Try as we might, it is virtually impossible to divorce pop culture from politics. Content is created and consumed by people whose outlooks on life influence their interactions with the world. Even not having an opinion on something is just being of the opinion that said something isn’t worth your time.
Ergo, the frequent depoliticization of music made with politics in mind means something. It speaks to our collective use of escapism as a coping mechanism, the tendency of privileged people to think of marginalized demographics as nothing more than means of entertainment and the dangers of failing to acknowledge the impact politics have on pop culture.
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has been covered by scores of other artists since it was first released in 1984. While Cohen’s version is the original, John Cale’s cover is what most artists tend to take from when producing their own. The problem is Cale’s rendition of “Hallelujah” omitted some verses from the original that referenced Cohen’s Jewish heritage. Without these verses, the song’s tribute to the Jewish experience is lost on both the listeners and those covering it. One of Cohen’s other songs, “Who By Fire,” has undergone a similar mistranslation.
The band Green Day is one of those things people assume is bad because conservative white men have claimed as their own, like “Breaking Bad” or “Fight Club.” The only reason these men have done so is because their privilege has left them incapable of internalizing criticisms directed at anyone who isn’t a woman, LGBTQ+ or a person of color. Green Day’s most overtly political song, “American Idiot,” was not written as a critique of feminists or people who don’t identify with Holden Caulfield, it was written as a condemnation of George W. Bush’s warmongering. Another of their songs, “Holiday,” called out that same president for his vilification of the LGBTQ+ community, and cynically likened the political indifference of the American people to being on holiday.
The act of ignoring political overtones in music is not exclusive to straight, cis white men. Hozier has a huge LGBTQ+ fan base and a sound inspired by Irish and African American artists. The former tends to consume the latter while ignoring its origins, as demonstrated by the divide in popularity between his less political songs and those tackling themes of racism and persecution against the Irish. Glorifying an aesthetic without acknowledging its origins is a common theme of racism, which even LGBTQ+ people are capable of perpetuating.
The fact the artists I’ve mentioned so far are all white or white-passing men is not a coincidence. Women musicians, artists of color and LGBTQ+ artists aren’t usually even given a platform if any of their songs are explicitly political. Like Green Day, The Chicks (previously known as the Dixie Chicks) were outspoken in their distaste for George W. Bush, but unlike Green Day, taking this stance basically killed their careers. Politically charged songs written by women that gain any sort of traction are usually vague anthems about self-empowerment, rather than anything that condemns the system that disempowers them in the first place.
There are exceptions to this rule, kind of. Black male rappers often incorporate politics into their music, but it isn’t as though they don’t receive backlash for doing so, and white audiences still tend to misinterpret certain lyrics and favor less politically ambitious songs. Rappers are also stereotyped as being sexist in their writing, and while I don’t think this is entirely unwarranted, it’s not like other genres of music are at all devoid of misogyny, so this is something of a double standard. Meanwhile, Lily Allen is the only popular female artist I can think of whose music is overtly, angrily political, and even her work is considered somewhat niche.
Most people are not given a platform to advance social causes, but celebrities are, and often without being very qualified to address these issues. When a celebrity does make a powerful statement, either about something that affects them personally or something they are addressing without being prompted by the public, they should be applauded, not ignored or, in the case of anyone who isn’t a white man, de-platformed. Music always says something – it might as well be something worthwhile.
Featured Illustration by J. Robynn Aviles
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