December 6, 2002

End The Trend?

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This week, instead of focusing on a single, recent trend in A & E, my column will consider a historical trend in pop-culture. One question in particular about popular music culture has led me to write from this alternative viewpoint: why do we now lack the revolutionary popular artists who dominated the rock scene of the late 1960s and early ’70s? During the past era of cultural turmoil and growth, artists who spread poignant socio-political messages dominated the mainstream. Yet today, one glance at mainstream rock — a single viewing of MTV’s Total Request Live or a 30 minute listen to pop radio — reveals many vapid, meaningless artists, playing unextraordinary music with very little social consciousness. Hearing the music of my parents (the Beatles, Hendrix, the Stones, and Dylan) or watching the Woodstock documentary and other footage from the late ’60s, I yearn to be a part of this lost confluence of musical innovation and political activism, because no such entity exists during our time, especially not on such a large scale.

Since the late ’60s, a number of musical revolutionaries — take Kurt Cobain for a modern example — packed enough punch to reach the mainstream with something real to say (anti-corporatism in Nirvana’s case). But it seems these artists too often have fallen victim to their own lifestyles or the profit-obsessed entertainment industry. I used to think all was lost — the late ’60s were a golden era not to be repeated in following generations. This might be true, but the legacy of our parents’ generation of rock is not altogether dead. Although rock in pop culture has lost much of its creative and politically relevant edge, the audacious spirit of socially aware, progressive rock has always been in existence; it’s just on the periphery.

The rock artists of the late ’60s stood for change by defying social convention as well as musical standards. Their music was not for it’s own sake, but for the greater purpose of expressing insightful cultural and political statements of the time. From the folk-charged poetry of Dylan to the electric passion of Hendrix, these artists injected the early rock before them with their own bold visions: melodies and personalities that changed the face of music forever. Just think about Dylan’s social insight and political protest on The Times They Are A-Changing. The man lived and breathed the sentiment of his generation, and he’s still around, kicking out powerful tunes. There are plenty more songs of the era with poignant social significance, including Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” both of which defined a generation and influenced the course of history. Unfortunately, as the music of political awareness found a broad base of support in the greater population, the entertainment industry moved in to profit from protest.

Today, despite the innumerable conflicts engulfing our world, we are hard pressed to find similar political consciousness in popular music. Examples of protest can be found in mainstream rock but these instances are far and few between. The unique and charged music of U2, particularly “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” about the 1972 killing of Irish protesters by British troops, asserts a well-crafted political message for peace. Venturing into more recent mainstream activism, Rage Against the Machine and Public Enemy also brought their socio-political message to the public eye, but with neither the effectiveness nor the insight of late ’60s rock.

Think of the strife and discontent in the world today; there’s plenty of conflict ripe for political and social criticism, but the mainstream continues on its irrelevant, bubble gum course. I’m not arguing that all music has lost its creative or politically-conscious edge — certainly iconoclastic revolutionaries from indie rock to punk to hip-hop have left their indelible mark in the hearts and minds of many avid music listeners. The imminent unrest of Sonic Youth, the defiant punch of Fugazi, and the inspiring activism of Michael Franti & Spearhead have perpetuated the legacy of social consciousness. However, this radical spirit exists in no sort of coherence supported by an entire generation, but in fragmented pockets of the population. We have no visionary, no critic, no poet in the mainstream with the political consciousness of rock’s past. Instead, a mess of materialistic, self-centered Britneys tragically prevail. Maybe we live in a more conservative time, wherein the majority of people are content to overlook injustice. Clearly the socio-political factors that lined up to create the late ’60s scene do not relate to the popular rock scene of today, but the future holds possibility — be it further decline or welcome improvement.

Hope is still alive as dissension and protest resists the suffocating grasp of complacency. For a concluding example of hope, Steve Earle, a singer/songwriter with a folk-country edge, questions the American establishment in his post 9-11 album, Jersusalem. For one, the first-person narrative of “John Walker Blues” has sparked quite a bit of controversy. Artistic visonaries like Steve Earle still hold the promise of returning the political awareness and unity of past decades to the pop-culture of our time.

Archived article by Andrew Gilman