An essay on popular music and political protest

In deze blog schrijft Ge'ez Engidashet, student Criminologie en Rechten, een essay in het kader van 'Music & Society'. Hierin zet ze uiteen welke maatschappelijke statements muziek kan maken.

20 maart 2018

Door: Ge'ez Engidashet


Pop music encourages consumption (Eijck, 2000; Shankar, 2000). This is something I was aware of. However, the view of pop music’s ability to reduce everything it touches to consumable protest, was something I had not heard of before. Having watched the Super Bowl 50th halftime show performance of Beyoncé, where she performed ‘Formation’, a song from her newly released album, I was ecstatic on how she celebrated her blackness as she took to the field with the group of dancers – all wearing black uniforms topped off with the typical beret, resembling the statement outfits of the Black Panther Movement. Exactly, the Black Panther Movement, the revolutionary, radical socialist organization whose main focus was to combat white oppression in America between the sixties and the eighties of the past century (Umoja, 2017).

As the dancers formed an X with their bodies – and quite literally got in formation – I recognized the Malcolm X-reference, and felt overjoyed. Overjoyed because of the fact that it felt like Beyoncé, as one of the most impactful artists in the playing field, finally took a stand against the racism and discrimination of black people for the first time in her career. After remaining silent on these important issues in society for as long as I can remember, she released her latest album ‘Lemonade’ with songs that addressed these issues, and used one of the most watched shows on national television to speak out through song, dance, and just overall performance.

Beyoncé’s show was meant as a serious political statement. Or so I thought. The before mentioned opinion that pop music reduces everything it touches to consumable protest, belongs to Theodor W. Adorno (Paddison, 2004). Having read his work I started questioning my view on popular music being used for political protest and would therefore like to answer the question ‘In how far can popular music be used as a form of political protest?’.

Political protest and music are both unapologetically intertwined in black American culture. From work songs sung on the plantations by slaves, to the creation of the blues, the soothing sounds of soul music, the rhythmic beats of funk and the development of jazz. All these music genres have one thing in common: they were used as a means of expression for the African-American community and enhanced the feeling of pride and culture between its’ members, during their mission for equality and justice (Torrubia, 2016; Small, 2011). In the 1970’s, rap music was born, which was seen by some as the cultural expression of the oppressed (Gothelf, 2015; Brooks & Conroy, 2011). A perfect example would be the song ‘Fight the Power’ by the rap group Public Enemy. In its original state, hip-hop was against the dominant ideology of society, but for these last forty years, this uprising music has been gentrified, has become mainstream, or as Adorno would call it, has become a part of the culture industry (Parmar, Nocella, Robertson & Diaz, 2014).

Adorno, with his critique on popular culture and music, is perceived by many as a ‘cultural elitist’ and is considered to be arrogant (Bray, 2011; Wilford, 2011). His argument holds the most basic idea that pop music encourages consumption and that art is therefore reduced to product (Adorno, 1938). The culture industry is so aimed at the immediate gratification of our simple preferences that any other goal such as political protest is simply impossible. The industry encourages us to remain underdeveloped when it comes to musical taste, and a minimal effort is required from us listeners for a maximal satisfaction of the senses (Adorno, 1938). As Adorno mentions in his article “The listener is converted, along his line of least resistance, into the acquiescent purchaser” (p. 273), he talks about this ‘easy listening behaviour’ of the public, their lack of protest and consumerist habits (1938). It is here where the pure enjoyment and the buying of merchandise are the substitutes of authentic musical listening. It is here where music is seen as a fetish, and that the value is no longer seen in the music itself but outside of it.

To readdress the main focus of this essay, Adorno would have seen Beyoncé’s performance as entertainment dressed up as political statement. Especially the fact that the performance took place at the Super Bowl – America’s biggest sports spectacle with over a 100 million people watching, it being the gateway to sustain and promote the culture industry – gives good grounds for his argument. This made-up show, where consumers can sit back and relax, be passive listeners that absorb and consume anything that is given to them, is precisely what is wrong with the culture industry in his eyes. Therefore the goal of political protest is impossible, because popular music reduces everything it touches to consumable protest.

However, Beyoncé’s album was controversial – it sparked conversation on these issues of discrimination and racism. She says so herself in one of the closing lines of Formation: “You know that you’re that bitch when you cause all this conversation”. As she serves a broad audience being a mainstream artist, everyone had this provocative piece of art shoved right under their noses. Even though the music was not relatable to a big part of her audience – non-black, namely white listeners – it was nevertheless aimed towards them. Through her Black Panther-inspired performance, she introduced a whole new audience to the Black Lives Matter movement. It could be seen as a statement towards that part of her audience, because Beyoncé knows all too well that they listen to her music, it being the epitome of the culture industry.

Nina Simone once said “You can’t help it. An artists’ duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times” (1960s). Numerous pop culture artists have done so, addressing issues in the world that need to be acknowledged by a broad audience. Take for example M.I.A. and her song ‘Borders’ where she focuses on the global refugee crisis and confronts the public with the reality that they do not want to face – the fact that huge numbers of people are dying at sea, while the governments of the world seem incapable to take action. Or Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’, in which the British rapper calls out the police on how they criminalise young black men, and how the drug laws disproportionately target the black community. And last but not least, Michael Jackson’s ‘They don’t care about us’, in which the late ‘King of Pop’ denounces violence and indifference of the government, hate, racism and intolerance in society.

Something all these – and many other songs – have in common, is the fact that they are pop songs, and therefore are a part of the culture industry, but at the same time are a powerful force of political protest. In the same way protest was embedded in black music starting from the plantations up until the hip-hop scene, nowadays popular music can effect real change in society. Addressing a vast audience of listeners, pop music introduces millions of people to or reminds them of important matters in society that need to be acknowledged. If a single music video of Beyoncé, M.I.A., Skepta or Michael Jackson can cause so much attention being directed towards it, just think about what pop music in general – aided by social media, with its capability to rapidly spread information globally – can achieve. In this matter, I think that Adorno disregards the powerful impact that pop culture can make on the individuals in society and society as a whole.

In short, I do think that Adorno has a point when it comes to popular music encouraging consumerist behaviour amongst the public and pop songs having the intrinsic value stripped from them due to the template through which they are produced. The public is being fed easy-to-listen-to songs that encourage the ‘sit back and relax-mentality’ and make them passive when it comes to authentic music listening.

Although I agree with Adorno on these arguments, I do hold the stand point that popular music can however be used as a form of political protest, as it has shown its effects in society regarding the songs of artists such as Michael Jackson, Solange Knowles, Kendrick Lamar, Lauryn Hill and many others. Numerous songs have made such an impact on society by making people aware of the ways of the world, by empowering minorities and by celebrating the identity and pride of these communities. What Beyoncé did with her performance at the Super Bowl was use her platform, the mainstream audience of listeners, to empower black women, to promote black activism and more generally, to protest. And the first step to accomplish (e.g. slay) these matters is to get in formation.

Meer informatie? 

Wil je contact opnemen met Ge'ez Engidashet? Dan kun je per e-mail contact opnemen via of Ge'ez rechtstreeks contacten via of haar LinkedIn-pagina.


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