Based on the most popular songs in the U.S. right now, you would think that we are the richest, most carefree, superficial and sexist people in the world.
We are really not in the best of times.
Wars rage on all over the world. ISIS recently beheaded three journalists. Ebola finally received the international attention it deserves, yet many are far from cured. Even within the U.S., we have significant problems. An unforgiving economy, the struggles surrounding undocumented immigrants and prevailing institutional racism are just a few of the issues that people in the U.S. face on a daily basis.
In the past, similar struggles translated into ballads, civil rights anthems and lyrics that transformed society. Woody Guthrie’s song “Deportee” was about Mexican immigrant workers who were exploited for work in the U.S., only to be heartlessly deported afterward. “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s powerful, disturbing song about lynching, addressed an evil that she saw in her world. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” became popular in the 1960s and articulated the massive discontent people had with existing social conditions. Bob Marley encouraged the disempowered to confront oppression in “Get Up, Stand Up.” 2Pac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” poetically advocated respect for women. All of these were influential, well-known songs performed by popular artists.
Clearly, some of the issues they sang about are connected with our problems today. Just last week, Lehigh welcomed Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, and other panelists for an LU Rap Session called “America’s Most Wanted: Hip-hop, the Media & the Criminalization of Black & Brown Youth.” The panel opened with a song by a young Bethlehem resident, Sam Steffen, called “The Ballad of Trayvon Martin.” As he chronicled the tragedy of Martin’s death, his words rang clear, with only light guitar strumming and harmonica to accompany the lyrics. For some, it felt strange and unfamiliar to hear a musician sing so openly about something that goes deeper than a breakup or bad day. It was uncomfortable to be confronted with the reality of the death of a teenager in the form of a song.
Most songs played on America’s top 40 lists consist of some variation of ‘grab somebody and dance.’ We are told to have a good time and to not consider consequential events in a context outside of strict news. It’s not a question of education or intelligence; it’s about feeling the world and its troubles. Yes, there are occasional songs that highlight current issues, like Macklemore’s “Same Love,” but these are one in a million compared to the number of repetitive, fun songs that dominate popular culture.
If anything, some pop songs are contributing to the very societal problems older generations used their music to try to change. The song “Blurred Lines” is probably the catchiest song to make its way through a summer playlist, but its lyrics depict sexual assault in a positive light. We still hear the song at parties, the gym, restaurants, cafeterias and stores. It might be ‘just a song,’ but hearing it constantly does shape our views on sexual assault. It desensitizes us to the seriousness of such a crime and even normalizes it. On one level, we know the song has a horrible message. But it’s so catchy. And so it goes.
It’s not that we do not know the lyrics of pop songs—we do. We sing along to every offensive word. We are not ignorant of the meaning behind the words, either. It’s just that we don’t care enough to say, ‘that’s enough!’ and refuse to play it again. It’s that beat. It’s contagious. It’s addicting. It’s exactly what you want after a long day of studying. Horribly offensive refrains become acceptable to shout at a party because they are ‘just song lyrics and not intended to be taken seriously.’
In SNL’s digital short “When Will The Bass Drop?” the character DJ Davincii flips eggs and plays video games behind his DJ booth while the crowd anticipates the moment when he drops the bass. Rapper Lil Jon then appears and pushes a button labeled ‘turn up to death.’ Everyone’s heads then explode. This satire basically says mindless music is killing our brains.
Whether mindless or offensive, our pop songs are clearly lacking the depth they once had. Lyrics might not be recognized as powerful, but they are. When songs become popular, they represent part of our culture. And we live in a culture that objectifies women, glorifies greed and ignores anything that ventures beyond having a good time. Fun is great, but not when it’s linked to demeaning messages or when it’s the only theme coming through.
College students play a large role as consumers of such messages. Many of us go to parties several times a week, where pop music is played for hours on end. We may listen to other genres of music on our own, but pop music is the music that we share. It is the common thread between us, and it’s sad that something that brings us together is so harmful and hollow.
Lorde’s song “Team,” though, has lyrics that resonate. “I’m kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air. So there.”
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