A New Generation Seeks Pop Music With Meaning

pop musicThe summer of 1970 was not a quiet one on campuses across the nation.

In May of that year, National Guardsmen left "four dead in Ohio" at Kent State -- and Neil Young's haunting wail immortalized the event. When student protests ignited at colleges throughout America, Young's song, "Ohio," became the anthem for an era of discontent.

It's thirty-two years later and we're at war again -- another war "without any foreseeable end." The anthems for our era? Britney Spears' "I'm a Slave 4 U," Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You," and Nelly's "Hot in Here."

Is there a problem here?

"Popular music sets a tone," said Reebee Garofalo, an American Studies professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and author of Rockin' the Boat: Mass Music and Mass Movements. "Unfortunately, the tone that's being set right now in mainstream pop is more materialistic than political."

This materialistic escapism epitomizes a giddy pop industry that has never been more irrelevant, immature, apolitical, manufactured and meaningless. And while there are artists making music that provokes and sends a social message, most of them are doing so out of the realm of "pop" or popular music. Should these artists who are responding directly to the current state of things -- like Dead Prez, Sleater Kinney, Michael Franti, and the Coup -- be pushing to get their music into the mainstream? Or is the corporate music industry set up so that only the superficial messages make it out into the mainstream?

One thing is clear. Our generation is feeling the effect of this void.

"I envy the activists of the '60s for having the ability to unify," Caitlin Casey, 20, a Harvard junior told American Demographics last year. "My generation looks out and sees a country mired in big problems and we don't know where to begin. We don't have the same urge or impetus to coalesce as a generation."

Thirty-two years ago, young people used music to confront issues like Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, and women's liberation. Nowadays, the crowd of youngsters outside Total Request Live -- the cultural Mecca of Generation Y -- gathers to scream themselves into a tizzy for an obedient pop lineup.

It's a strange juxtaposition: just a few subway stops from the solemn ashes of Ground Zero, MTV's Times Square studios remain a haven for hedonism, with pop gleefully operating independent of war or economic freefall. It seems that, unlike the rest of the world, the music industry did not reset its clocks on Sept. 11. Why, then, would we expect Gen Y to do it either?

* * *

According to demographers, this generation of 70 million born between 1978 and 1994 could represent the greatest sociological force since the baby boomers. In the mid-1990s, marketers began courting our seemingly inexhaustible supply of disposable income.

Most record companies follow the standard mainstream media recipe: water down the product to its lowest common denominator so the original message is bland and harmless.

Brand-conscious, tech-savvy and racially-diverse, Generation Y was fed images of itself through Abercrombie and Fitch catalogues, Backstreet Boys albums, and films like "I Know What You Did Last Summer." Popping E in the back of Mom's SUV was more than a drug fad -- it became a metaphor for the moment, an embrace of euphoria at a time when everything looked golden and felt good. The U.S. was flexing its way into a role as the unrivaled "hyper-power" in the post-Cold War world. News meant scandal; news meant gossip; news meant O.J. and Monica.

During this period of success and excess, the pop-music industry was more than happy to furnish the party -- to put our collective ebullience into empty words and irresistible beats. The generation of irrational exuberance could dance the night away as unwitting keepers of the status quo. Artists like Pink "got that party started" with rhymes we couldn't help but repeat. Techno, and its many offspring, offered the ultimate in political silence -- why bother with lyrics when pure ear-candy would do? The bleeping and scratching of John Digweed tracks did not make us immoral, just amoral. Why change the world? What fun would that be?

* * *

Then the ground shifted beneath us. Mindless drivel might have worked in the 1990s but today, pop without substance is a dangerous thing -- it denies what's going on in the world. Generation Y sees one reality portrayed in chart-topping tracks and another evidenced by current events.

Pop still matters. It's no less influential today than it was when Neil Young dropped a verbal grenade in 1970. The dialogue of a generation is set by the culture it consumes. Pop entertains, of course. But whether pop wants to or not, it also educates.

