Say It Loud: How Didacticism in Music Now Bends to Corporate ImpulsesPhotos courtesy of NFB, Tom Ham, Zachary Gray, Nasty Little Man & Edward Cooke Music Features Music Industry
I’d been listening to a lot of music of no particular bent or genre when I came across Willie Dunn, a Mi’gmaq folk singer from Montreal—whose voice, like the wind, sounded primordial. Tired but not resigned, he talked and sang in matter-of-fact tones that were clear about his people—the indigenous tribes of Canada—the land—mined, carved up, handed around like playing cards to settlers and colonial interests—and the history tying these things together. “He was like, ‘Well, I write songs that will last 300 years,'” said one of his late-in-life friends, Anishinaabe musician Raven Kanatakta. Kanatakta had asked Dunn how he writes songs and that was Dunn’s response: bold, in the way so few things actually are, and true, if only for the fact that part of Dunn’s oeuvre was a collection of songs about long-past historical figures, some not quite 300 years old.
The point, which comes across both in Dunn’s urgent lyrical content and the fact that, after listening to tracks like “I Pity the Country”, “Charlie” and “The Pacific” over and over, day after day and feeling as if I’m hearing entirely new words, chords, intonations and lives, is that, through some alchemical mixture of political severity, familial motivation and received generational wisdom, Dunn strived to create a vehicle for the narrative and the message. This vehicle would at once reflect the times it passed through, bouncing off glints of light similar—but not quite the same—to that of any given moment, humming along through time, preserving Dunn’s voice, true, but most importantly, a legacy of intersections. This is to say that Dunn’s work, which spanned documentary filmmaking and politics as well as activism and music, folded in myriad influences and specificities of style, from Black American blues traditions to indigenous religious chants.
Such artists and their projects do not necessarily work well for the fact of their many historical antecedents or appeals to the present. There is no guarantee that speaking to the moment, a funny but distressingly common notion, will mean much of anything. Dunn, born in 1941, came up in the coffee shop folk scene of the ‘60s— alongside Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot—but his career, lifelong though it was, never exploded. His influence on subsequent generations of musicians, until recently, existed in the mainstream consciousness as a vital but ancillary footnote rather than a chapter. Which is to say that calling Dunn’s work prescient or relevant today merely highlights the question of why it wasn’t so during his lifetime. In her short 2020 essay collection Intimations, Zadie Smith writes the oft-circulated sentiment: “The people sometimes demand change. They almost never demand art.” Dunn demanded and created both, but it’s a torch that is difficult to pass on much less hold.
We can ask the question of why so much politically inflected music of late does not come close to the power or feeling of Dunn’s. It would be reductive to say Dunn’s body of work is merely protest music, or indigenous advocacy. His melodies and his voice have moved me to tears without my paying attention to his lyrics, a testament to forces more ephemeral and less-calculated than didacticism or the effort to foreground good politics. Really, to have this conversation raises certain questions beyond the who and the how. Why is it fashionable now, in some cases even lauded or deemed important, that major artists write socially conscious songs that have little artistic merit? Is something lost or cheapened when musicians like Dunn, once obscure and now hailed as heroes, are dredged up from the crates and positioned first as political actors and second as individual artists? What do we want our artists to say to us about the world we live in?
In recent times, there are certain social and political valences of late that jump out. The Trump of it all, in particular, brought about thematic shifts both subtle and dramatic in most artistic mediums and across genres. Take 2019, the proverbial Year Before Everything Got Worse, which saw music from (just as an example) both Andrew Bird and FOALS. Bird’s album My Finest Work Yet played with absurdity and seriousness, toggling between the narrator’s amused observations at the precipice of societal collapse and more earnest, clumsy jabs at social media and general upheaval. On “Archipelago,” Bird likens collective estrangement due to petty differences and manufactured animosity to remote atolls, rhyming this with the refrain “enemies are what make us whole.” It’s “The young ones I fear for / Forgive us, we know not what we’ve done,” he sings on “Don the Struggle.”
FOALS’ double album Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost, whose title references video game save warnings, also works overtime to communicate a variation on the contemporary apocalyptic mood. Early in Part 1, “Exits” aims for something like climate change awareness: “The sea eats the sky / But they say it’s a lie,” vocalist Yannis Philippakis sings, ending with an all-too-common copout to individual anguish and helplessness: “There’s no birds left to fly/ I said I’m so sorry/ That the world has fallen down/ I wish I could do something more.” FOALS have never been a lyrically subtle band and yet “On the Luna” unbalances for how it names the thing out loud, “Trump clogging up my computer / But I’m watching all day.”
