The Times Are Always Racing: Political Music Then and Now

Taylor Stout

How does your favorite song make you feel?

Music evolves constantly to reflect the sentiments and desires of its audience. While it may sometimes seem like a form of escapism, music is oftentimes highly political either overtly or subliminally. Perhaps no socio-political moment is reflected more in music than 1960s counterculture. From free love to psychedelic drugs to the Vietnam War, the ’60s were a time of chaos and change, and much of this cultural upheaval was expressed through sound.

The 1960s began with an ending: the ending of the Eisenhower years and the reign of the archetypal American dream. The children of this era were growing up, and as they became active participants in society, they began to question and challenge the culture that raised them.

As the Port Huron Statement — a 1962 manifesto by the Students for a Democratic Society — put it, “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

In the face of disillusionment, music acted as both a reflection of and an influence upon modern culture. Music journalist Mikal Gilmore writes, “For a long and unforgettable season, it was a truism — or threat, depending on your point of view — that rock & roll could, and should, make a difference.”

With his iconic 1964 song “The Times They Are a-Changin,’” musician Bob Dylan laid the groundwork for the cultural shifts that would occur throughout the decade. Dylan warns the listener, “If your time to you is worth savin’, then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin’.”

This call to action defines the societal attitudes of the various cultural movements of the 1960s, such as civil rights, the sexual revolution and women’s liberation.

By the end of the 1960s, modern civilization had been shaken to a state of disorder by war overseas and rebellion at home. Perhaps no song greater captures the precarious nature of the time than The Rolling Stones’ apocalyptic and foreboding 1969 track “Gimme Shelter.”

The song is pervaded by a sense of impending doom. The line, “War, children, it’s just a shot away,” is repeated throughout the song, illustrating the inescapable shadow of violence that consumed society. However, the song ends, “I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away,” dramatically shifting from hopeless fear to a hopeful plea for future peace.

Political music didn’t die with the 1960s. Even today, when those in power push alternative facts and act in ways that marginalize large groups of society, music can be an influential and essential platform for expression of dissident opinions.

NYU Clive Davis first-year Leyla Aroch said that, instead of 1960s artists “becoming known for their activism,” today’s musicians are “known for their artistry becoming political.” She believes that the norm is to speak about politics in music, to the extent that if you’re not political, there’s something up with you.

Furthermore, Aroch brings to light the increased diversity of today’s music scene. While the ’60s did include steps towards women’s liberation and civil rights, music was still largely dominated by white men in groups such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors and The Who.

However, today’s pop scene is dominated by strong female musicians. Beyoncé, one of the most celebrated modern artists, often uses music as a tool to make compelling statements. In the powerful and invigorating song “Formation,” she declares, “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making.”

In addition, Aroch notes the prevalence of hip-hop in the modern music scene, saying, “African-American culture is claiming [its history].” Aroch cites rapper Kendrick Lamar as an artist who doesn’t shy away from politics. In “Alright,” he says the police “Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’ But we gon’ be alright.” This impactful statement about police brutality is just one example of political issues permeating modern music.

Aroch believes that today’s artists bear a political responsibility and must use their platforms to incite change. From gun violence to abortion rights to #MeToo to police brutality, Aroch said. “It needs to be normalized that these things are talked about,” and that the musician holds the ideal place in society to influence a new generation and bring these issues into everyday conversation.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, April 5 print edition. Email Taylor Stout at [email protected]

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