In their book, It's Not Only Rock and Roll: Popular Music in the Lives of Adolescents, Peter G. Christenson and Donald F. Roberts claim, "On average, American adolescents spend somewhere between four and five hours a day listening to music and watching music videos … Music alters and intensifies their moods, furnishes much of their slang, dominates their conversations, and provides the ambiance at their social gatherings."

"Popular music is not 'just music,' but a major force and presence in contemporary American adolescence," they write. "Music provides adolescents with important 'equipment for living.'"

Today's chart toppers talk endlessly about partying, but provide little equipment for facing the challenges of our era: corporate globalization, rising unemployment rates, and environmental decay.

In 1972, baby boomers successfully argued that an 18-year-old who had the right to die for America also had the right to vote. But voter turnout among youth has steadily declined from that initial high to its recent nadir in 2000, when only 32 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds showed up on Election Day.

The downward spiral of political engagement has coincided with the rising popularity of music that is distanced from the headlines. This is not to say pop music is responsible for young people's apathy (although many parents and politicians are content to fault it alone), but pop provides little or no social incentive. In '72, Paul Simon and War were among the artists dominating the Billboard Top 100 charts. Last year, J-Lo and Matchbox Twenty dominated, along with songs like "Where The Party At?," "Get Ur Freak On" and "Bootylicious."

* * *

The star-studded "America: A Tribute to Heroes" concert, which took place in the wake of September 11, is evidence that the pop music industry, on one occasion, took time out from its agenda to attach its name to that season's media storyline -- but in a way that appeared merely to add to the hype.

Over the course of the night, Neil Young borrowed John Lennon's "Imagine." Wyclef John covered Bob Marley's "Redemption Song." Fred Durst and John Rzeznik covered Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here." And no matter how many celebrities lined up to man the phones, the most important musical guest was absent: originality.

Shortly after borrowing Marvin Gaye's 1960s landmark, "What's Going On," Bono delivered a telling performance at the Super Bowl this year. With a U.S. flag stitched into his jacket, the U2 lead singer epitomized pop music's belief that sporting the Stars & Stripes somehow constitutes a comprehensive musical response -- that it's somehow a significant statement, more than a one-dimensional symbol.

the coupPerhaps musicians have learned, as politicians have long ago, that the more you say, the more you open yourself up to controversy. Steve Earle got slammed for his unpatriotic reflection "John Walker Blues." The Coup, one of the few groups not afraid to take a stand (indeed, their entire existence seems predicated on it), narrowly avoided being called "terrorists" over the cover art for "Party Music," with a computer-generated image of the World Trade Center exploding in the background (eerily, the photo was taken months prior to 9/11). This was bad luck to be certain, but you can bet that it set back the anti-corporate message they had hoped to deliver.

* * *

"[The music industry] has tightened the playing field in some really despicable ways," said Joe Goldmark, manager at Amoeba Music in San Francisco, an independent retail outlet that Rolling Stone Magazine called "The World's Greatest Record Store." "It's run by bean-counters who only support the mega-seller acts. Corporations and radio are only going to play the same twenty songs over and over."

The alphabet soup that makes up this oligopoly -- UMG, BMG, EMI, Sony and Warner -- have seen music sales plummet in the past two years, yet they persist in pushing vacuous music into our ears like some escapist opiate for the adolescent masses.

In order to satisfy the greatest number of listeners, record companies follow the standard mainstream media recipe: water down the product to its lowest common denominator so the original message is bland and harmless. Subvert and compartmentalize genres, until youth are alienated from the very material that is supposed to represent them. Turn art into product as if a song were a box of Honey Nut Cheerios.

The casualties have been tragic. Once the vehicle for electrifying political energy (a la The Clash), popular punk has been defanged and co-opted by sneaker companies who market Blink 182's emblematic immaturity ("What's my age again?"). Rap, once a true voice of street rage, is now mostly gaudy, bling-bling hedonism. The bitter diatribes of N.W.A. and Public Enemy have given way to Puff Daddy exalting the high life at the Hamptons. The anger that remains in "rock" sounds trivial and selfish; bands like Limp Bizkit and Papa Roach wilt in comparison to the stuff of classic rock's golden era.

