Popular Music Is No Longer Just Entertainment
Music is considered as a form of expression in the sense that the artist is able to communicate their thoughts and feelings to an audience. The people who write or perform the music are mainly members of the larger society and thus, their individual thoughts and feelings reflect the contexts within which they live. It means that among other things, music is able to show the specific social contexts depending on the subject being addressed. While most of the artists may sing about personal experiences, others try to relate with their audience by writing about social issues that people can understand and identify with. Currently, music comes with videos and in most cases, the content of the video combines with the content of the song to provide a clear picture of the intended message. There are many different genres of music and even more subjects that have been covered by different artists. The main argument in this paper is that popular music is no longer just entertainment. On the contrary, it is rather an evidence for the scholarly investigation of race, class, gender, and sexuality, especially in the study of American culture. Currently, music is no longer a mere entertainment means, listening to it a few American artists, one should be able to understand what happens within the American society in terms of race, class, gender, and sexuality.
According to Clark, Ludwig van Beethoven once declared that music could influence the change of the world. This statement can be translated within the present contexts to imply that artists have the capacity to alter the course of history by influencing human behavior using the messages that they spread in their works (Clark). In this case, it can be noted that music is used not just for entertainment but rather for mass communication. Thus, through music, artists are able to reach out to the people with a message that they consider useful within their prevailing contexts.
Tanner, Mark, and Scot state that it is natural that one would expect artists to write about situations that make sense to them and to their listeners (698). According to the trio, it is explained by the fact that music is an art of self-expression. Therefore, if the artist needs to communicate to an audience through music, the only way to do so is to touch on the subjects that the audience can relate to. It implies looking at the larger society and examining issues that could be universal and not too limiting in terms of a context. It explains why there are so many different songs on different subjects performed by the same artist (Douglas 57).
Fitts established that some songs are written not from the personal experience but rather from an understanding and empathizing of the situation being written about (221). Artists simply try to reach out and touch a soul with a positive message. However, not all songs are positive since not all social contexts are positive. Hip-hop songs from the 1990s were particularly violent and most of them related to gangs and the police (Fitts 224). At the time, the African American community was consistently at loggerheads with law enforcement, and their neighborhoods were often gang-ridden and full of violence.
Lucas, Jill, and Dan argue that the fact that music changes with time further supports the idea that music represents the dynamics of the society, which is also changing more frequently (181). There was a time when there was white music and black music. The blues were mostly black music associated with poor African American musicians performing in dingy and smoke-filled bars in the now famous Chicago Blues area. Hip-hop is also mainly associated with African American artists living in the ghetto or having had some experience in the ghetto while growing up (Duvyenbode 458). It explains why most of the hip-hop songs have some elements of living in the ghetto ranging from the accents to the content and context of the message.
Friedlander affirms that classical music used to be whiter, with the musicians mostly being from Europe and thus, considered as highly classy and completely white (176). The kind of music being performed and the people who are interested in that particular music can be used to show the attitude of society towards the race.
There was a time when whites did not listen to hip-hop. It could imply that they did not approve of the African Americans. In addition, there was a time when there were no whites writing or producing music of this genre. All this changed so far, and a significant number of Caucasian musicians and fans in the hip hop genre emerged (Heinz 43). Thus, the changes in the music industry generally reflect the changes in society as well.
In order to appreciate the contexts of the music that can be applied to the history of the American people, this study will focus on a number of music records that are relevant to this context. A random sampling of the most popular songs will be used to understand why they are popular before analyzing what they imply within the larger context of American society. The selected songs, in this case, include “Formation” by Beyonce, “Mirror” by Bruno Mars, “Same Love” by Mackelmore, and “Family Portrait” by Pink. While there are many songs that can be used for the study, these four are found relevant to the idea of a popular song. They were released at different times, which ensures the relevance of the research in the long term as well.
“Formation” by Beyonc
This is a song about race performed by Beyonc?, an artist of African American origin. The song can be considered as feminist or simply empowering for the black American women depending on the perspective that one chooses to take. In this case, it can be appreciated for the need to empower the black race. It can also be noted that this song is a contribution to the Black History week when the African Americans celebrate their roots and look back on how far they have come since slavery. Some of the interesting lyrics in the song include “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana,’ ‘I like my negro nose,’ and ‘Always stay gracious your best revenge is your paper” (Beyonc?). Each one of these statements indicates a context in which the audience is being urged to embrace their roots and work hard to be better since they can achieve greatness. In the context of its relevance to the race and gender within the American culture, one can note that the singer focuses on reminding the African American people and mostly women of their strength and position. It indicates that African Americans have the opportunity to be more successful than they ever could be before.
“Mirror” by Lil Wayne and Bruno Mars
This is a song about self-reflection where the persona is concerned about their future based on the challenges of their past. This song communicates an issue of class within the American society where most people feel limited by their socio-economic contexts and thus, allow the successes and failures of their parents to determine their future. In the song, Lil’ Wayne sings, ‘” With everything happening today, you don’t know whether you’re coming or going” (Lil and Bruno) This is the situation for most youths in the country who are caught up in the frenzy trying to make ends meet. They work so hard, but they can barely see any progress. The case mainly applies to those in the middle class and the lower class where upward social mobility is very limited. When looking at this song from a cultural context, one can understand that the American youth face some difficulties when looking at their future and in most cases, they are overshadowed by their past. It means that the concept of the American dream is elusive and in most contexts, one can only be as successful as their parents were.
“Family Portrait” by Pink
This song is about domestic violence in a home where the parents are always arguing and eventually, the father leaves. Most Americans can relate to the song owing to the fact that there are many single-parent homes where the fathers have left the children with their mothers for one reason or another. One of the most powerful lines in the song is where the persona promises to be good so that the father can stay with them (Pink). Most children who are brought up by one parent tend to blame themselves for being left by the other parent. This is especially true for the girl child who is likely to spend the rest of her life afraid of abandonment and blaming herself whenever someone treats her badly. The song communicates the challenges of a child in a dysfunctional family with a particular focus on the girl child. The historical context would be the rise of divorce cases and the fact that children are left to bear the burden of the broken home.
“Same Love” by Macklemore Ryan Lewis and Mary
This song is about sexuality. The artists sing about the struggles of a gay man in modern society, thus, expressing the limitations of the American society in accepting homosexuality. The song clearly considers the experience that gay men have to go through, being condemned even in church and being considered as lesser beings (Macklemore, Ryan, and Mary). The context that is derived from the song is that American society is highly intolerant on the subject of homosexuality and from the song, it is easy to understand that the laws are not helpful in making life easier for a homosexual (Stuber, Joshua and Caitlin 434). The social attitudes still hold them in contempt. The general message of the song is that there is a need for the society to change towards a positive attitude considering that the homosexuals are also human beings with the needs and rights like the rest of people. Within a historical context, this song can help to understand the social aspects with respect to homosexuality in the US.
Each of the songs examined above in a historical context is useful for research on American society. The artists may have been in their own way exploring personal frustrations or capitalizing on prevailing social contexts to write the songs, but they communicate messages that the society can generally relate to. In most cases, popular songs are songs that many people are willing to listen to probably because they find the message close to them. More often than not, artists receive fan mail thanking them for the songs that they sing because they get to touch the lives of the people that understand the emotions being expressed. Each song in this paper was analyzed in the existing context of American society. Thus, it serves as a great source of information when looking into the social, economic, and cultural spheres of American society as a whole.