Between both records—Bird’s soaring violin and bard-like delivery and Foals’ stomping rhythms and Philippakis’s full-throated yelps—there is an attempt to have fun while being serious. If there is not necessarily a sense of obligatory virtue-signaling, it’s more that both groups find themselves strapped for a way to think through how they might distill their anxieties down into something relatable and digestible. More often than not, this impulse translates into rampant literalism, the internet and political strife proving ever impervious to elegant metaphors or abstract turns of phrase. Too, Bird and Philippakis take up a narrative perspective found in a lot of clumsy songwriting of this kind, detached, above and slightly condescending or disembodied and aimless, drifting with a feverishly twitching gaze at all that is horrific and too large to fathom.
Of course, these topics are not new to songwriters or popular music by any means, nor are they unworthy of being spoken about. In some ways, if one is grading on a curve, having a point-of-view at all in an increasingly corporatized, bland, apolitically-motivated industry is better than not. But there’s a paradox here: The corporate or algorithmic undercurrents of popular music now—felt or not by the artists or their audiences—also prize music that, supposedly, speaks to the moment. Really, it’s the illusion of a paradox. What happens to sell or bolster the public image of an entity—what situates something or someone as aware and outspoken—these things tend to be gauged as a net positive, no matter the impetus.
In her essay on necessary art, Lauren Oyler writes: “A turn toward socially conscious criticism, ushered in by the internet’s amplification of previously ignored perspectives, has meant that culture now tends to be evaluated as much for its politics as for its aesthetic successes (or failures). Certain works — usually those that highlight the experiences of marginalized groups, or express some message or moral about the dangers of prejudice — have been elevated in stature. It’s an overdue correction that brings with it an imposition: No longer just illuminating, instructive, provocative or a way to waste a few hours on a Saturday, these works have become ‘necessary.’”
This makes for hazy perception and categorization, important for streaming services and various ways of self-identifying, in a musical setting. What separates, say, Stephen Malkmus talking about the murder of Freddie Gray in Sparkle Road’s “Bike Lane” from Bob Dylan’s “I Feel a Change Comin’ On”? Another way of framing this is: What tips a song into the realm of protest music? A pedantic question, perhaps for those who feel the distinction is obvious. Except these considerations of importance, relevance and visibility of a certain politics can often collapse under the mantra of “we need to talk about these things.” One ponders the trade-off between art that disturbs, gives pause, unsettles and points unflinchingly toward the dark and art that invites an audience to roar in collective agreement, embracing the royal “we,” underlining simple, unremarkable truths that are worth thinking about but not so upsetting as to stop people from dancing. Rarely does popular music do either one well, let alone both.
And yet, what can be deemed shallow or cringey by critics can alternatively be hailed by audiences as speaking truth to power. Take Paramore’s most recent record This Is Why, which comments on doom scrolling, shitty men and crumbling social structures made even weaker by the pandemic. On “The News,” during the bridge, Hayley Williams sings: “Exploitative, performative/ Informative and we don’t know the half of it / Rhetorical, deplorable/ Historical, and all along, we called it normal.” That “The News” was the album’s second single portended a ham-fisted social consciousness that is found in pockets elsewhere but never feels real. This Is Why‘s often breathless, punkish numbers are meant to keep the energy up in between slower, even messier tracks like “Big Man, Little Dignity,” but the lyrics and the music often work in tandem to undermine the message, that breathlessness sounding a lot like desperation to finish an idea.
Large and easily identifiable shadows loom here. The global devastation of the pandemic pushed many artists into the direction of commentary—a chorus of many different voices trying to capture or at least convey the severity of the situation, with emphasis on dilemmas both new and evergreen: climate change, MeToo, George Floyd, COVID, anti-Black/trans/indigenous reactionaries and the mainstream highlighting material inequalities. The political songwriting (of a certain genre and mainstream visibility) that endeavors to touch on these by-no-means easy subjects is very clearly motivated by good intention but stifled by such prominent virtue-signaling that it raises questions about the legitimacy of a given musician’s outrage and the transmission of the message.
