Stephen M. Walt

Musings on music: Why are there no popular political songs?

I saw the documentary film "Searching for Sugarman" over the weekend, and it got me thinking again about the dearth of popular, mass-market political protest music these days. In case you haven’t seen it (and you should!), the film is about a Mexican-American folk singer from Detroit named Sixto Rodriguez, who recorded a couple of ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I saw the documentary film "Searching for Sugarman" over the weekend, and it got me thinking again about the dearth of popular, mass-market political protest music these days. In case you haven’t seen it (and you should!), the film is about a Mexican-American folk singer from Detroit named Sixto Rodriguez, who recorded a couple of albums in the early 1970s. His songs (which are featured on the soundtrack) are pretty interesting, but the albums flopped. He dropped out of the music business after that, but in one of those cosmic bounces that no one can foresee, ended up becoming a cult figure in apartheid-era South Africa. Progressive musicians there saw his music as revolutionary, and it helped inspire their own anti-apartheid artistry. I won’t spoil the various revelations of this wonderful film, except to say that it does capture how music can transcend boundaries and have unexpected political repercussions. It’s also a fascinating human story.

Meanwhile, over in Moscow, the punk band Pussy Riot got sentenced to two years in jail for "hooliganism," all because they had the temerity to poke some harmless fun at Vladimir Putin and made the mistake of doing it inside a Russian Orthodox Church. Now there’s a real threat to public order!  And the government’s lame response is revealing: throwing young female musicians in jail is like taking out a full page ad in the world’s leading newspapers announcing "We are afraid of independent thinking and have absolutely no sense of humor." In a world where success increasingly depends on tapping into the energy, imagination, and initiative of the citizenry, Putin is telling young Russians to be dull and conformist. I think he’s also betraying a profound sense of insecurity: when a three-person punk band is a threat to society, you know that the government has lost all perspective. He’s got Madonna ticked off too, although I’m not sure that matters all that much.

But as I’ve written about before, I’m still struck by the apolitical nature of modern popular music. Plenty of artists continue to record songs with serious political content, but none of them seem to have much popular resonance. Protest songs get recorded, but they don’t make it to the top of the charts and they don’t inspire much political action by their listeners. A mega-star like Bruce Springsteen can record an entire album like "Wrecking Ball" — clearly inspired by the financial crisis and the declining fortunes of the middle-to-lower class — but I’ll bet most of the people attending his concerts jump out of their seats for "Thunder Road" and "Prove It All Night."   

But I’m not sure why that’s the case, especially given the contemporary context of two lost wars, persistent economic problems, and widespread contempt for politicians of all kinds. You’d think this would be a moment where at least one or two artists would be writing political songs and attracting a huge audience, and maybe even using their art to inspire political change. But I get little sense that contemporary musicians are shaping political attitudes or behavior as they might have in earlier eras.

It might be because there’s no draft, and so anti-war songs don’t hit home with a population of young people who don’t have to serve if they don’t want to. It might be because the digital/internet revolution has carved the listening audience into smaller and smaller niches, so that it’s harder for any artist to write something with broad appeal and a political message.  You get political messages inside each genre (i.e., in hip-hop, alt-country, folk, etc.) but nobody commands a platform as large as Dylan, the Beatles, or even Creedence Clearwater did back in the days of AM and FM radio saturation. It could be that other art forms have superseded music; younger people are too busy playing Wii or downloading Jon Stewart reruns to pay any attention to the lyrics of the songs on their iPhones. Maybe it’s just simple demographics: the counterculture movement of the 1960s was fueled by the sheer size of the baby boomer bulge. Or perhaps it’s because there is no real Left anymore — which is where the good songs came from-and because the Right thinks Mike Huckabee is cutting edge.

Sadly, I’m not expecting this to change in 2012. A bland suit like Mitt Romney isn’t going to inspire noteworthy songs of protest or praise, and groups like Rage against the Machine have already complained about Paul Ryan’s transparent attempt to give himself a hip patina by saying he likes their music.  As Rage guitarist Tom Morello explained:

"Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades. Charles Manson loved the Beatles but didn’t understand them. Governor Chris Christie loves Bruce Springsteen but doesn’t understand him. And Paul Ryan is clueless about his favorite band, Rage Against the Machine."

"Ryan claims that he likes Rage’s sound, but not the lyrics. Well, I don’t care for Paul Ryan’s sound or his lyrics. He can like whatever bands he wants, but his guiding vision of shifting revenue more radically to the one percent is antithetical to the message of Rage."

Barack Obama has revealed a certain tame affection for blues and soul music (and even an unexpected singing ability), and his 2008 campaign got a boost from a number of sympathetic artists. But I’ll be surprised if will.i.am decides to record a follow-up to "Yes We Can," this time around, unless he’s willing to focus the lyrics on drone strikes and the raid that got bin Laden.   

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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