Steffan Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University, recently surveyed the underclassmen in his American Government course on the matter of pop music and social influence. The results were insightful:

"My generation didn't grow up with war or civil rights issues; I think we've been pretty spoiled," wrote one student. "I do listen to politically-minded music, but it's not today's music."

"I think pop rock is very apolitical," wrote another student. "Britney Spears and N'Sync are forced onto the public by MTV. There is modern political stuff out there, but it doesn't come to mind as easily as Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and The Doors."

These students, like countless others, are part of a generation that may have to look backward in order to move forward. To express discontent with this current "war on terrorism," many of us are returning to rock which lashed out against the "war on communism." To voice opposition to the War on Iraq, we are bringing back chants against Vietnam.

* * *

One argument pop music critics often make is: If you want quality music, you have to look underground; you have to look independent of the major labels. Generation Y feels alienated and wary of a mainstream media that has misrepresented their views on important issues. Word-of-mouth advertising, the hallmark of Generation Y, is felt to offer an ample array of alternative voices for those disillusioned with Big Media.

This makes sense of you live in a city like New York or San Francisco, where young people are more likely to be exposed to underground movements and have access to their messages. It's quite another for young people in a rural small town or suburb. Middle America takes its cues from MTV; from what's in stock at Wal-Mart; from one-size-fits-all CD clubs like BMG Music Service, which advertises twelve CD's for the price of one.

flowersThe most splendid irony is that the industry's biggest hit right now actually affirms its rotten state. Eminem, an unlikely savior, has been winning back hordes of disillusioned listeners by doing a bizarrely sensible thing: criticizing pop music. His success is largely due to the fact that he is not afraid to raise a dissenting voice in the stagnant atmosphere of pop obedience.

Witness his "Marshall Mathers" tirade: "I'm anti Backstreet and Ricky Martin / It's instincts to kill N Sync don't get me started / These f*ckin brats can't sing and Britney's garbage."

On the other hand, Eminem, is known for lyrics that are startlingly disrespectful towards women. In the above passage, for instance, he continues with: "What is this bitch retarded? Gimme back my sixteen dollars."

But Enimem is popular because he's willing to take a stand in a time when very few big artists will. We can say much of the same about Marilyn Manson. Their bold stance allows them to get away with much more than most artists.

"Enimem provokes. He causes anxiety among middle-aged adults," said Schmidt.

We can only imagine what would happen, if artists like Eminem and Manson used their power to provoke and commented on larger social and cultural issues. Of course, we also have to wonder: Would they be so popular with the record industry if they did?

* * *

Healthy debate fertilizes a healthy democracy. But young people aren't usually inclined to address the issues of the day head-on by reading the editorial page of the New York Times. Instead, engagement often comes from entertainment level. A catchy hook is lure for political reflection and participation. It takes Tom Morello's scorching guitar to get kids to digest Zach de la Rocha's kinetic invective. Bono's fervor in "Sunday Bloody Sunday" needs Larry Mullen's insistent drumming -- the unshakable rat-tat-tat accentuates his cry.

Schmidt says it is only a matter of time before we see this happening in popular music again. "If conditions do continue to deteriorate, with more Enrons and layoffs and Iraq, I think it's not going to be long before really brilliant political music starts coming onto the scene," he says. "We're facing big issues. I think you're going to see a serious renewal of music that questions government. Music is synchronous and synergistic with the culture around you."

Or so it should be.

ani difrancoIs there a Bruce Springsteen for Generation Y? Someone who can reflect on reality in a provocative and intelligent way? There are candidates out there -- Ani DiFranco, Wyclef Jean, Dead Prez, Eddie Vedder, Michael Franti and Spearhead to name a few -- but until young people start demanding that these artists' music be released in large enough numbers, and that popular artists respond to real issues, their voices may not make a difference. As consumers, we have the power to refuse pop music that lulls us into numb, apathetic sleep. We have more say than the record industry seems to recognize.

The time is right for a new sound, a new voice to explode onto a complacent pop scene, much in the way Nirvana did a decade ago. The time is right for an "Ohio" of our own. But that won't happen if we sit back and buy whatever we're sold.

Michael Serazio, 21, is a student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.


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