Some, like the British professional shouters IDLES, try on shameless chest-puffing, pretending not to give a shit about critical feedback. On 2020’s Ultra Mono, songs like “Grounds” feature proud, confusing lyrics like, “There’s nothing brave and nothing useful/ You scrawlin’ your aggro shit on the walls of the cubicle/ Sayin’ my race and class ain’t suitable/ So I raise my pink fist and say black is beautiful.” Meanwhile, “The Lover” draws attention to the album’s Instagram black boxes with stuff like, “You say you don’t like my clichés / Our sloganeering and our catchphrase / I say, ‘love is like a freeway’ / and ‘Fuck you, I’m a lover.’” At least they have the good sense to end that song with a hearty, repeated chorus of “Eat shit!”
It’s less that the politics are wrong or inelegant—sometimes it’s better to be blunt—but that the expected result feels so tauntingly geared toward congratulations. Too, it’s hard to ignore that this, more often than not, comes from people who shoehorn such songs into otherwise thematically unrelated work, that they themselves tend to be materially divorced from any causes other than charity or half-hearted fundraising for national organizations. Put another way, the thematic framing is hardly one of solidarity, or direct action, but a bizarre mash of simultaneously vague and effortful performance. It is the rare instance when the very fact that art shouldn’t have to have utility in order to exist scrapes against the nagging sensation that these songs are obligatory, half-hearted and, in essence, pointless.
In her essay, Oyler goes on to write: “When applied to bad art with good politics, ‘necessary’ allows the audience to avoid engaging with a work in aesthetic terms, which tend to be more ambiguous and difficult. When applied to good art with good, or even ambivalent, politics, it renders aesthetic achievement irrelevant.” It’s almost never about the quality of the music itself in these cases, though a band that plays with familiar sounds while schlepping milquetoast lyrical activism might fly under the radar for laziness and instead be heralded for “boldness.” So where does that leave us?
Legitimate political songwriting has always been a tricky enterprise. It seeks to inspire something beyond an emotional response, a prod toward action and a reminder of a shared, painful reality. Mainstream political songwriting today is an even trickier prospect not because it can’t be done well or that it doesn’t come from a sincere origin, but that it can be so easily defanged, decontextualized and received with skepticism. Hyper consumption plays a role here; it all gets gobbled up so quickly, and often there’s an individualistic bent (“you have to do your part”) that cops to an insularity devoid of the possibility for more expansive political imagination.
Gorillaz close out their song “Oils” off the new Cracker Island record by literally proclaiming: “Individual actions change the world.” These are bands and artists who are merely gesturing toward dismantling systems or indicting politicians while working within the confines of large labels and capitalist motivations because the trade-off, to them, is exposure and marketing over purity of vision and creative independence. The question then becomes if political lyrics are doomed to be divided into two categories: toothless provocations made from comfortable positions of distant observation or full-throated invectives drowned out and ignored because of the uneasiness and truth of what is being said.
How do we navigate and poke holes at an increasingly commercialized and commodified society that turns political overtures into mere aesthetic concerns? Music’s disruptive potential hasn’t dissipated, but it has been challenged by sheer oversaturation. Modest Mouse gets close to the absurdity of this in their song “Transmitting Receiving” from 2021’s The Golden Casket, which, for the most part, takes the form of an incredibly long list: “Horses, wagons, airplanes, cars, bathtubs into drains, smartphones, doorbells, refrigerators, pencils, hens, paper, skin, hair, watermelons, alligators, volcanoes and super freighters, dust on floors, grease in pores, the food you eat, opened doors.”
The corporate dance of inclusion and representation and supposed allyship during the summer of 2020 and beyond helped make a certain strain of nominally progressive politics appear admirable for the very fact that such politics were hyper-visible. This veneer of change and solidarity proved enough for some consumers and ardent fans. But it leaves artists vying to create something real and impactful with a decision to make about how long and often they want to associate themselves with something like political activism.
It’s one thing to be swept up in a global groundswell of death, sickness and fire, but it’s another thing to play witness to those truths when everything seems fine for you in the aftermath—even when it isn’t for others. If the aesthetic minutiae of musical politics are too subjective to parse, then, at the very least, artists like Willie Dunn give an example to a daily lived ethos of socio-political urgency. Don’t mistake this for a veiled dismissal of non-Black, non-indigenous political art, either. The question is one of commitment, not qualification. Sorely needed is an expansion of the horizons of what’s possible. Right now, it feels like no one is trying to write songs that will last 300 years. Maybe that’s a start.
Nicholas Russell is a writer and critic from Las Vegas.