There was a clear spike in political songs since the presidential inauguration of he who shall not be named. We’re not just talking about the overt, radical protest songs of Pussy Riot or some other punk band. Think of all the new music that vaguely or directly taps into the contentious social or political climate.
Reflecting the world’s problems in art seems noble and necessary, and it’s been a historical tradition. Most people wouldn’t imply that music in the current zeitgeist is inherently better, but is it more significant, is it more “woke,” is it more reflective or is it more powerful? Instead of answering with a simple “yes” or “no,” I think we need to reexamine what it means to dub a song “political.”
Recent albums by Janelle Monae, Barbra Streisand, Idles, Superchunk and Christine and the Queens are sprinkled with timely themes that challenge power structures with direct or indirect references. As a black queer woman in America, Janelle Monae knows she has a target on her back and with Dirty Computer, she touches on feminism, queerness and race with defiance, a cool confidence and without having to justify her existence. Similarly, Christine and the Queens’ second full-length Chris sets out to subvert the male gaze and reclaim qualities of physical and sexual power that have historically been associated with men.
Idles’ latest record Joy As an Act of Resistance takes aim at toxic masculinity, anti-immigrant rhetoric, nationalism and classism, but like the title suggests, they advocate for love and warn of the repercussions of fear (“Fear leads to panic / Panic leads to pain / Pain leads to anger / Anger leads to hate”). Superchunk’s latest offering What a Time to Be Alive doesn’t refer to the current president directly, but instead the changing American landscape that he brought about and how to operate in dire times of conservative leadership. After all, as the band offers on “Reagan Youth,” we’ve seen the destructive reign of staunch, white male Republicans before.
Then take Barbra Streisand’s latest album WALLS—the openly oppositional voice of the resistance. One track, “Don’t Lie To Me” decries the president’s outright lies, megalomania and divisive nature (“How do you win if we all lose”). One of the best and most-talked-about tracks of the year was The 1975’s new single, “Love It If We Made It.” Its all-encompassing lyrics address the social, economic and political strife that has plagued the globe as of late with things like the racist criminal justice system, self-medicating, fear-mongering, the lack of progress on climate change and the wide-ranging shortcomings of late capitalism.
All of this music contains straightforward or slightly more ambiguous opposition to the social and political status quo, but what about all the other music without these references? Should those be considered apolitical?
You may have noticed the recent barrage of depressed, anxiety-ridden, uber personal, emotionally and technologically exhausted, disconnected, disenfranchised, powerless songs—a phenomena that appears to transcend genre. The music of Car Seat Headrest, Twenty One Pilots, Mitski, Logic, Lana Del Rey, Mac Miller and others evokes this candid pain and sadness in one form or another. As discussed in a recent Pitchfork feature, it’s not just happening in underground scenes—even the pop stars who we often look to for uplifting music to help us dance through the pain are singing about heavy topics like anxiety and suicide. Think of the popularity of songs like “Stressed Out” by Twenty One Pilots or “In My Blood” by Shawn Mendes. Mendes calls for help while contemplating giving up and Twenty One Pilots reflect on their insecurities by reminiscing about carefree nature of childhood.
The correlation between rising anxiety, depression and suicide rates with the rise of songs that discuss these same topics is no coincidence. When we think of the word “zeitgeist,” which translates to “spirit of the times,” we tend to think of politics, but songs that discuss these growing feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt should also fall under the zeitgeist umbrella. To go one step further, I’d even argue that these songs are not just part of the zeitgeist, they are intrinsically political. The rise in depression and anxiety cannot not be detached from the failure of many national and international systems to deliver results that align with the values they are supposed to represent.
Supposedly apolitical songs—meaning those that don’t address social or political norms or feelings of existential gloom—need to be thought of in a different way. Not singing about politics or the social consciousness may be a deliberate decision to avoid those things. In a sense, those songs are a declaration that modern-day politics and the 24-hour news cycle are overwhelming and divisive, so many songwriters don’t want to go there. That reasoning alone tells us something about politics. People have debated this question for years—Is everything political? I’m increasingly convinced that the answer is “yes.” Music about love, loss and relationships are likely viewed as the most apolitical songs, but I’d implore you to dig deeper.
If you can find solace in songs about something as pure as human relationships, on some level, you’re trying to lead a functional life, and because of the times we live in, that feels like a political statement in itself. Some argue that by just functioning in this dysfunctional system, regardless of whether you’re struggling or using coping mechanisms, is a rebellion in its own way. Typically people view rebellion as taking it to the streets and physically organizing and speaking truth to power, but I think rebellion is more broad than that. The American system has set many of us up for failure—unaffordable healthcare costs, crippling student debt, underfunded schools, crumbling infrastructure. Despite these odds, every time you get out of bed in the morning and head to work or school in search of a better life, you are trying to evade the less than satisfactory future that is laid out for you.
That’s not to say that songs that don’t directly reference politics can’t serve as a mental escape for people—rather I’m suggesting that art doesn’t exist outside the bounds of society, the economy and politics because all artists exist in those systems. Whatever musicians are singing about in 2018, they’re making art against many odds. Think back to the feminist slogan, “the personal is political.” The fact that everyday life is still subject to power structures means that politics is not something that we can escape from, especially with recent developments like the #MeToo movement. Politics is rooted in norms, practices, values and beliefs, and those don’t suddenly dissolve when you’re not voting, participating in the political discourse or singing about how much you hate the current administration. Whether an artist is singing about nature, relationships or social or political norms, we all exist in a series of systems that decide the fate of people’s lives. Everything is political.