Sunday, June 06, 2004

Grandchildren of the revolution 

I've had a coffee with a friend of mine this afternoon and we started talking about the disappearance from the musical mainstream of protest songs and "socially conscious" (left-wing) popular music generally.

Being the children of the 1980s, we both remember growing up with, although not necessarily following, the music of artists like Billy Bragg and Sex Pistols, Big Country and Simple Minds, Sting and Peter Gabriel and Bruce Springsteen (or Midnight Oil in Australia) and many many others who for years sang more or less overtly political anthems against the "system", or about the "cause of the week".

What is there now? Sure, some performers are still around (Ani di Franco comes to mind) but hardly register on the charts; others still crack the Top 100, but they generally steer clear of political material (like Sting, or the ambiguous, post-S11/"Rising" Bruce Springsteen). The only major exception seems to be U2, possibly because Bono has by now achieved such prominence and symbolic status as the champion of Third World and human rights causes.

Just about the only musical genre that occasionally flirts with politics is rap and hip-hop. The Asian Dub Foundation and Spearhead come to mind, neither however much of a Top of the Pops material. Most of the charting rap and R'n'B still revolves around "bitchez and niggaz" or at least women shaking their butts around swimming pools.

So what happened? It couldn't be because angry song-writers can't find enough words to rhyme with "globalisation" or "Iraq". While music industry doesn't quite operate in a total free market environment, it seems clear that rubbishing your government or saving the whales simply doesn't sell anymore. If the record companies could still make money out of it, you can bet your bottom dollar that the charts would be full of ditties like "Bush is Satan" and "Fuck Exxon". The most obvious reason why it's not the case seems to me to be that both Generations X and Y are far less political in a "fight the system and save the world" sense than their immediate predecessors. That of course applies both to the consumers and musicians alike.

It's actually quite ironic that nowadays you're far more likely to find religious messages and imagery on the charts (Creed, P.O.D. and so on) than you are to hear about evils of capitalism or the American foreign policy. I guess chalk this one up as one small victory in the culture wars.

Mark Steyn has written a piece for "Chicago Sun Times", contrasting the patriotism of the popular culture at the time of the D-Day with the moral vacuity of the present times. Where is the soundtrack and movie-track to the war on terror and Iraq, asks Steyn. Well, let's see the glass as half-full instead. Yes, the entertainment industry didn't give us pro-America and anti-terrorism products, but it also didn't really give us too many anti-America and pro-terrorism ones, and that's a good start. So while it's not 1944 again, neither is it 1970 or 1984.

Steyn does make a good point, though, about Hollywood continuing not to be too shy about pushing various political pet agendas. This makes for an interesting contrast with the music industry. Could the difference have something to do with the fact that while most Hollywood movie-makers (directors, producers, screenwriters) belong to the Baby Boom generation, it's their children who have by now taken over the Billboard charts. If it is indeed a generational phenomenon, like I think it is, then the future of popular culture, while not necessarily very bright from the right's point of view, is not looking as dark and murky as it used to in the past.

UPDATE: The "Christian Science Monitor" disagrees with my views.


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