In the age of boy bands, repetitive lyrics, and super pop songs, it’s hard to believe that music can accomplish anything other than entertainment. However, when we take a step back and look into the history of music, it is clear that music can play a huge role in politics, on a national and global scale. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, music played a huge role in every country, in every society. These were the years of massive political, societal and economic change; apartheid, upheaval, rebellion, boycotts, and how did the people express their views? Via music.
The story of Rodriguez in “Searching for Sugar Man” has been heavily criticized as ‘surreal‘ and ‘dishonest’, and labeled a “McMovie… without any content” (Titlestad, 2013). However it is clear that no matter how embellished the documentary, there is no denying the importance of Rodriguez’s music on the people of South Africa. Hyslop suggests that the music culture of artists like Rodriguez, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon was seen as an ideological threat by the apartheid regime and did play a part in the radicalization of small but politically important groups’.
So the question is; what happened to the power of music?
Once upon a time, great Australian bands and artists like Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel and Yothu Yindi dominated the national music charts with powerful rock songs with a real message. From Indigenous rights to wars and peace, the most controversial topics were discussed and broadcast across the nation and even overseas through song. Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty” sent a powerful and raw message in response to Bob Hawke’s promise of a treaty between Indigenous Australians and the government by 1990. The song climbed the charts to number one, and succeeded in its efforts to raise awareness among the Australian public about the government’s promise (Corn, A. 2006).
Back in 1988, all those talking politicians; words are easy words are cheap. (Lyrics from “Treaty” by Yothu Yindi)
Think back to the last time you remember a song with a deep political message in the Australian charts. The most recent one I can think of is John Butler Trio’s “Revolution”.
In her article “Where are all the protest songs?” Gabriella Coslovich discusses the decline of meaningful popular music, and poses important questions relating to today’s music scene.
But lets get to the bottom of this- WHY are there no political songs around today? Well I can think of a few reasons.
- Economic status. Firstly, the affluence in today’s society allows for a much more sheltered and protected environment. Australia is a first world country, with a large portion of society being wealthy enough not to have to worry about any immediate threats or issues in today’s society; or so they see it.
- The “Me” generation, and #selfie craze. With the boom of social media, today’s younger generation has a huge focus on themselves. It becomes more about how many likes a status or picture can get, rather than what is happening in the world. As long as it doesn’t affect us we don’t really pay attention to it. Huge issues are unfolding right on our doorstep and we just turn a blind eye, maybe because we don’t know how to deal with it or maybe because we can’t be bothered. Either way, its something that seriously needs to be addressed, and we have all the right stages to do it; social media, music, television. So why isn’t it happening?
- Modern media. Previous generations were almost forced to be aware of current world and national events; they had less globalized TV and radio stations, and more homegrown entertainment, with a focus on education and news. Nowadays, with the introduction of Foxtel, Netflix and the like, we are presented with outsourced television shows. Today’s society has seen a proliferation of commercial media with a focus on entertainment rather than education and information.
I feel that the change in pop music from the 1970s to now is a huge disappointment, shifting the focus from significant issues to catchy tunes. How can one compare the music of Rodriguez, who was considered as a pop artist in his prime, to that of today’s pop musicians like Justin Bieber?
It’s a true tragedy that this capitalist society has created a vicious cycle in the Australian film industry, where the want for easy listening and catchy songs causes record companies to sign bland musicians, and those artists with real songs, real lyrics, are forced to conform in order to make it big. According to Triple J’s music director Richard Kingsmill, there are independent bands out there, but their music is just ignored by the masses. Although “Searching for Sugar Man” may be a false representation of Rodriguez, it still remains a fact that his political focus made him a kind of ‘Prophet’ (Titlestad, 2013), and I think its important that the Australian music scene embraces more budding artists with real messages.
Jonathan Hyslop (2013) ‘“Days of Miracle and Wonder”? Conformity and Revolt in Searching for Sugar Man’, Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, 14:4, 490-501.
Michael Titlestad (2013) ‘Searching for the Sugar-coated Man’, Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies, 14:4, 466-470
Coslovich, G. 3006, ‘Where are all the protest songs?’ Age, November 4, viewed 3rd Septemer 2015
Corn, A. 2006, Yothu Yindi Music: Treaty, Yothu Yindi, viewed 3rd September 2015
John Butler Trio, 2010, Revolution – John Butler Trio – Official Video – JBT, online video, July 10, YouTube, viewed 3rd September 2015
ausTV2, 2014, YOTHU YINDI – Treaty (1991), online video, November 8, YouTube, viewed 3rd September 2015
Yothu Yindi, 2006, Yothu Yindi collage, image, viewed 4th September 2015
Furowaa, The Evolution of Pop Music, cartoon, COGCCC.org, viewed 4th September 2015
COGCCC, Evolution of Music lyrics, image, COGCCC.org, viewed 4th September 2015
Yu, D. 2015, Generation Me, cartoon, bearningnews.org, viewed 4th September 2015