Why Isn’t Pop Music Political?


Here’s Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello on the MTV news website today: “You listen to ‘Fight the Power’ and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and you can hear America changing. Now it’s just the relentless booty shake of hollow bling. There’s not yet a soundtrack like in the 60s, when the music of the time was the music of revolution.” This is maybe the worst quote I’ve ever read in my life. That man actually said “the relentless booty shake of hollow bling.”

Now here’s Lupe Fiasco in a Pitchfork interview I did with him a couple of weeks ago: “It’s like, don’t nobody care. George Bush is not going to hear you. Congress is not going to hear what you’re saying. The only time they’ll hear you is if you’re there at a Congressional hearing and they give you an hour and it’s being simulcast on NPR and CNN. Other than that, your rap record ain’t getting too far.”

And here’s another quote I like, the Coup’s Boots Riley in a Cocaine Blunts interview: “What’s crazy is that throughout the time that we’ve been around I get all kind of rappers that come up to me that would be wrongly put into the gangsta category, but they’re all saying ‘Yeah, we talk about the same shit, we breaking that science down so they know what’s goin’ on.’ What in their hearts, what they’re doing is saying, ‘This is how the world works, I am going to tell you something that makes it easier to survive.’ What that’s coming from is a general love for the people.”

That god-awful Morello quote up top comes from an MTV news article that went up today, a piece that asks a bunch of musicians why there’s no protest in pop music anymore. Gil Kaufman, who wrote the article, has this idea that the 60s were a golden age for protest music, that you could turn on the TV and see Marvin Gaye or Bob Dylan or whoever making huge sweeping statements denouncing the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War. It’s a common viewpoint, and maybe there’s even some truth to it. But things get messy and complicated when you start comparing the 60s to right now. Kaufman’s idea is that today’s popular musicians don’t throw down like that anymore, that pop music looks timid and reticent, especially given the level of popular dissent against the Bush administration. That assumption is his starting point, and then he goes and asks a whole mess of musicians why that’s the case now.

Of course, Kaufman’s piece loses a whole lot when he starts naming the exceptions, the musicians who have made statements about the Bush administration. It’s a long and diverse list, maybe the only common thread that unites the Coup and Bright Eyes and Juvenile and NOFX and Pearl Jam and the Dixie Chicks. Kaufman runs down the list before getting into the musician quotes, so the article contradicts itself before it really starts, and dudes like Morello come across even more quibbley and trifling than they would without all the disclaimers. It’s a cliched Rolling Stone boomer-idea, that pop culture managed to stop a war, that musicians once had power as galvanizing figures. And it’s especially quaint now that this administration has made it abundantly clear that no amount of widespread dissent and approval-rating plummets are going to convince them to alter their plans in any way. Republican gerrymandering and election-year fear-pandering have become so precise and scientific that the President doesn’t have a damn thing to worry about from Kanye West or Neil Young or former Rage Against the Machine members or basement hardcore band #535879, like he really would’ve lost sleep anyway. But then there’s that old liberal question: what do you do? You can’t do nothing. Can you?

But unless you’re working in country music, sweeping political proclamations aren’t going to jar or offend anyone; you’re either preaching to the converted or rattling sabers with the full knowledge that no one’s going to pay you any mind. Other than Nazi black metal or whatever, country is the only musical genre that caters to a largely right-wing subcultural group, where God-and-country rhetoric is written into the genre’s DNA, so only a country figure like the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines has opportunity to address a potentially hostile audience. If she makes an anti-Bush statement, she’s sticking her neck out a lot further than Eddie Vedder or whoever. And it’s worth noting that she made her big anti-Bush statement in London, a place where she could probably safely assume that the crowd would be behind her; I’m guessing she had no idea she’d be instigating an American media shitstorm.

Riley’s idea that someone like T.I. is doing something opens up a whole new can of worms. Riley is saying that T.I. isn’t doing nothing when he does yet another trap-rap song, that he’s giving the community advice that he thinks it needs when he does this song, and a track like “Be Better Than Me” from Trap Muzik certainly bears out that idea. So does much of Riley’s recent work. Pick a Bigger Weapon, the Coup’s new album, isn’t as nakedly polemic as a lot of their older stuff; there’s a lot of sex-talk and lazy-afternoon boasting in there too, and it puts the political talk in a casual, everyday perspective, where it makes a lot more sense than Dead Prez hectoring. Lupe Fiasco does a similar thing on the Food & Liquor leak, talking about politics loosely and impressionistically and never getting splenetic. If we’re not in the military or in prison, most of us experience politics as a part of our everyday lives, an immensely frustrating dead zone where things keep getting worse and worse no matter how hard we rail. And so Riley and Lupe’s approach hits harder, at least for me, since it’s not so easy to tune it out. Most of us are more likely to consider new perspectives when we’re not being yelled at, and plenty of musicians realize that, so maybe that’s why they’re not waving banners in our faces so much these days.