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Welcome To #WokePop - The Era Of Political Pop Music

16/02/2017 08:19

The fusion of pop music and politics is nothing new. While it is often more subtle than more traditional protest songs, our favourite popstars are not immune to lacing their hits with political undertones. There's Lily Allen's blatant "Fuck You" to the Bush administration, Beyonce's "Formation", Pink's "Dear Mr President" - you get the picture.

One of the most obvious examples of my time is Lady Gaga's chart-topping "Born This Way". Arguably the first song to be produced, packaged and released to the masses with the sole intention of becoming a gay anthem (usually, you know... we pick them ourselves), Gaga's shouty and defiant calls are clear: don't be a drag - be a queen by accepting people for who they are, regardless of their identity.

lady gaga

Pumped through radio airwaves across the globe; the infectious, uptempo song was an instant hit. Understanding her market, Gaga's lyrics had the ability to speak to millions of marginalised LGBTI youth who could claim the track, put it on repeat and listen as a successful superstar sang words of empowerment into their ears. It's wider message that the LGBTI community are "born this way" turned a placard slogan into a rhetorical argument intended for mass consumption, thus propelling LGBTI identities and the push for equal rights even further into the mainstream.

Now, I'm definitely not giving her more credit than she's due here - but it has to be acknowledged that her artistic platform has often acted as something of a mouthpiece for a community which she has tapped into. As a world famous musician, Lady Gaga (the woman, the brand) has a level of power that the majority of street protesters, activists and campaigners do not: she can use her lyrics and her catchy pop songs to amplify certain messages into the mindset of the masses. The psychology of subliminal messaging conceptualises the phenomenon around the levels of awareness, views and opinions that we all craft via media consumption and mistakenly believe to be our own.

So there's power in music, that's undeniable. Yet for such a long time, with a few exceptions, it seemed that the entire 'pop' genre had centered around vacuous, manufactured songs about excess, partying, alcohol and sex... generally, most chart-toppers were feel good songs about, well, nothing meaningful at all really. Ke$ha's popular discography, in my opinion, can be cited as evidence in this regard.

That's why Katy Perry's comeback single "Chained to the Rhythm" signifies a much needed return to purposeful pop. Performing the track at this week's Grammy Awards ceremony, Perry was joined on stage by backup dancers holding huge white boards to form a wall (do you see where this is going?), which was eventually dismantled; the boards then became blank placards and the U.S. Constitution was projected onto them. Stood beneath a gigantic "We The People" banner, Perry shouted "no hate" as the lights went down.

katy perry grammys

It doesn't take much to understand the political symbolism behind the performance, but the lyrics of the track are a bit more ambiguous at first. Essentially, they call upon the listener to become more aware of the sociopolitical climate in which they live; to (ironically) break free from the chains of empty consumption, burst their bubble of apathy and open their eyes to the political trouble around them.

Indeed, Perry has given Skip Marley (grandson of Bob Marley, the master of protest songs: not a coincidence) a verse on the track, in which he raps: "Up in your high place, liars / Time is ticking for the empire / The truth they feed is feeble, as so many times before / They greed over the people / We about to riot".

Not so subtle.

Welcome to #WokePop - the latest era of pop music, which will come to be defined by it's overtly political subtext.

In case you didn't already know what "woke" means, it's basically a new slang term (popularised, of course, on social media) which defines one's understanding and awareness of social injustice and current affairs. If you're "woke", then you understand what's happening politically right now.

It appears that, with the Western shift towards right-wing populism, our popstars are becoming increasingly "woke" themselves - and I guarantee you that Perry's single will not be the first to make that clear. Get ready for the coming flood of singles, albums and EPs dripping in political commentary.

However, it's the potential consequences of this phenomenon that I'm interested in. As discussed, we've already seen the impact that pop songs with a message can have: so will #WokePop actually wake people up, as Perry urges with her "open your eyes, sheeple!" anthem?

I hope so. Maybe I'm placing too much confidence in art and the power of consumption, and maybe my mind is taking me to strange places because of recent political upheaval - but there's something happening to the messages that we're being fed by all forms of media. Just look at the amount of politically infused dystopian movies that we've been seeing lately (everything about The Hunger Games screams Marxism to me), where uprising and civil disobedience are being normalised.

Two years ago, my friend Liam Stevenson said that "the revolution will have a soundtrack" and I've never forgotten it - because it's true that every movement needs a backdrop of inspired and politically charged anthems. So I can't help but wonder whether this musical shift will result in a cultural shift. A generation of "woke" youth?

If not, and everything else has failed, at least we'll have something meaningful to hum along to as we watch the world collapse around us.

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