pissed off at the world fall can get excited about bands screaming “fuck the world” from the stage. Less so when told “drink Coke”.

Further, the nature of our society is that there is a buttload of reasons to protest. From climate change, to ongoing wars, to homophobia, sexism and racism. As long as these things exist, and people are expressing themselves through music or art, there are going to be people using their art forms to speak out against injustice.

From GLW issue 857

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