Music and Politics: How Much Will It Matter Again?

Back when I was in college, rock and roll historian Barry Drake came and gave a lecture titled “60’s Rock”, When the Music Mattered”.  It was a fabulous presentation about a fantastically eventful decade.  He dissertated that it wasn’t fair to say that the music of the 60’s was necessarily better than that of any other decade in rock history.  It was just that the music mattered more to people during that period.   And who could argue with such a thesis?  At least here in the United States, these were years of great unrest on a societal and political level.   Whether it was the civil rights movement, the assassination of our greatest leaders, or the Vietnam War and its protests, these events were accompanied by and often directly interwoven with the music of the time.   And heck, the decade gave us ‪the Beatles and Motown, and birthed the sounds we currently consider “classic rock”, as well as other innovations.  Enough said, right?  Well, I’ve often considered whether another period of societal/political turmoil could spawn a new sort of renaissance in popular music.  Could now be the time?  Let’s come back to that question.

The past year has been a wild ride, with regard to American politics.   One of the most important things that happened with Donald Trump’s historic election was the magnification of how our information is disseminated.  I’ve observed similarities in the way people process music and politics.  Both are delivered via a variety of media, and this is reflected in the wide array of political views we have in this country, as well as musical tastes.  One could make parallels between the corporate mainstream media of politics (major newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and major networks like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox) and corporate mainstream radio and video (IHeartMedia-owned Top 40 stations, MTV and other television).  Similar parallels can be noted between independent news media and independent music media.  Of course, the paradigm is ever-shifting and becoming more complex, and as the number of internet radio stations and streaming services increase, the news-delivering websites and blogs which offer alternative viewpoints to the mainstream also increase in number and influence.

So what is my point?   Enthusiasm and activism might not be enough.   The problem with corporate media is it tends to perpetuate groupthink and partisan-based hero worship, and to the exclusion of alternative viewpoints.  For example, who can forget the Washington Post’s infamous and later-retracted “fake news” story, where they unfairly smeared several reputable independent and alternative news outlets, and lumped them in with less reputable ones?  And yet many continue to read the Post without a cynical eye, and regard the mainstream press as sacrosanct.  I see this as a hindrance to true activism.  And this is not to say that corporate mainstream media is consistently wrong, but perhaps it is fair to say that over-reliance on it does not foster original thought.  So the parallel in music would be, while it may be fairly innocuous to accept mainstream sources as one’s primary listening point, it is less likely to foster originality and creativity.  I submit that it is the alternative sources of music that seep the best ideas into the creative psyche of artists.  To use a historical example, at a time when skiffle was the mainstream sound in England, ‪the Beatles and their peers in their port hometown Liverpool were buying less-heard American records arriving straight off the boat.  ‪The Beatles, in a sense, were catalysts of an alternative American invasion of Britain, before they in turn “invaded” us in the early 60’s.  ‪John Lennon and ‪Paul McCartney would prove to have incredible ears for learning songs, and sensational voices with which to sing them, so it is no coincidence their band would quickly become one of the world’s best at recreating the American rock and roll sound.  Which, even here, at least in the few years preceding Beatlemania, was not really the “mainstream” yet.  And they took that non-mainstream sound and made it even more alternative and original.

And so, with the question as to whether music and politics will flourish together again, the answer depends.  Politics do seem to matter again, given the current climate of activism, protests, etc.  But will people fall into the pattern of needing corporate mainstream media to tell them what to be outraged about?  Or will there be more original thought placed into where we focus our energy?  Who will have the best “ears” for news, and best “voices” for change, so to speak?  The protests I’m most encouraged about are those that are addressing systemic problems, like interventionist war and pipeline spills…problems that existed long before Donald Trump and that are generally ignored by corporate mainstream media.  Here in Lancaster, PA, we have our own miniature version of the Standing Rock protest, with an indefinite encampment set up to block the Atlantic Sunrise proposed pipeline.   I know of local musicians who have offered to perform there.   I can’t make any predictions on where their music will go, but whatever influences they bring, I hope they somehow make an impact, as much as the protesters hope to make an impact on preservation of clean water and sacred land in this region.   Will the original thoughts of protesters nationwide, and the imagination of the musicians that support these causes make an impact nationally?   I look forward to finding out.

Daniel Martin is a rock historian, musician, and writer from Lancaster, PA.