Lately it’s been hard for me to take a lot of pop music seriously, and one reason is that it has become so shockingly apolitical. As tumultuous as civic discourse has become, there’s not too much on the radio that even touches on politics. Current music has become too polite and well behaved, and that puts it in danger of being irrelevant. Unless we start seeing some acrimony in the coming year’s Top 40, I fear that future musicologists won’t have much to say about 2018.
We’ve seen periods like this before, but when music becomes too complaisant, new styles rise up from social change. A group will feel disenfranchised, like in the mid-‘60s when young American draftees developed a taste for a new, heavy kind of rock. There will be anger, like with the disaffected punks of the Reagan ‘80s. An underground movement will start, like when the first hip-hop artists started bringing their turntables to neighborhood parties in The Bronx. A community of musicians will form, like the post-war bebop jazz players. The new sound won’t be commercially viable at first, but then there will be a breakout song to rally around. It’ll be a song that makes some people mad, but it’ll be impossible to ignore. Expressions of outrage by the xenophobes fan the flames, and that’s when the media take notice. Thus styles are born.
Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth" was written by Stephen Still about anti-Sunset Strip Riots in 1966. It quickly became an anti-war anthem and helped foster the idea of rock music as social commentary.
For music to be taken seriously, it has to have social meaning. My wish for 2018 is that musicians ruffle some feathers.
Recorded 1939 at the Cafe Society, the first integrated jazz club in New York City, at the beginning of the bebop era. Called “the Song of the Century.”
This is the first recording from 1944, written to protest McCarthyism.
Charles Mingus, “Fables of Faubus,” Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus (1960)
James Brown, “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” (1968)
Songs like this are why funk music was important socially as well as musically.