Has Popular Music Entered a New Era of Social Politics?


“If the kids are united, then we’ll never be divided” – Sham 69

The rallying cry of youth in the sixties and seventies was about us, about we, aboutour generation. A political statement of unity, and a desire to belong and be heard – together. Throughout the centuries, art has been a form of political expression so this cry was a natural evolution of our cultural communication. Political angst was not confined to one genre of music; there were angry messages, laced with hope, in folk music, punk, progressive rock and new wave. Society was put on trial in the eighties by such chart acts as The Specials, The Smiths, Billy Bragg and The Levellers. The origins of rap and hip-hop were borne from the social frustrations in the Bronx in New York.

Flash forward only one generation and by the late nineties political issues had been squeezed out of popular music. We and us was replaced by me, and I. It was aboutbling, about my bootie, it became ‘look what I have‘ – idolising possessions and promoting attention-seeking as a social norm. MTV became a reality TV station featuring endless spoilt brats and pimped out cars. Unity became ‘lad culture’ – misogynist banter, and political expression was sketched out on a barograph of self-importance. This inevitably correlates with the political climate of the time – people had more money, times were not as tough and this generation enjoyed complacent security in a rare time of sustained peace.

We are entering a new era of political expression and it’s different, evolving. Social media has become a new tool for communication over the past five years and political interest has a new twist. Political correctness is now the rallying cry of youth, once again, to belong. It’s a shout out to the minorities and the misfits to come join us. The balance is yet to be stabilised and there are cultural extremists – especially on sites like Tumblr, but this is helping to shape a new world. Equality is the buzzword of a new generation.

The power of this new cry cannot be underestimated; its cultural impact is being witnessed as heavily in America as the Middle-East. LGBT rights and racial equality are at the forefront of the youth agenda and as powerful as the political changes brought about by the Arab Spring democratic uprisings. There is viral outrage at police brutality, ignorant celebrities, hypocritical or extreme religious views and injustice of principle. It has opened up a culture of opinion which can be witnessed globally and now everybody has a voice. The popularity of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn with today’s youth is a barometer of political climate that cannot be ignored.

The need to address political sentiment in traditional art seems less common – though arguably still has impact – Banksy’s popularity striking a chord across all generations. The pervading tone is changing in popular music too, although the lines are still blurred. Meghan Trainor’s All About That Bass was criticised for ‘skinny shaming’ but popular music is evolving a rallying cry of politically-correct angst. Perhaps the kids of today are more united than ever.

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