The Politics of Music

The world of music and the world of politics are closely tied. Even though this relationship is often overlooked, popular music often contains lyrics and themes with political undertones. Music can reflect specific political moments of an era, which helps listeners explore and understand different perspectives. Politics are also influenced by music. For example, politicians strategically use music in their campaign events that reflects their messages [1]. For much of our country’s history, music and politics have worked hand in hand to influence the American public.

Rock music has acted as a vehicle for political and social activism throughout its history. Much of the folk rock of the 1960s and 1970s contained lyrics about current events, political struggle, war, and drugs. Bob Dylan is a notable example of an artist who incorporated politics into his work. He promoted the emerging counterculture movement and the civil rights movement, especially with his album The Times They Are a-Changin’. Politics are also evident in lyrics written by Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s and 1980s. He touched on issues including life as a part of the working class and the Vietnam War (Born in the U.S.A and The River). Despite rock’s anti-establishment tendencies, it is capable of crossing  partisan lines. At a campaign rally, Ronald Reagan said “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire—New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen” [2]. Springsteen also performed in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and many attribute this event to a broader cultural shift among East Germans [3]. There are countless other instances of political rock music— from Paul Simon’s Graceland and its cultural protest of apartheid, to the Ramones’ Animal Boy and its take on Reagan’s Bitburg controversy.

Hip-hop music has also endured a particularly political history, especially during its rise in the 1990s. Hip-hop artists often focus their lyrics on injustice, race relations, and social activism, particularly groups like, N.W.A., A Tribe Called Quest, Mobb Deep, and Tupac. In contemporary hip-hop, the same strands of political influence prevail. Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed albums, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, To Pimp A Butterfly and DAMN, include messages about race relations, police brutality, gang violence, identity, religion, mass incarceration, and violence against women. The opening track from DAMN, Kendrick Lamar’s most recent album, sampled a Fox News clip that criticized a political message from one of  Kendrick’s earlier tracks. DAMN was also the first hip-hop album to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, a major breakthrough for the genre [4]. Kanye West is another example of politics in contemporary hip-hop. He is uniquely known in the industry for his outspoken political opinions— expressed in and outside of his music.  Some of his most politically driven albums include Yeezus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, The College Dropout, and Jesus is King. Many other hip-hop artists weave political messages into their music, and can inspire listeners to face important political issues (Vince Staples, Tyler, the Creator, Brockhampton, Jay-Z, and Childish Gambino). Political messages in hip-hop help expose people otherwise unfamiliar with politics to important issues, especially listeners who are removed from certain race-related social justice issues. For this reason and many others, music is often a gateway to more informed views and sympathy towards others. Last month, BYU held a celebration in honor of Black History Month which included musical performances across many genres. This event, Perspectives, celebrated black history, and used music to allow students to hear new perspectives and work towards making our campus a more loving and tolerant place.

Of course, country music cannot be overlooked as a political genre. While anything with a bit of a twang may be perceived as purely conservative, in truth, country artists are widely varied in political opinion. Willie Nelson, one of the most revered country artists in history, is also a notable activist for more liberal stances such as environmental protection, marijuana legalization, and LGBTQ rights [5]. Kacey Musgraves, whose country album won Album of the Year at the 2019 Grammy Awards, is known for her outspokenness on issues including gun control legislation [6]. One of her songs, “Follow Your Arrow,” includes lyrics that dispute societal double standards on drug use, heteronormative relationships, and religion. However, political opinions expressed in music are not always well received. In 2003, the Dixie Chicks became “political casualties” after denouncing the war in Iraq and the Bush administration at a live show. Following the concert, they received death threats and were blacklisted from radio stations across the country [7].

In recent years, as political tensions have heightened, the relationship between music and politics has only grown stronger. Perhaps increased polarization has led artists to feel emboldened, giving them the confidence to use their platform for political messaging. In 2018, Taylor Swift formally endorsed a congressional candidate after staying politically neutral for most of her career [8]. Last month, Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, and The Strokes performed for Bernie Sanders at the Iowa Caucus and then at a rally in New Hampshire [9].  Recent music has also focused on trending political movements. Kesha’s acclaimed single “Praying,” released in wake of the #MeToo movement, was a triumphant account of her former producer’s abuse. Music released in the past year by Billie Eilish and Lana Del Rey addressed the climate crisis, with lyrics including “hills burn in California” and “L.A. is in flames, it’s getting hot.”

I can only scratch the surface of the countless musical artists and genres that contain important political themes—pop, soul, reggae, Afro-pop, jazz, punk, metal, classical, and more. We can’t touch, eat, or see music, but it is somehow a uniquely sensory and emotional experience. Good music feels good [10], and not only communicates a range of ideas, perspectives, and stories, but can be an important tool for political communication.

Sources:

1. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/19/us/politics/presidential-campaign-songs-playlists.html

2. https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/bruce-springsteen-ronald-reagan-107448

3. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20130626-how-springsteen-rocked-the-wall

4. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/16/arts/music/kendrick-lamar-pulitzer-prize-damn.html

5. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/willie-nelson-weed-issue-826290/

6. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-country/kacey-musgraves-gun-violence-lollapalooza-867369/

7. https://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/27/movies/in-an-instant-country-stars-became-political-casualties.html

8. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/07/arts/music/taylor-swift-politics-endorsements.html

9. https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/vampire-weekend-bon-iver-bernie-sanders-iowa-rally-946680/

10.

https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/09/opinion/sunday/why-music-makes-our-brain-sing.html

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Tommy Nanto

TOMMY NANTO is a junior from Littleton, Massachusetts studying Political Science with minors in Psychology and Business. He works as a statistical methods teaching assistant in the Political Science Department. His interests include research methodology, political psychology, public opinion, and organizational behavior. In his free time, he enjoys listening to music with friends, spending time with dogs, and cooking Japanese food.

Tommy Nanto

TOMMY NANTO is a junior from Littleton, Massachusetts studying Political Science with minors in Psychology and Business. He works as a statistical methods teaching assistant in the Political Science Department. His interests include research methodology, political psychology, public opinion, and organizational behavior. In his free time, he enjoys listening to music with friends, spending time with dogs, and cooking Japanese food.

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